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This is a strange little movie.......a film noir with some good
performances and some not so good. You often see this film on lists of
noir classics but it raises the inevitable question....is it a classic
or does it have just too many faults to raise it to the level of
winners like "DOA", "The Big Sleep" or "Night and the City".
The premise is fairly good. A man can't prove his whereabouts when his wife is murdered and can only describe his alibi as an unknown woman wearing a rather distinctive hat The story follows the hero's secretary and a sympathetic policeman as they try to prove his innocence. Alan Curtis is a disaster as a gloomy, rather unlikeable man who pretty much gives up trying to find the real killer and becomes resigned to his fate. He doesn't put up much of a fight and his attitude doesn't help much. The lovely Ella Raines portrays the secretary who gets herself into some uncomfortable situations, especially with Elisha Cooke Jr as the drummer man with the plan. Plenty has been said about the drumming scene which somehow sneaked by the censors. It has to be seen to be believed.......whew!!
Franchot Tone plays the hero's best friend and I am still trying to figure out if his playing of that part was really good or really bad. The answer is probably "really bad". The role is against type for him and he overdoes it. He does have a great apartment though!
Fay Helm, playing the woman with the hat, is strangely attractive and is just right for the "phantom lady". Thomas Gomez, as the friendly cop, does his usual good job. So is this film worth watching?......yes. It has some plot holes but overall it is enjoyable. Give it a try.
Film students and fans of film noir always hear about PHANTOM LADY and now
that I've seen it I'm inclined to report that it's overrated. Though the
premise is initially intriguing, it quickly accumulates so many plot holes
that you instantly figure out who the murderer is. But this is an exercise
in style, not content. Director Robert Siodmak saved the film by giving
visual distinction to a poor script.
His training in the German Expressionist style makes for very striking images thoughout despite the low budget: dramatic contrasts between light and dark with simple, strong lighting effects never fail to provide interest and tension. And he goes a long way in suggesting the ethnic and racial mix of New York City in 1944 by his offbeat choice of extras and supporting players, most of whom are not the types you see in movies of the time. And the set of sculptor Franchot Tone's apartment complete with furniture and busts would be the envy of many a Soho or Tribeca resident in 2004.
In the lead, Ella Raines looks rather like a poor man's Gene Tierney. She is attractive and likable and you have no trouble maintaining interest in her, but she doesn't have much acting range, at least at this point in her career. Franchot Tone does a very professional job in an impossibly sketchy and ludicrous part, and Thomas Gomez is okay as the detective. As the wronged man, Alan Curtis provides his own visual interest via a strong jaw and broad shoulders, and an occasional hint of surliness makes his character more interesting.
But as others have indicated here, the single most surprising and effective scene is one where horny drummer Elisha Cook, Jr. takes Ella Raines to an after hours dive to show her what he's made of. Equating jazz and especially drumming with hot sex, Siodmak cross cuts between Cook's orgasmic frenzy at the drums (complete with a closeup insert of his crotch) with Ella seemingly transported as well, giving him the come-on, urging him to climax. It's the most overtly sexual scene I've ever seen in a '40s film and it's one you shouldn't miss.
This is a very unusual film in that the star with the top billing doesn't appear literally until half way in. Nevertheless I was engaged by the hook of the Phantom Lady. Curtis, though competent as the falsely accused Scott Henderson, looks a little tough to be be sympathetic towards (perhaps he should have shaved his moustache) and his behavior when he first comes home should have convinced the cops at least to some degree of his innocence. While another commentator had a problem with Franchot Tone as Jack Marlowe I found his portrayal of the character to be impressively complex. He is no stock villain. Superb character actor Elisha Cook Jr. is again in top form as the 'little man with big ambitions.' His drumming in the musical numbers added a welcome touch of eroticism. This movie however is carried by the very capable and comely Ella Raines as the devoted would be lover of Henderson, Carol Richmond. She definitely has talent and her screen presence is in the tradition of Lauren Bacall. This is the first of her work I have seen and I am definitely inclined to see her other roles. The rest of the supporting cast is also more than competent. All in all a very satisfying film noir mystery which when viewed today fully conveys the dark and complex urban world it is intended to. Recommended, 8/10.
Sadly not available on DVD as yet, but worth pursuing on TCM or VHS. A secretary believes her boss is wrongly accused of murder, and courageously takes on many dangerous characters in an effort to establish the truth. A movie with many twists and dark alleyways, none of which I will mention! The jazz band sequence where our heroine seeks the information about the killer, is one of the most erotic scenes in Hollywood history, despite being at very low budget and made during WWII in black and white. Despite the low budget - Long Island looks somewhat mountainous - this is a movie of original style and outstanding vision. Ella Raines was a great actress discovered by Howard Hawks who knew much about these matters, casting the feistiest women - Joanne Dru, Hepburn, Angie Dickinson, Lauren Bacall, Ann Sheridan - of their era. Robert Siodmak was of one of several German, Hungarian & Czech film-makers - Sirk, Wilder, Zinnemann, Lubitsch, Curtiz,Lang, etc - who émigrés relocated to Hollywood, and brought a highly original fresh vision with them. Sadly Ella Raines was never given such a great part again, and eventually ended up in poorly produced westerns.
Scott Henderson, the engineer that employs Carol Richman, as his assistant,
makes a point to call her "Kansas", whenever he speaks to her. It shows us
that Carol, effectively played by Ella Raines, is supposed to be a babe in
the woods, as far as the Manhattan of the 40s was concerned. Only a woman,
from out of town, would follow the shady bartender to a solitary elevated
subway. Even then, only a naive girl could undertake such an
Robert Siodmak directed this film noir very well. He shows a flair for infusing the story with a lot of raw sex that was surprising for those days. How else could we justify the way the drummer in the orchestra of the musical, where Scott takes the mysterious woman with an unusual hat, makes such an overt pass at a lady on a date? The drummer played with high voltage by Elisha Cook Jr. doesn't hide his desires for any of the ladies who sat in the front row of the hit musical where he plays. It was a real explicit invitation, first to the "phantom woman" of the story, Fay Helm; afterward, Cliff the drummer, insinuates himself very openly to Ella Raines who goes to the theater disguised as the mystery dame her boss had taken originally.
This is a film that will hook any viewer from the beginning. There are things not explained in it, but it holds the one's interest throughout. The killer is not revealed until the end.
Ella Raines with her expressive eyes was an under estimated actress. She holds her own against much more experienced actors. Franchot Tone, a New York stage actor, working in Hollywood, never found in this medium the fame he deserved. He is effective as the accused man's best friend. On the other hand, Alan Curtis, comes across as a man, who when framed, accepts his fate and is saved only by the tenacity of the woman who secretly loved him. Thomas Gomez, as the inspector Burgess, is an asset to the film as a detective who has his doubts the police had caught the man who committed the crime.
This movie will not disappoint.
Robert Siodmak does a fabulous job with this B noir starring Ella
Raines, Franchot Tone, and Alan Curtis. And he does it, I might add,
without a lot of help from his male actors, i.e., Curtis and Tone. It's
Raines all the way, a pretty, leggy actress who for one reason or
another never reached the status of some of her "noir" counterparts.
Siodmak's use of sex, light, shadows, and music is truly remarkable as he tackles this genre. The shadows, lighting effects, and camera angles are all effective. But the highlight of the film takes place in a nightclub with a very sexual drum riff by Elisha Cook, egged on by an excited Raines. It's this scene that brings "Phantom Lady" into new territory.
Siodmak's commitment to the material is matched only by Raines, who gives a sincere performance as a woman in love trying to save her man. Franchot Tone phoned this one in. Alan Curtis didn't seem upset that he might die and didn't seem happy that he lived. And he never, except for a brief moment in prison, seemed to be in love with Raines.
The amusing thing about many of these films is that, as World War II progressed, interest in psychiatry deepened. But often the terms were used incorrectly in films such as "Possessed," "Spellbound," and "The Greatest Show on Earth." Tone is called paranoid by Thomas Gomez - Tone probably has some paranoia attached to his disorder, but he appears to be closer to a psychopath. In actuality, as evidenced by his headaches, he may have had a brain tumor pushing against his brain.
Phantom Lady doesn't have the greatest plot, but it's well worth watching.
Seldom have my expectations been as often derailed as in The Phantom Lady.
The plot--while a bit farfetched--is never boring or predictable. Although
it's a smaller film than say, The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, it is
Ella Raines is the real stand-out here. Not only is she great to look at (think half-way between Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall) she also acts circles 'round the two leading men. Luminous, expressive yet subtle, she is perhaps a better actress than those two icons, if slightly less perfect-looking than Lake and a bit less magnetic than Bacall.
Thomas Gomez turns in a surprisingly complex and interesting performance, but don't expect too much from Franchot Tone. Although his acting abilities need no defense, he didn't do much with this role.
Sure, there are plot holes, a couple of contrived turns, and at least two ridiculous performances (Elisha Cook and Aurora Miranda) but all B Noir has its faults, and this one wins by dint of its unpredictability and pacing, and some great cinematography. Oh--and miss Raines.
Elisha Cook at the drums and Ella Raines waiting for the train... that's all you need for this one. A memorable film that 99% of the public knows nothing about. Should be must-viewing for film noir buffs. And for those turned off by film noir... guarantee you'll love it even more.
I found this film noir to be odd in that the beginning and the end were
both lousy but the middle part was excellent. The "lousy" parts are
such because they drag on and are simply boring when they don't have to
be. The immediate opening scenes are fine, showing an innocent man,
"Scott Henderson" (Alan Curtis) being charged and found guilty of a
murder he didn't commit....but then almost nothing happens for the next
Then comes the good part when Henderson's secretary "Carol 'Kansas' Richmond" (Ella Raines) gets involved, taking it upon herself to find the missing woman who could prove that her boss was innocent. During her pursuit we meet a couple of very interesting characters and we see some outstanding film-noir photography.
The most interesting character, "Cliff," was played by film noir regular Elisha Cook Jr. He has one scene in which he takes Raines to a local warehouse-type room where his jazz band is practicing. Cook then shows off with this drum playing and it is so frenetic, so bizarre that it is almost shocking to watch. You have to see it, to appreciate it. It's a small, insignificant scene but very memorable. A few other minor characters are a bit strange, too.
Thomas Gomez plays a cop ("Inspector Burgess") who winds up helping Raines a bit, and he's good to watch, too.In the end, Raines discovers what's up and is in peril herself. That scene has suspense but is too drawn out. It's like, "okay, already.....let's go on with it!"
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I can safely admit (as an IMDb geek) that 'Phantom Lady' will never
crack into my film noir top twenty. It may not even sneak into the top
fifty. But rather than discredit the film for not being as good as so
many other classics of the film noir genre, it should be noted that
'Phantom Lady' has enough strong and lasting images in it to make it a
worthwhile viewing. All that is required from the viewer is the ability
to get beyond the dreadfully slow beginning.
The film doesn't get cooking until 'Kansas' (Ella Raines) sets about trying to prove all but single handedly the innocence of her boss, Scott Anderson (Alan Curtis), who has been convicted of murder. 'Kansas' is Anderson's secretary by day and amateur detective by night. As the novice sleuth she does quite well for herself while working the streets of New York at night. Little by little she starts putting pieces of a murder mystery puzzle together. To be honest, the film belongs to Raines and it is only due to her presence that the film works well at all. Somehow she is able to breathe life into a film about a condemned man who is not interesting in the slightest. I'm not sure if this splintered dynamic of a characterless leading man becomes the fault of the actor or the director, but clearly this is where something becomes terribly wrong with the film.
As interesting as Raines is as a novice detective, things really accelerate into another hidden gear when 'Kansas' pays a late night visit to a wandering drummer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) in search of some information to help her condemned boss. She and the drummer paint the town a new kind of red while visiting the "all night" jazz clubs. Trying to describe this scene will either prove an injustice to the scene or worse yet, it could ruin the scene all together. You'll know the scene once the last cymbal crash has finished ringing out. If you're lucky enough to have this film on DVD, you'll more than likely be rewinding this scene again and again. As good as Raines is, it is this scene that makes this film noteworthy. It is mainly because of this scene that I rate 'Phantom Lady' a 7 instead of a 6.
For the most part this film comes off as tepid and bland with a few great scenes and one magnificent scene. It is the 'drum/sex scene' that separates this film from any others of the same ilk.
And just like it is said in the film that "you never go wrong with Vanilla", I would also like to add that "going with Vanilla" is the safe fall back choice when one can't decide on having a tastier treat.
7/10. Clark Richards
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