Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 27 min.
Release Date: January 28th, 1944 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Siodmak Actors: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Thomas Gomez, Fay Helm, Elisha Cook Jr., Andrew Tombes
fter ordering a double scotch with a water chaser at New York’s Anselmo’s Bar & Grille, civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) notices the woman sitting next to him, adorned with a particularly large, feathered hat. She seems distressed and preoccupied and can barely concentrate on the questions he asks – including when he inquires whether or not she’d be interested in attending an Estela Monteiro Revue with him, as he’d been stood up by his date. She agrees, under the condition that they don’t exchange names or addresses or any other personal information.
Afterward, Scott returns to his wife of five years, Marcella, who refused to go to dinner and the theater with him as she had been contemplating divorce. Instead, he’s coldly met by homicide division Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez), who informs him that his wife has been strangled to death with one of his very own fancy neckties. Scott’s alibi is coincidentally flimsy, as he’s unable to provide a name or much of a description.
When the bartender who served them, the cab driver who drove them, and the performer who eyed them all night each claim Scott was completely alone, he becomes the prime suspect for Marcella’s murder. At the swift trial, without proof of his mystery companion’s existence, he’s found unquestionably guilty. Scott’s secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) suggests an appeal, and the help of his best friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), currently away in South America, but Henderson is resigned to his electric chair fate – broke and no longer entirely sure of his own sanity. Carol refuses to give up so easily and, with the help of Burgess, a man unofficially interested in uncovering the truth, they begin revisiting the witnesses to find out who is lying and why.
It isn’t immediately clear why Carol is so infatuated with her boss, especially since he’s oblivious to her crush and he was hopeful in repairing his marriage. But it’s certainly amusing to see her fight against the odds, paired with the severe policeman who arrested Henderson in the first place. Although the mystery is given away prior to the final act, there’s still a degree of suspense in watching the underdogs attempt to outmaneuver the killer. The primary source of tension is the dwindling time before Scott’s execution, though the 18-day span is too long to generate last-minute dread. Despite a brief running time, the pacing is markedly gradual, especially at the finale.
The cinematography makes use of immersive shadows, nighttime scenes, humidity, isolated streets, disorienting music, and all sorts of hallucinatory moments, though the resolution loses all of the initial film noir qualities (save for a forthcoming murder attempt). The work also showcases the worst drum kit miming ever committed to celluloid (by Elisha Cook Jr. as Cliff Milburn). While “Phantom Lady” uses reverse psychology to harass an insane paranoiac who needs to be revered as diabolically clever (without actually acknowledging the results or the technique), it isn’t presented with wit and zest, especially as it traps a guilty party of which the audience is already aware. In the end, an unobservant, unfocused antagonist arranges clunky closing shots that feel rushed, unpolished, and ineffective for a project that is primarily a sellable premise (the first hour is largely just the introduction) with nothing else to back it up.
– Mike Massie