Even though I admire the toughness of Robert Siodmak's perennial film noirs, "The Killers" (1946) and "Criss Cross" (1948), nothing quite prepared me for the formal, stylish greatness of "Phantom Lady". Released in 1944 and starring Ella Raines as a secretary who descends into the New York netherworld of coked-up jazz musicians and psychotic killers in the hopes of saving her boss (Alan Curtis) from a murder rap, the film is relentlessly surprising in both narrative and mise-en-scene. There are two or three camera movements that rank with the visual inventiveness of Hitchcock's best (just watch as we finally discover "the hat") and a mood imported from the inky grains of German expressionism. Everything is mixed flawlessly within a somewhat cute American studio system work. Between this film and others, Siodmak has created a large (but still somewhat undervalued) body of work. And outside of his noirs, finding them is the trick.
Enter Rains as the Nancy Drew-like secretary who fully believes that her boss is innocent and sets out into the city to find witnesses to Scott's bar tab, theater event, and (most importantly) the woman that no one claims to remember. There's a wonderfully energetic Elisha Cook Jr who takes Rains behind the grimy veil of after hours musicians. There's the sheepish bartender who may be concealing more than he knows. And, most importantly, there's Franchot Tone as Scott's best friend who returns from overseas to help Kansas clear his name. Together in his modernistic New York high rise apartment, Tone embodies a role that's both slimy, perverse, and haunting all the same. But more important than any extra-Freudian overtones,"The Phantom Lady" shifts gears completely and becomes Rains' film in spirit and body as her quest will take her close to extreme violence.
Playing with genre as if it's shuffling cards, Siodmak never loses control of the film. When it stops down for a couple of minutes to vibrate and gyrate with a coked-up drummer, it works. When it devolves into a thriller and the door knob to escape is just out of reach, it works. And it certainly works as a film noir where the city hisses steam at all hours and the police are hard nosed but virtuous. Even despite its seemingly happy ending, "The Phantom Lady" hints that the savior complex of Kansas may have doomed her to a place of subservience that's well beneath her true worth.