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Phantom Lady
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by Jay Seaver

"Murder quite strange."
4 stars

"Phantom Lady" is, in a way, a demonstration of just how hard a good mystery can be to construct: The opening sequence seems tremendously unlikely on its face, but that's what it takes for a murder to become a puzzle worth reading about or watching, and the steps needed so that an amateur is the one to investigate and solve it... Well, it's unlikely.

That opening has Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) walking into a bar, his plans for the evening dashed, and meeting up with a woman (Fay Helm) for whom things don't seem to be going much better. He eventually convinced her to use the second theater ticket he has, and while they have a good time, he never gets her name, and indeed had a hard time remembering what she looks like underneath a distinctive hat. That turns out to be a big problem, because when he gets home, police Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) is there to inform him that his wife has been murdered, and an alibi would be pretty useful. After the trial, Burgess has a nagging feeling that they've put the wrong man on death row, but it's Henderson's secretary Carol Richman (Elsa Raines) who is working hardest to prove his innocence, though Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), a friend of his recently returned from South America, pitches in as well.

It's a fun murder mystery, though a rather unlikely one, often seeming to rest more specifically on finding the phantom lady of the title more than really seems necessary. Shouldn't the other scraps of alibi be enough, and doesn't everything else have to live up kind of perfectly? The screenplay by Bernard Schoenfeld (from a novel by Cornell Woolrich under a pseudonym) stretches credibility a bit, but I like the way it works; rather than playing it as a fair-play amateur detective story, it lets the twist happen as early as possible and has fun playing it out, and manages to do so without making its heroine look the fool.

That heroine may be second-billed, but Ella Raines is the glue that holds the movie together. She may not play plucky would-be sleuth Carol Richman as dopily love-struck at any point, instead getting to realize alongside the audience that you don't go this far for a good boss. She's dependable, brave, and genuinely funny when she goes undercover (saying "I'm a hep kitten" to seduce a jazz-playing drummer). It's a bit more nuance than is given to Franchot Tone as said boss's best friend - he gets a memorable entrance or two but he and director Robert Siodmak give him a bit too much of a twitch later on. Alan Curtis may be pushed to the sidelines relatively quickly, but he makes a strong enough impression as Scott to keep the audience from second-guessing Carol, while Thomas Gomez is solid as even if Inspector Burgess moves from one extreme to another fairly quickly. There are memorably big performances in small roles, like Aurora Miranda as a garish Latina singer and Elisha Cook Jr. as the girl-crazy dinner.

Those broad performances fit the movie that Siodmak is making, which is more wild thriller than moody noir. There's a fair amount of that genre's style to it, though, most obviously when Carol visits Scott in prison and is a high-ceilinged stairwell with long shadows rather than the traditional cramped rows of tables. The most important thing he does throughout the movie is is to make authority look sinister - Burgess is first revealed waiting for Scott in Henderson's own darkened apartment, a monster ready to pounce, while the trial occurs almost entirely in voice-over as the prosecutor sneers his accusations and the audience only sees the hands of the court stenographer recording the events in an arcane shorthand. With the scene set like that, the conspiracy that seems like the only explanation for Scott's claims almost seems reasonable.

It's not, strictly speaking, and even the viewer who accepts that mysteries don't get built around reasonable explanations may feel a little strain on their suspension of disbelief. Not enough for it to snap, though - a great director working with a fine cast can do a lot of good on that count.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29909&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/10/15 10:59:40
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User Comments

1/07/17 adamwarlock Top notch film noir, it was the 40s, forget "realism" & suspend disbelief and you'll be ent 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  28-Jan-1944
  DVD: 10-Jun-2013

UK
  01-Jan-2013

Australia
  N/A (PG)




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