Robert Siodmak helms Phantom Lady, a dazzling film noir based on a screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld. This 1944 picture is based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 novel of the same name and is the first movie produced by Hitchcock screenwriter Joan Harrison.
Phantom Lady blends several essential noir elements, like a wrongfully accused man and a psychologically dubious version of events. It also features an avenging angel, a person looking to right wrongs in a world of indeterminate morality. Siodmak is unafraid of the underbelly of human existence and that helps his first noir sink into the darkness.
The picture concerns Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), an engineer out on the town with two tickets to a show. His plans change at the last minute, so he hits up a bar to drown his sorrows. Scott meets a stranger and she agrees to attend the show as his date on the condition that they don’t share names.
When the evening concludes, Scott returns home to find police in his pad and his wife dead. He’s the suspect. Scott hopes the woman from the bar will vindicate him, but the trail is cold and he’s thrown in jail. His secretary Carol (Ella Raines) is convinced of his virtue and sets out to find the “phantom lady.”
Phantom Lady weaves an impressive web, with a host of individuals suddenly refusing to admit seeing Scott with the mystery woman. There is Aurora as Estela Monteiro. She was upset with the woman for wearing the same idiosyncratic hat, but she changes her tune when the gumshoes show up.
Ditto for the taxi driver and the bartender (Andrew Tombes), both of whom deny having seen the woman in question. Something, Carol insists, must be going on. Police investigator Burgess (Thomas Gomez) agrees, despite slapping the cuffs on Scott in the first place.
The web of treachery and confusion requires a durable presence to serve as navigator and that’s where Carol comes in. Raines plays her as a tough-as-nails sort. She’s not afraid to tail Tombes’ spine-chilling bartender, even to the point that he nearly pushes her in front of a passing train.
In the movie’s most erotic sequence, she plays nice with drummer Cliff (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and nearly drives him insane with her womanly ways. She figures he knows something because of his association with the show Scott saw on the night in question, but Cliff’s sweaty sleaze is almost a bridge too far.
Things take another turn when Scott’s friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) shows up. He looks to assist Carol with her unceremonious investigation, but there may be something more to his character than she sees in the light of day.
Cinematographer Woody Bredell comes up with some astonishing visual pieces. The aesthetic is dynamic and sinister, with Carol steering a world as far away from her native Kansas as she can imagine. Bredell shows her willing to take a walk on the wild side, his lens cutting close to the bone when she seduces Cliff and jumping further away when she runs into trouble.
Phantom Lady is a surprising film noir. It gets down and dirty, boasting an electric performance by Raines. She’s a firecracker, a woman who refuses to play damsel even when she’s in distress. She’s the sort of protagonist who’ll anything to achieve her aims – even if it means smooching with a shady jazz drummer.