The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich
Director: Robert Siodmak
Cinematographer: Woody Bredell
Cast: Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Franchot Tone
Release: January 28, 1944
Studio: Universal Pictures
Percent Noir: 70%
I hated this movie.
I’m going to be awarding this film one star, and upfront know that the only reason it’s getting that many is because of how beautiful it looks. But on every other level, from storytelling to dialogue to acting to editing, this is a trainwreck. Rarely have I felt like I was getting stupider over the course of a movie, and yet here we are. I can’t fathom the good reputation it has garnered over the decades – perhaps those scholars, critics and film buffs are watching a different movie titled “Phantom Lady”?
The film opens with brooding Scott (Alan Curtis) picking up a mysterious unnamed woman with a crazy hat in a bar. He’s got two tickets to a show and offers her the second. They go together, but when he gets home, he discovers that his wife has been brutally murdered. Uh oh. Were they having marital troubles and had a huge fight the night before? Ding ding ding! Despite three witnesses saying that they saw Scott at the time the murder took place, none of them allegedly remember the woman… so of course Alan is put on trial for murder, convicted and sentenced to death. Wait, what?
Also, I should probably mention that Alan is not the main character of the movie, even though the first 20 minutes focus on him. The hero is his secretary, Carol (Ella Raines), who decides to investigate what’s going on and track down the mysterious hatted woman. Is it a problem that the film doesn’t have a moment of substance between Carol and Alan in its first act… actually, not until after he’s sentenced to death? And even after that, their scenes together are nothing but exposition pits? Yes. Yes, it is.
Carol teams up with the detective (Thomas Gomez) who first arrested Alan (because of course), who has had a change of heart and no longer thinks Alan is guilty… but doesn’t deem that information important enough to take to the judge. She also teams up with Alan’s best friend Jack, played by human block of wood Franchot Tone, who is revealed to be the killer immediately upon his introduction. The second and third acts then becomes a waiting game until idiot Carol realizes she’s standing next to a crazy killer who keeps having traumatic head-grabbing moments and stares at his reflection way too long. Apparently she hasn’t seen every other noir ever made, otherwise she would have picked up on the red flags.
Look, I get it. You’ve got to play along with film noir… accept that our heroes often make dumb decisions. You’ve got to forgive a plot hole or three… that just comes with the territory. And I’m happy to do that – hell, “The Narrow Margin” is my favorite film noir and a train could fit through those plot holes – if the movie doesn’t insult my intelligence. I shouldn’t want to pause the movie every three minutes and shout helpful advice to the screen, or mentally fix plot holes in my mind that screenwriters should have done on their second draft.
But instead we have three witnesses who say they saw Scott at the time of the murder, and that is completely disregarded. Could screenwriter Bernard C. Schoenfeld (who inexplicably co-wrote one of my favorite noir films with “The Dark Corner”) have tilted it slightly so that Jack paid off the witnesses to say they didn’t see Scott either, making the entire thing sensible? Of course he could, but he didn’t. And as a result, I got angry for the first of many, many, many times. I hesitate to call out other logic issues, because it’s going to quickly become a list if I do. A long list.
Okay, logic problems. Whatever. But even if I were to accept that, how am I supposed to swallow the major structure problems the movie has? Why would Schoenfeld start with twenty minutes of screen-time that barely introduce the movie’s real hero? Why, as mentioned earlier, wouldn’t he at least attempt to establish their relationship in more than a line or two so that we’d understand why Carol is doing what she’s doing? And why the hell does this hat even matter when Scott can’t remember what it looks like, nor what the woman looks like?
Okay, that last one was a logic thing again. Sorry, I couldn’t help it.
Maybe if the cast didn’t wholly suck, I would be a little forgiving. But yikes. Raines lack any screen charisma as the lead, and has a prolonged sequence where she goes undercover as a “loose woman” who chews gum constantly with her mouth open. I’d rather not talk about it. Tone is his usual wooden self, and must have served as inspiration for Curtis’ performance. A bomb could have gone off at any point in the movie, murdered them all, and I would not have been phased.
Let me reiterate that “Phantom Lady” is, at least, a very pretty movie. Director Robert Siodmak has made many iconic films noir, including “The Killers,” “Criss Cross” and “The Spiral Staircase,” and his visual sensibility is very much on display here as well. The climactic showdown in Jack’s apartment is bathed in shadows and weird, intriguing angles… which makes you wish more exciting things happened in it. Cinematographer Woody Bredell worked with Siodmak often, and you can already see the seeds of genius that would completely blossom in later, better movies.
Writing about “Phantom Lady” has just made me mad all over again. If you like this movie, good for you. But why? I just… I wanted it to be better. I wanted it to be something… anything other than the dumpster fire it actually is. What a shame.