Sunday, March 17, 2019

PHANTOM LADY (1944)

Universal Pictures, 86m 55s


A deftly engrossing noir mystery with a splash of horror, PHANTOM LADY is grounded in psychoanalytic theory, a complex urban environment and rigid female archetypes. Like other noir films of the 1940s, it warns of the harsh treatment that may await men who even consider straying from traditional domesticity, no matter how unsympathetic their wives may be. Its working title "Condemned to Hang" reveals a lot about the lead male protagonist in not only this narrative, but so many others of the emerging film noir genre.

Noticeably depressed, 32-year-old civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) walks into a bar with two tickets to a Broadway production for which his original date is not available. He meets a woman who agrees to accompany him to the show under the strict condition the two remain anonymous to each other. That woman is Ann Terry (Fay Helm), whose identity is disclosed long after their ephemeral evening of togetherness. At the show, a flirtatious drummer named Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.) likes what he sees of Ann, but the event's star attraction Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda) is disgusted that Ann wears the same supposedly unique hat the Latino singer features. After a largely improvised evening, Scott returns home to find his 29-year-old wife Marcela dead and himself a murder suspect. Led by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez), the police inform Scott his wife was strangled with one of his own neckties. The cops are plenty confident Scott offed his wife, despite the fact they witness him enter his apartment in conversation with the wife he believes is awake in the bedroom.




Like the same year's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), the story of PHANTOM LADY has its origin in a marriage without hope, though there is a difference in how those respective marriages are portrayed. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is shown to have a jerk for a husband, which helps explain (though does not excuse) her illicit behavior with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). The setup in PHANTOM LADY explains less, and Marcela Henderson never is shown alive, other than in a huge portrait that suggests a woman of considerable sexual power. Beyond that image, we know her primarily for the way she is remembered by the men in her life. Scott recalls a time when the couple was happy, but regrets, "...she was too spoiled and too beautiful." Both Scott and Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) recount being laughed at by her. Though she was an unfaithful wife who refused to go out with her husband to celebrate their anniversary, she would not grant Scott the divorce he requested. One could argue Marcela is the "phantom lady" of the film's title, a woman who was not there for her husband, a person whose behavior cannot be understood completely.

That reading aside, the story revolves around another female of mystery. When a woman with a fancy hat meets Scott, she chooses not to tell him her name, which later is revealed to be Ann Terry. The process of her eventual identification is a frustrating one for Scott, whose alibi depends on the existence of Ann. A bartender (Andrew Tombes) remembers Scott, but has no recollection of a woman with him. Similarly, cab driver Al Alp (Matt McHugh) takes Scott and Ann to the show, but remembers only Scott. Though painfully aware of Ann and her doppelgänger hat in the audience the prior evening, the performer Estela is too arrogant to admit Ann was present. Based on those witnesses, the police are not convinced Ann exists, and even Scott begins to share that skepticism! Could it be he just imagined her existence? That is exactly the type of mental anguish that time and again tortures the noir protagonist.

Another viable "phantom lady" is Carol Richman (the beautiful Ella Raines in a nicely calibrated performance). Carol is a working girl driven to detective work out of devotion to Scott, her boss. Interestingly, this woman of obvious character does not hail from New York City. She is from Wichita, Kansas (Scott affectionately calls her "Kansas"). Though the city man Jack makes the sexist remark that her gender makes her ill-suited to do investigative work, Carol is indeed up to the task, fiercely determined to spare Scott a fast-approaching date with the chair. She even assumes a new, distinctly urban identity (Jeannie) in pursuit of evidence that will free Scott. Commonly in the noir film multiple identities are associated with duplicity and/or criminality, but in this case the Jeannie alter ego is a faux femme fatale utilized to entrap those who have, knowingly or unknowingly, conspired against Scott. The film concludes with the angelic female gaze of Carol, who is ecstatic to learn her feelings for Scott will be returned. Her glow of satisfaction makes sense from an emotional perspective, but betrays the sense of empowerment the film had granted Carol up to that point. Her investigative work now finished, she appears overjoyed to be defined by her relationship with Scott, which is to suggest the working woman would prefer married life to workforce participation.





Psychoanalytic theory was a logical ingredient to the noir film of the 1940s, with plenty of potentially fractured minds under review, i.e. CAT PEOPLE (1942), SHOCK (1946), THE DARK MIRROR (1946) and THE DARK PAST (1948). Certainly not the most mentally stable fellow, Scott's best friend Jack Marlow exhibits many symptoms of the psychologically tormented, inherently dangerous individual. He uses his hands artistically as a sculptor and criminally as a killer, and even registers complete awareness of the obvious conflict, that Frankensteinian notion that hands may be used for both good and evil. Abstract sculptures suggest a deep-seated personality disorder, a mirror hints at a personality split, dizzy spells confirm an enormously troubled man. His anguish is aggravated by his urban environment, where he feels completely alienated, a nobody. The noir city may be home to millions, but many feel little sense of belonging or purpose. It is a place where the object of Jack's affection laughs in his face after he suggests they run off together. In his conversation with Jack, Burgess plays the role of psychiatrist as he emphasizes the importance of understanding the killer's mind. Burgess is convinced the killer is a paranoiac. Similarly, Carol condemns the killer's insanity before Jack, who cannot tolerate such conversation without helplessly falling into his paranoid side.

Parallel to the case of Jack is the mental health of Ann Terry, whose condition has declined sharply since the sudden death of her fiancé. Trapped in self-imposed anonymity, she refuses to tell her name to Scott, who extends the hand of friendship without much response from her. In truth she was a "phantom lady" before she met Scott one fateful evening. She had the hat of the performer Estela Monteiro copied, as if she wished to create an alternate personality for someone who no longer existed. That plan proves shortsighted after Monteiro denies the very existence of Ann. Female archetypes take a beating in the search for Ann, as when hatmaker Madame Kettisha (Doris Lloyd) is shown to be a domineering boss whose meek employee Miss Payton (Victoria Horne) cowers before her. After a lengthy search for answers about a night tarnished by fate, Miss Terry (mystery, get it?) is discovered in a decayed state of despondency, seemingly without much hope for recovery. Her last contribution to humanity may be the copied hat she hands over to Carol.




The female gaze

Set in New York City, there are a lot of indications the PHANTOM LADY narrative could not play out anywhere but a major metropolitan area. At the dingy apartment of a big city guy like the drummer Cliff, a visitor can sense the rats in the walls. En route to his preferred social scene, Cliff leads Carol (in character as Jeannie) down a stairway into the uncertain depths of the city, where a jazz improvisation band provides the soundtrack to a Freudian nightmare. Their musical orgasmatron is purely urban, and presumably not the safest locale for a nice Midwesterner like Carol to spend her time. Staircases that lead up harbor danger as well, where a suspenseful moment at a train stop occurs. This sprawling urban landscape is a place where an everyman like the bartender might consider committing murder. In fact, he probably would have pushed Carol to her death were it not for the sudden emergence of another person at the train stop. That moment he ponders murder is important for viewer consideration when the city streets prey on him a little later. The city's hot August temperature is another critical factor. Scott talks about the city heat the night of his wife's murder, at his trial courtroom spectators look lonesome for air conditioning, and electric fans do their best to keep thirsty patrons cool at the bar.

The recently released Arrow Academy Blu-ray edition of PHANTOM LADY boasts a new High Definition (1080p) transfer from original film elements with uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack. Framed at 1.34:1, this presentation appears to have been derived from different source material than the DVD version issued in 2012 by Universal as part of the Turner Classic Movies Vault Collection. A little disappointingly, this version remains loaded with scratches and plays a bit wobbly on occasion. Though the film elements could have used some restorative work, this Blu-ray release benefits from the leap in resolution, with greatly improved contrast and more realistic-looking skin tones.

Arrow Academy Blu-ray

TCM DVD

According to film historian Alan K. Rode, whose fine essay "The Making of PHANTOM LADY:  Film Noir in the Starting Blocks" (2018) is included as a booklet insert, producer Joan Harrison (credited as associate producer) also wrote the screenplay. She hired Bernard C. Schoenfeld merely for assistance, but for whatever reason, only Schoenfeld was credited for the adaptation of the 1942 crime novel of the same title by Cornell Woolrich (under the pseudonym William Irish). Despite recurring instances of studio interference that irritated Harrison, she would produce other notable noir cinema of the decade such as THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945, reteaming director Robert Siodmak with Raines), NOCTURNE (1946) and the excellent RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947, with Thomas Gomez). Siodmak and cinematographer Elwood Bredell collaborated on another two projects, both film noirs:  CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944) and THE KILLERS (1946).

The Arrow edition's supplements start with "Dark and Deadly:  Fifty Years of Film Noir" (1995, 52m 18s), a valuable documentary produced and directed by Paul Joyce. While the classic noir era of the 1940s and 1950s is examined, the documentary is more concerned with the neo-noir movement of the early 1990s than its inspiration. If film noir of the 1940s can be viewed as a post-WWII reaction, the neo-noir of the early 1990s reflects the end of the Cold War. Filmmakers who discuss their neo-noir projects include John Dahl (KILL ME AGAIN [1989], THE LAST SEDUCTION [1994]), James Foley (AFTER DARK, MY SWEET [1990]), Carl Franklin (ONE FALSE MOVE [1992]), Dennis Hopper (THE HOT SPOT [1990]) and Bryan Singer (THE USUAL SUSPECTS [1995]). Dahl points out that noir allows the filmmaker to uncover the gray areas of humanity, the multiple layers of personalities. Creative forces behind the classic film noir era who reflect on their work include director Edward Dmytryk, who says that his CROSSFIRE (1947), a film that trashes anti-Semitism, actually was considered subversive at the time of its original theatrical run! And it is an absolute treat to hear from quintessential noir cinematographer John Alton, in his mid-90s at the time. In discussion of his book PAINTING WITH LIGHT (1949), Alton reveals he studied great painters like Rembrandt to learn his trade. Alton also comments on the difficulty he faced in his attempt to inject quality into cinema, and how his minimalist approach was disliked by other Hollywood tradesmen, many of whom were unnecessary when Alton served as director of photography. Where some sets might have required 16 electricians, Alton might have needed one.

Another significant bonus feature is the Lux Radio Theater version of PHANTOM LADY (59m 33s) that aired March 27, 1944 with an introduction by Cecil B. DeMille, who hosted the one-hour show from 1936 through 1945. Ella Raines returns as Carol, and Alan Curtis reprises his role as Scott. The two are joined by Brian Aherne, who takes on the part of Jack. A 30-chapter image gallery that pools together lobby cards, production stills, publicity photos, theatrical posters and conceptual art completes this highly collectible offering from Arrow Academy.




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