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’