Saturday, March 11, 2023

After Hours: Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady"

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.

But, what we do have (courtesy of the Criterion channel) is invaluable. For the first half of "Phantom Lady", the film doesn't even hint at the heroics of female secretary Kansas (Rains). She's barely present, except to establish her mundane duties of filing receipts and returning phone calls within the office of her architect boss Scott (Curtis). Instead, we have a traditional set-up where a lonely man picks up an equally morose woman (Fay Helm) in a bar and persuades her to go to a theater with him. Breadcrumbs of possible alibis are stacked, but then he returns home to find his wife has been murdered and the police already waiting for him. His emotions are confused, but heightened.... and in one of the many stellar provocations in the film, Siodmak chooses to expend narrative off-screen. As Scott's wife is hauled out of their apartment, the camera holds on him as he screams out "look what they're doing to her hair!". It's a moment that says far more than shows. There's no need to show a body. The image of a lifeless woman's hair being dragged along the floor is pungent....horrifying..... and soaks an image of careless disregard in an otherwise gutting personal moment. The off-screen theatrics will be employed brilliantly throughout "Phantom Lady".

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.