January 19, 2017

Phantom Lady (1944)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Robert Siodmak
Stars: Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Alan Curtis

What it's about. An unlikely but entertaining classic film noire. Civil engineer Alan Curtis is framed for the murder of his wife by his best friend, Franchot Tone. Curtis has an alibi: he spent the evening on the town with a woman (Fay Helm) wearing a garish hat. He met her at a bar, where he was served by Andrew Tombes; caught a cab with her to a Broadway musical, where the star performer was "exotic" Aurora Miranda (yes, Carmen's sister). Another colorful character at the show was Elisha Cook Jr., the flirtatious and vivacious drummer in the orchestra pit.

But Curtis can't prove his alibi, since he doesn't know the name of his date for the night, and everyone he encountered claims that the woman never existed (they have been bribed by Tone). Curtis is duly convicted and schedule to fry in the electric chair. He's broke and can't appeal. But he has one supporter: Ella Raines, his gorgeous and remarkably loyal secretary. Raines single-handedly attempts to prove Curtis' innocence, by locating the phantom lady and her hat.

She gets nowhere at first, even after laconic detective Thomas Gomez decides to help her. For she is trailed, and later accompanied, by the real killer, twitchy Franchot Tone, who is murdering all the witnesses and has Raines next on his list.

How others will see it. Phantom Lady is best known today for a bizzare scene in which Elisha Cook Jr. drums himself into a frenzy while encouraged by a trampish Ella Raines. This scene is supposed to be a substitute for sex in an era of a strict Production Code. In any event, it has to be seen to be believed.

Aside from that scene, the film has made little impact. It was apparently regarded as a derivative 'B' movie by contemporary observers, and ignored by the Oscars and Golden Globes. First-billed Franchot Tone was a bona fide moviestar, but has little following today. The career of the movie's true lead, Ella Raines, was promising in 1944 (that year, she was also in Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero, and was the love interest in John Wayne's Tall in the Saddle). But Raines' career slowly fizzled after that, except for a key role in the popular Burt Lancaster film noire Brute Force.

Today at imdb.com, Phantom Lady has a low 3K user votes, and the user rating of 7.3 is good though hardly extraordinary. The important demographic of women over 45 sees the film slightly better, at 7.5 out of 10. The strange Cook-Raines scene is universally admired, as is Raines' exceptional beauty. Praise for her eye candy, though, is restrained by the film's many plot holes. One doubts whether Tone could bribe everyone in both the bar and the theater, and we wonder if a judge could be found to suspend Curtis' death sentence, simply because the scene-stealing Tone walked through a window.

How I felt about it. Other plot holes: how does Raines support herself for months in New York City, without a job? Why doesn't she attempt to defend herself when confronted by the killer Franchot Tone? Cook confesses all too quickly that he was bribed $500 by Tone. Perhaps the biggest goof of all is that the hat is off the sculpted head before Raines leaves the living room. Really, it goes on and on.

Nonetheless, there's no doubt that Phantom Lady is a pleasure to watch. There is plenty of suspense, Tone is adorably campy, and Raines was a more comely wartime screen presence than Betty Grable. Much of the credit goes to director Robert Siodmak, even though he appears to have only made one other movie about as good as Phantom Lady, namely The Spiral Staircase.