Phantom Lady (1944) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Woolrich-Phantom-Lady-centipedeThis great movie is based on the book that got me hooked on the dark suspense of  Cornell Woolrich in the 1980s – and I suspect that, along with The Bride Wore Black, it’s the one that does it for most readers too. The premise is simple: a man is on death row for killing his wife. The only chance to prove his innocence is if he can find the stranger he spent the evening with at the time of the murder. The trouble is proving she ever existed as she seems to have vanished.

I offer this review for Bev’s Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge; Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog; and Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for reviews, click here).

“The night was young and so was he. But the night was sweet, and he was sour”

These opening lines, with their mixture of the poetic and the banal, probably sum up the pros and the cons of Woolrich’s writing style. His biographer, Francis M. Nevins, called him “the Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows”, while Julian Symons dammed the books for their “melodramatic silliness” and the “continuous high-pitched whine of his prose,” though in fairness he did single out Phantom Lady as containing his best writing. Having cranked out a prodigious number of short stories and novellas throughout the 1930s, Woolrich made his debut as a mystery novelist in 1940 with The Bride Wore Black, leading to a series of six books with ‘black’ in the title. Phantom Lady instead appeared under his pseudonym, ‘William Irish’.

“Why not break down and admit there was no dame with you?” Burgess tried to reason with him, “Don’t you see how much simpler it would be all round?”

Irish_Phantom-Lady_pocketScott Henderson wants to get a divorce but his wife just laughs at him. He heads out on the town, sharing it with a mysterious woman (wearing a strange orange hat) he just met in a bar. They agree not to exchange personal information, just enjoy themselves and then go back to their normal lives. Unfortunately Scott will probably never have a ‘normal’ night ever again as he returns home to find his wife dead. She has been strangled with the blue tie that he probably would have worn given the rest of his outfit – why isn’t he? And why has he no alibi? Because the woman can’t be found and none of the people they met seem to remember her. At trial he is found guilty and each chapter reminds us the days remaining before ‘the execution.’

“She’d already been perched on the stool several minutes when he first became aware of her”

Scott does have some allies though, principally his old buddy John Lombard, who comes back from his job in Venezuela to help, and Carol Richman, the woman Scott wanted to leave his wife for. And then there is Burgess, the lead detective on the case, who has started to have doubts about Scott’s guilt. With only 18 days to go before the death sentence is carried out, we follow Lombard and Richman as they track down any potential witnesses in the hope of finding the ‘phantom lady’ and why a bartender, a blind beggar (who may not be all he seems), a variety artist, a dress designer and a musician would all conspire and lie about having seen her with Scott on that fateful night. The story develops quite episodically as well follow the successive (unsuccessful) attempts to shake the negative testimony of the various people Scott says could help establish his alibi. Why would they lie?

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The first and most powerful of these shows Carol frequent Anselmo’s, the bar where Scott says he met the woman in the orange hat. She is certain the bartender is lying and so starts to stalk him, staring him out night after night and then following him on his way home. This is built into a major section of the book (it takes up twenty pages and the entirety of chapter 12) and we really do get caught up in the situation and even start to feel sorry for the man – Carol after all has no reason to believe he is lying other than her love for Scott (who might be guilty, after all). Her ruthless and obsessive stalking is the stuff of nightmares and certainly brings out the best in Woolrich, leading to a memorable payoff in which the man is killed by a passing bus having been completely panicked by her continuous presence. Is Carol guilty of manslaughter – and was it even worth it as he didn’t give anything away? He does at one point try to get rid of her, but wouldn’t anyone under that kind of pressure? Or did he truly have something to hide and was he behaving accordingly? Lombard’s assignment equally ends in tragedy when his blind beggar turns out to be a con man with good eyesight, but he dies falling down a set of stairs, so Scott is no further forward. Carol then tracks down the drummer who was in the theatre and saw Scott and the woman.

This is another major setpiece in which we see the drummer, who is addicted to reefer, let loose at a drug-fuelled jazz party before taking Carol back to his place and admitting that he has been paid $500 not to reveal the truth. But before Burgess can get a statement, the man kills himself in a drug-induced bout of paranoia, scared by what he inadvertently revealed about his part in the conspiracy. But who paid him off, and why is the woman’s identity being kept a secret? A complex plan, and a surprisingly well-hidden murderer, is revealed in a very long explanation at the end of the book unfortunately does slow things down considerably. This may have been why, for the film version, the whodunit element was jettisoned completely …

The cell-door started to easy back along its grooves and the warden said: “This is it now, Scott.”

This first half of the movie version is incredibly faithful to the book, probably the closest to getting authentic Woolrich on screen I can think of, with the all the major sequences intact: Scott being grilled by the police when he arrives home, the stalking of the bar tender, the Freudian jazz sequence are all beautifully shot by Woody Bredell and staged with his usual panache by Robert Siodmak. However, top-billed Franchot Tone only arrives at the halfway mark playing  new character – a sculptor names Jack Marlow – and he is immediately identified as the killer.

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This makes the role more interesting for Tone as it becomes more of a study of a guilty and insane mind, but it has to be said the presentation is very hokey. Marlow in fact simply oozes guilt, casting strange looks from the corner of his eye, obsessing about his hands with which he strangles people, his frequent headaches, twitches, dizzy spells etc, etc. Very typical of depictions of insanity in its day I suppose but decidedly overdone, which is a shame because the film is otherwise very restrained. This is underlined by one very unusual factor – the complete absence of any music score except during the opening and closing credits, avoiding the usual kind of overstatement one would associate with this kind of melodrama. Visually however the film is a film noir feast and Thomas Gomez, in one of his infrequent good guy roles, is terrific as Burgess while Ella Raines, no longer Scott’s mistress but instead his loyal secretary with a secret crush on him, as Carol (nicknamed ‘Kansas’ for some reason) is also very impressive as she doggedly pursues her investigation. Quite rightly the film concludes with a showdown between her and Marlow that is very different from the book but does the job of bringing it all to a neat conclusion. To read a really good analysis of the film, visit Colin’s Riding the High Country.

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DVD availability: Easy to get in decent editions all round the world, I have the recent UK release, which offers no extras but a very solid picture, which in this case is pretty much all I needed.

Phantom Lady (1944)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Producer: Joan Harrison
Screenplay: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Cinematography: Woody Bredell
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, John B. Goodman
Music: Hans J. Salter (drum solo: Dave Coleman)
Cast: Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, Elisha Cook Jr,  Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Regis Toomey

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘published under a pseudonym’ category:
vintage-golden-pseudonym

***** (4.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Cornell Woolrich, Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Robert Siodmak. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Phantom Lady (1944) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Oh, I’ve not read the novel or seen the film, but you’ve generated my interest in doing so, Sergio. Another crackerjack novel/film review, my friend. Well done.

  2. dfordoom says:

    Great review. The movie was responsible for my film noir addiction. I haven’t read the book although I have read a few of Woolrich’s other books.

  3. I pretty much agree with everything you’re saying here. The first part of the film is so good and then it becomes not quite so good; but what is good is really, really good!

    Recently watched No Man of Her Own, another Woolrich adaptation, and thought rather good, despite complaints about the altered ending.

    • Thnaks very much Curt – I really enjoyed re-reading it as it is very far from being without fault and yet many of the individual episodes are brilliantly done. I Married a Dead Man / No Man of Her OWn are probably my favourite of late Irish / Woolrich and I think the film, on its own terms, works extremely well (it’s one of the book and movie combos I want to do for Fedora). I can’t remember, but is the movie ending actually one that Woolrich had used for the magazien version? I really need to re-read this one!

      • curtis evans says:

        I think it’s mostly based on the serialization, although the final twist I believe is original to the film? Will have to check Nevins. He’s a great admirer of the complete lack of logic in the novel version’s ending.

        Stanwyck is too old for the part, but she’s great as usual, I think. The actress who plays the family matriarch is wonderful

        • Ah yes, one of the few film performances of playwright and actress Jane Cowl in one of her very last film roles actually – you’ve really made me want to go and re-read this right away Curt (you’re a devil)

  4. Sergio – As always, you’ve done a fantastic job here. It sounds like such a great premise for a story, and I can see how it would draw one in. Funny too that you mention the film is rather restrained in its way. That strikes me as even more effective than it would have been had Siodmak gone for for melodrama. And thank you for reminding me of Woolrich’s work. Must spotlight one of his novels…

  5. Colin says:

    Very good piece here, Sergio. Elsewhere, I mentioned to you that I’ve yet to read the book – I’ve had that lovely facsimile edition Otto Penzler published years ago sitting on my shelves for the longest time – and keep postponing it for some reason. It’s certainly not a question of not getting Woolrich as I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of his stuff in the interim, lots and lots of his short fiction in particular. It’s encouraging too that you have plans for a piece on No Man of Her Own at some point – I like both the book and film.

    I suppose there is a kind of silliness to Woolrich when you get right down to it, but those dark tales really draw me in and I have no problem accepting this as part and parcel of his universe. It’s a curious style, isn’t it? A marriage of grit and melodrama that’s been very attractive to filmmakers but has met with variable success on the big and small screen. I watched the Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation of Momentum quite recently and thought it was OK but didn’t quite capture the mounting desperation and sheer bad fortune of the protagonist. Maybe if I hadn’t read the story beforehand…

    I know you’ve read my own thoughts on the movie version of Phantom Lady, and thanks very much for the link, there’s not a huge gulf in our feelings about it. It’s at this point that I really wish I’d read the novel myself now. When I first saw the film I was expecting it to pan out along the lines of a traditional murder mystery, and then it doesn’t. That disappointed me at first, left me feeling a little cheated and frankly dissatisfied. Returning to it years later, I experienced a different take on it, and found that it hit the spot as a suspense thriller – all because of that reveal at the mid-point.

    Given that the novel follows a different structure, I’m wondering now if I’ll find that approach to my liking.

    • Thanks Colin – I know what you mean about the change from whodunit to thriller pating dividends, especially in a suspense film. In the book it’s easier because you can hide more, whereas the need to visualise in an expressionistic mode of film makes it easier to see why they took a different approach. I do wish Tone had (ahem) toned it down a bit – not hsi fault as this was clearly the intention, but today it seems hokey, which is a shame for what is in other respects a sophisticated picture.

      • Colin says:

        True enough. To put it in perspective though, hokey was essentially the default approach at the time when dealing with abnormal psychology. The 40s is a decade jam packed with movies that used various psychological quirks and kinks as a central plot device – some of this can look outdated and even downright ridiculous today, but there’s a certain charm to it too.

        • Absolutely Colin – let’s face it, Sigmund’s got a lot to answer for! And with the onset of the war this was certainly reflected prety acutely in Hollywood – hard not to remember such fine performances as the Gregory Peck’s in Spellbound and 12 O’Clock High as well as the two versions of Blind Alley

          • Colin says:

            I do think that Freudian themes and imagery are high among the defining characteristics of 40s Hollywood. There’s no doubt it came to be overused but every decade/era is is guilty of something similar – the angst-ridden youth of the 50s, the quirky liberalism of the 60s, the disillusioned cynics of the 70s, and so on.
            Siodmak dipped into the psychological well a few times – what matters most to me is that he did so with great style.

          • I tend to prefer, in this respect, his work in The Spiral Staircase, which is a shade subtler in the depiction of its psychotic villain – just rewatched this clip and my goodness Siodmak had panache!

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, great example. I wouldn’t say Siodmak has been critically neglected exactly, but he still deserves far more credit and attention than is currently the case.

          • Fair enough – I plan to do a post of SPIRAL soon-ish (just as soon as I read the original novel – ahem …)

          • Colin says:

            That should be watched (and read too I imagine) on a cold, stormy winter night.

          • Pretty much unavoidable if this Autumn is anything like the Summer in the UK – but let’s talk about atmospehere and not the weather 🙂 Really looking forward to reading the book and am curiosu to see if there is any awareness, in 1933, of what was happening in europe – it’s theme of a serial killer preying on women with some kid of physical infirmity is certainly thought-provoking.

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I like Poe so I might well enjoy this! One more for the wishlist!

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    I actually read the book first and it was of my favorite Woolrich books. And I loved the movie when I finally saw it too. I know Woolrich can be over the top, but sometimes that’s exactly what you feel like reading–or watching. I understand a recent movie of one of his books starring Patrick Warburton has just come on streaming netflix. Can’t recall the name.

  8. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book and also seen the film. Both are quite good.
    Though the book and the film are more or less similar in the beginning, there are major variations afterwards. In the book, there is a whodunit mystery with a really surprising revelation at the end. In the film, the killer is virtually revealed in the middle and thus the whodunit element is removed and it becomes more of a thriller.
    In the book, Carol’s stalking of the bartender takes too many pages and one does feel sympathy for the bartender.
    I have one complaint. It is unbelievable that all the involved persons without any exception are easily bribed.

    • Thanks Santosh – looks like we are both in basic agreement on this one. It is interesting who the two versions of the story vary. I agree that aspects of it are not very plausible (this is more marked in the novel as more people are involved in the conspiracy) but in a way this is a hallmark of the author’s approach. The stalking sequence is incredibly long but personally I thought it was brilliantly done (in many ways it could have been a short story and does tend to emphasise the episodic nature of the book).

  9. Yvette says:

    Franchot Tone was such an odd duck. I mean, look at him. A strange looking man one probably wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. But then, he was probably a benign sweetie in real life. 🙂

    I’m adding the book to my Vintage Reading List, Sergio. It sounds like something I’d like – I’ve never read any Woolrich though of course, I’m familiar with his name.

    I often wonder why Ella Raines didn’t have a ‘bigger’ film career. She always managed to stand out in anything she did. I mostly remember her from a Marlow film with, I think, George Montgomery as Philip Marlow and also as the ‘tom-boyish’ cow girl in TALL IN THE SADDLE with John Wayne, one of my favorite westerns.

    Thanks again for another terrific film/book dual analysis, Sergio. ‘We’ were intrigued.

    • Thanks Yvette, you’re a peach 🙂 As for Raines, I agree, she’s great here and was just as good in Hail the Conquering Hero and her later two films with Siodmak, The Suspect and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry .

  10. I’d heard of this but neither read it nor seen the film, but you make both sound unmissable with your usual infectious enthusiasm. And what with orange hats and blue neckties, there might be something in it for me. Really interesting, Sergio.

  11. Sergio, I like the premise of the book/movie and will try and experience both. Your excellent review offers a graphic picture of Scott and his plight.

  12. TracyK says:

    Both the book and the movie sound great. Although for some reason I always avoid the innocent man on death row stories of any vintage. I will probably start with the book.

    • I know what you mean about that, not least because it is such a hoary cliche – here it works well, not least because we actually spend very little time with the condemned man – it’s all about his friends trying to get him released,

  13. I love both the book and the film, and your review captures the quality of suspense i the storyline admirably.

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