Phantom Lady

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Drama;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez.

Known earlier in his career as co-director of a German-cinema milestone on which seemingly every future Hollywood émigré legend labored (People on Sunday), Robert Siodmak enjoyed a mostly terrific and certainly prolific Hollywood run from about 1944 to 1952, until a subsequent life of hard bumps and relative oblivion commenced. He’s among the directors who first come to mind in any discussion of film noir, though let it be noted that he managed to cap his American career with Burt Lancaster’s widely adored The Crimson Pirate, which can still show the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise a thing or two (and this is speaking as one who’s not un-fond of the first one).

Phantom Lady was Siodmak’s noir launcher, sandwiched between Son of Dracula (Lon Chaney as Count Alucard, and you’d better spell it backwards) and Maria Montez’s Cobra Woman (in Technicolor and with a script co-penned by Richard Brooks, who probably didn’t learn too much he later could bring to Blackboard Jungle from the experience). After an extended build-up that makes one wonder if the movie will break out into something more, Lady is ultimately put over by three extended sequences that easily carry the story beyond what turns out to be a resourcefully versatile lead actress (Ella Raines) is already doing. These set-pieces benefit from Siodmak’s accomplished eye and, one would assume, Elwood “Woody” Bredell — a cinematographer I had to look up because he was unknown to me. Turns out he shot two other Siodmak noirs (and two of the best: Christmas Holiday and Burt Lancaster’s star-maker The Killers) and then a pair of Warner Technicolor achievements that have been 60-year personal favorites: Doris Day’s star-maker Romance on the High Seas and Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Don Juan, which I love almost as much as The Adventures of Robin Hood (there, I said it). Why didn’t Bredell work more?

Anyway. The Lady script (Bernard C. Shoenfeld adapting William Irish, aka Cornell Woolrich) asks a lot in terms of asking us to accept coincidences and other unlikely events. A New York architect under the thumb of his estranged wife’s money (Alan Baxter) is accused of strangling her, and his alibi is a classy but depressed woman he picked up at a bar but whose heavily depressed state at the time kept her from divulging her name. Baxter later can’t locate her, the bartender claims never to have seen her, and soon this rather abruptly convicted victim is on death’s row. In lieu of help from a best friend (Franchot Tone) who’s out of the country, Baxter’s only hope is the sleuthing of his secretary (Ella Raines) who is constantly finding herself in life-threatening situations once it becomes clear that something about the whole deal smells highly suspect.

Here’s an 87-minute movie in which top-billed Tone doesn’t show up for nearly an hour, which means that the burden is on the mostly straight-arrow, Wichita-bred assistant Raines is playing — though in one of those three standout scenes, she rather spectacularly tarts herself up to masquerade as what used to be a called a “chippie” (a good word whose common usage I miss). This part of the story includes the famous drumming sequence by one of the bribed heavies here (Elisa Cook Jr.), whose studio-dubbed playing at a jam session is either supposed to come off as orgasmic or some kind of Gene Krupa-ish reefer madness. (Poor Gene. Whenever he’d come on TV in the ’50s and ’60s, the disapproving mother of a friend of mine used to yell, “dissipated” at the screen. She also did the same to did as well as any tube image of comedian and game show host Jan Murray, but I’m not necessarily her to give you my life story.)

When Tone finally shows up, he displays a few eccentricities of his own, which means he fits right into the package. It’s a twitchy performance that works for me and is certainly unlike anything else I can think of in the actor’s history (had he played the vice president’s role like this in Otto Preminger’s better-than-ever adaptation of Advise and Consent, it definitively would have put a decidedly different cast on the movie). Tone’s extended scene with Raines late in the picture is another of the picture’s big moments, along with Cook’s drum frenzy and Raines’s nocturnal pursuit of the bartender in her attempt to determine why the guy lied about never having seen the woman who was sitting at the bar with Baxter.

By this time — and even though his situation is what motivates the entire plot — the Baxter character becomes kind of the forgotten man. An actor who died in real life at 43 — and was, I’m flabbergasted to see, onetime Commissioner of Baseball Peter Ueberroth’s real-life uncle — Baxter was one of those actors who, like John Carroll and John Lund (though I always liked Lund), donned a mustache in some futile attempt to become the new Clark Gable. Ultimately, this is Raines’s picture from her biggest year in the movies (1944), when she also had the female lead in Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero (my favorite Sturges, says this son of a World War II Marine) and Tall in the Saddle — in which the bluejeaned/tomboy persona she projected in it made her one of John Wayne’s best leading ladies ever. I don’t know why Raines didn’t become a bigger star, but working for Universal in the ’40s and then Republic in the ’50s likely wasn’t the way to go about it.

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Visually, the Arrow Blu-ray is definitely a step up from the old TCM DVD, and that’s important when we’re dealing with shadows, fog, streetlights on pavement and that sexy/trashy black outfit Raines uncharacteristically dons when working undercover to determine just what Cook’s seamy story is. Extras include an Alan Rode essay (class) and a vintage noir doc that runs just under an hour that is better in the early and more germane going (appearances by Robert Wise and Edward Dmytryk) than it is later on when John Dahl, Dennis Hopper, Carl Franklin and Bryan Singer talk about neo-noir, which tends to date the package, though some may disagree. It’s never a loss, though, seeing directors talk about their works, especially ones that have followings.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wanda’ and ‘Phantom Lady’

Singing Guns

 BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$19.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Vaughn Monroe, Ella Raines, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond. 

If Frankie Laine could show up for a guest shot on TV’s “Rawhide,” albeit much later, then why not Vaughn Monroe in a Republic Western called Singing Guns? Or, for that matter, even a Vaughn/Republic follow-up called The Toughest Man in Arizona, which the singer/bandleader did a couple years later for the same studio, even though the title portended a far more severe content stretch. Hell, even Bobby Darin managed to make a Western: Gunfight at Abilene, opposite Leslie Nielsen (I’ll just let that one sit there).

As the studio chief who was also doubled as executive in charge of red-inked actress/spouse Vera Ralston’s romper room, Republic’s Herbert Yates was never one to ignore pop culture exploitation. And there are stories of how fast his staff got a movie (any movie) called Pistol Packin’ Mama into 1943 theaters after the Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters Decca version of that song gave new life to one of the biggest pop hits of the wartime years once sales finally flagged some on Al Dexter’s initial version for Okeh Records. (Both are still great recordings.) For Yates, who apparently could work fast enough to make Sam Katzman look like David Lean when there were pennies on the line, Singing Guns would give Monroe the chance to sing “Mule Train” on screen for a February 1950 release after the tune’s smash jukebox reception toward the end of ’49.

Trouble is, it was Frankie Laine who had the No. 1 hit of the tune with a couple million in sales, and a Crosby version — think of Bing cracking whips on a mule train — did substantially better than Monroe’s as well. What’s more, Gene Autry, who knew a bit about song-to-screen exploitation himself, did one of his own quickie Westerns that was actually called Mule Train, and according to IMDb.com, it beat Guns into theaters by six days. This was such a competitive business that Spike Jones even did a recording called “Chinese Mule Train” — which, like the Laine version, I have on my iPod — but we will not go there in these more culturally sensitive times, even if Spike did.

Fortunately, Guns has a few things going with it, few of which have to with a plot that asks us to believe that a wanted outlaw (just by virtue of having shaved his beard) could be hired in dim bulb fashion as lawman by the same community that’s pursuing him. This would be Monroe, who reached me as a kid via his Billboard No. 7 hit “They Were Doin’ the Mambo (But I Just Stood Around)” and his TV spokesperson gigs for RCA Victor. He even has a second place in my heart because a decade later, in my hometown, my best friend was lifeguarding at the same golf course where Jack Nicklaus had learned to play on a night when Monroe royally blew a number in entertainment room. After a dramatic orchestral overture, he fumbled on the two-yard line with an “I Left My Love … er, Heart … in San Francisco” as he launched his Tony Bennett cover. On screen here, he’s no acting disaster but his scrape-through is nonetheless dependent on assists from Walter Brennan (“I’ve got three Oscars, and I’m subordinate to Vaughn Monroe at Republic?”) and, as the outside Law pursuing Monroe, Ward Bond in what is unexpectedly one of the better-to-best performances of his career.

Spiffily adorned Ella Raines is Bond’s mistress — the picture is fairly upfront about this — and she has always been a favored ’40s actress of mine by virtue of Hail the Conquering Hero, Phantom Lady and Tall in the Saddle (where, after stand-alone Maureen O’Hara, I’d have to say that she ties with Gail Russell as my second favorite John Wayne leading lady). Also around is Jeff Corey, who was a little less than two years but a dozen movies (he, uh, worked a lot) from a decade of political blacklisting. This must have made for some colorful jawboning in the commissary (in which famously stingy Yates no doubt stocked with all the beef jerky you could eat) given notorious reactionaries Bond and Brennan on the set.

Kino has brought back Republic encyclopedia Toby Roan back for another commentary, and he substantially helps out with location primers and backgrounders on the technical specs — the latter helping to explain why so many of the studio’s higher profile releases looked a lot more polished than their budgets would suggest. Compounding a lesson I learned with Kino’s previous release of Roy Rogers’ Sunset in the West, I will never again take any cheap shots at Republic’s in-house process Trucolor, now that I’ve seen it in intended ideal fashion (Roan says Guns’ source was from 35mm nitrate material). For the first time, I noticed how blue Raines’s eyes really were — a quality that Roan says was hard to photograph. The entire palate here is most soothing, even though in this case, we don’t even have one of Roy’s thousand-decibel shirts to serve as a test pattern.

Yet coincidentally, Kino also has a new release of the Roy’s Trucolor Trigger Jr. (also 1950), which played the Museum of Modern Art in February as part of MoMA’s two-part Republic series that carries the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese and Dave Kehr (could there be one any better?) I intend to look at TJ ASAP, particularly given that Roan is back for the commentary, but if memory serves from a mid-’80s showing on TBS, it’s the one where Roy goes skinny-dipping. This would presumably make it his one and only nude scene — but I won’t go there any more than I would for “Chinese Mule Train.”

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Awful Truth’ and ‘Singing Guns’