This is one of the first noir movies (along with Black Angel) that I spent my very own hard earned money on when I started building my little classic movie collection. They were released on VHS in the mid-to-late 90s, under the Universal noir collection series. The packaging was so inviting and irresistible that they seemed less like relics from the past and much more promising entertainment than whatever new release had come out that week (other videos I remember picking up from that series were The Big Clock, The Blue Dahlia, The Ministry of Fear, and the Killers). Those relatively lesser known noirs, Phantom Lady and Black Angel, and not the better known “essentials,” were the films that really got me started exploring the genre, and remain special favorites. At the time, I had no clue what a nwar even was, I just knew the people and the photo and the clothes looked cool, liked the story they all were promising to tell me and wanted to own it. I learned in the years since that its director Robert Siodmak was important to the genre, and that Phantom Lady was his big break in noir, and that the movie was based on the work of someone equally instrumental in the field, namely Cornell Woolrich (who wrote this book as William Irish).
The Phantom Lady of the title is a mysterious woman in a very memorable hat with whom Alan Curtis (seen below) spends the very same evening that his wife ends up murdered. Naturally, Curtis is the prime suspect, and when he offers the behatted woman as his alibi, she seems to have vanished, and what’s more, a strange amnesia afflicts the handful of people who seemed certain to remember seeing them together that evening.
When Curtis is sentenced to death and the countdown to his execution begins, it’s loyal and admiring secretary Ella Raines, who sets out to unravel the mystery. Raines really works hard and manages to track down the witnesses; unfortunately, they have an annoying habit of winding up dead just after admitting that something hinky is afoot, but before they can provide the whole story. Thomas Gomez, usually so good at playing nasty types, here plays a nicer detective who thinks Curtis is innocent and helps Raines. The arrival of Curtis’ artist friend Franchot Tone only adds more puzzlement, and not just the kind you get from looking at his wacky sculptures. And yes, Raines is able to finally track down the phantom lady and that’s just about where I stop spoiling the plot.
I will say, though, that you should brace yourself for one of the most talked about scenes in noir, one that will have you wondering how it got past the censors. Elisha Cook Jr. plays a Gene Krupa-like drummer who ranks second only to the Muppets’ Animal for sheer ferocity and insanity behind the skins. Then again, Cook’s approach to drumming suggests something no Muppet should ever know. Another interesting note about the music in the film is that the nightclub singer Aurora, is the younger sister of Carmen Miranda (speaking of women with memorable headwear). Aurora (pictured below) was overshadowed by Carmen in the States, but was a big deal back in her native Brazil, recording over 160 songs and racking up hits from the age of 18 until her retirement in 1951. Carmen died in 1955, but Aurora outlived her by another 50 years.
As for Ella Raines, she was an almost instant success from her first two films in 1943, Corvette K-225, and Cry Havoc. Phantom Lady was only her third movie, and she was only 23, but did a great job playing determined, clever and calculating. She was on the cover of Time magazine after the film’s release and things seemed promising for a while, but didn’t take off as expected, and despite a number of good films, among them the noirs Brute Force and Impact, Raines’ fame declined as the decade closed. She did a lot of TV, but perhaps most unique in her credits was the groundbreaking 1953 series Janet Dean, Registered Nurse, which she was involved in from concept through production. Raines also wrote articles, taught acting, and true to her outdoorsy rural Washington state upbringing, made news when she fired after a prowler with her shotgun (maybe the witnesses in Phantom Lady would have been more forthcoming if she tried that approach in the movie). She had two daughters by her marriage of 28 years to a war hero, and two Hollywood walk of fame stars, one for TV and one for movies (it’s a shame they don’t award any for marksmanship).
More than once during my research I encountered the comment that Raines was a “poor man’s Gene Tierney” which could be taken as a slight or simply an statement of fact that Raines just didn’t achieve Tierney’s level of fame, but if you had to compare the two, I would say Raines has something more earthy and approachable, a touch warmer than the often icy and imperious Tierney. In fact Raines is probably more compassionate than the guarded, low-key, and a little oblivious Alan Curtis seems to deserve. Phantom Lady is an effectively claustrophobic thriller, scary at times, and best of all shows you what strikingly clever visuals Siodmak was capable of, and was to bring to his subsequent noirs, most notably The Killers, The Spiral Staircase and Criss Cross. Phantom Lady was a great discovery and money well spent—even for VHS.
a version of this article appeared in Dark Pages Magazine
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