1944’s Phantom Lady is a crime/drama film-noir starring Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, and Alan Curtis. Robert Siodmak directed this film which is based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel of the same name. Universal Pictures produced and distributed this film which was released on January 28, 1944 and has a run time of 87 minutes.
Phantom Lady tells the story of Scott Henderson, an engineer caught in a tumultuous argument with his wife on their anniversary. Seeking solace, he seeks refuge in a bar, where he encounters a melancholic woman. Despite her enigmatic nature, he manages to convince her to accompany him to a Broadway show, armed with an extra ticket he possesses. However, the woman imposes one condition—she will remain anonymous, divulging no details about herself.
Following this fleeting encounter, their paths diverge. Upon Scott’s return home, he is greeted by an eerie sight—three police officers lurking in the darkness, waiting for him. Shockingly, he discovers his wife strangled to death in their bedroom, with one of his neckties as the murder weapon. With Scott becoming the prime suspect, the quartet of officers embarks on a journey to retrace his steps from that fateful night, desperately seeking the elusive phantom lady who serves as his sole alibi. However, every individual questioned by the group recalls seeing Scott in the company of a woman.
Scott’s arrest and subsequent conviction for his wife’s murder leave him with a mere 18 days before the state executes him. Amidst this dire situation, his loyal secretary, Carol Richman, affectionately known as Kansas, sets out on a mission to locate the phantom lady. Fueled by her unwavering love for Scott, she enlists the assistance of Police Inspector Burgess, the very man who initially accused Scott but now believes in his innocence. Alongside Scott’s closest friend, Jack Marlow, Carol endeavors to rescue him from an imminent death sentence.
However, in the realm of film noir, fortune seldom favors the protagonists’ plans. Will Carol be able to save Scott from his impending doom? The answer remains uncertain, as the dark and treacherous nature of this genre ensures that things never unfold as expected.
Despite receiving top billing in the film, Franchot Tone’s character, Jack Marlow, only makes his appearance halfway through the story. Nonetheless, during that era, Tone’s name carried significant weight in the cast list. Tone had previously showcased his talent in notable films of the 1930s, including “Dancing Lady” (1933), “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935), and “Dangerous” (1935), establishing himself as a prominent actor of the time.
In “Phantom Lady,” Tone portrays Scott’s closest friend, Jack Marlow, who happened to be out of the country when the murder occurred. His portrayal teeters skillfully between the realms of sanity and insanity, adding depth to the character. As Scott’s confidant, Tone’s performance is highly effective, showcasing a great chemistry with Ella Raines, who plays the role of Carol Richman. While he occasionally exhibits an exaggerated demeanor, it harmonizes well with Raines’ acting style, creating compelling interactions on-screen.
In the role of Scott’s infatuated secretary, Carol Richman, nicknamed Kansas, we have Ella Raines. While she may not have enjoyed widespread fame during that period, Raines left her mark with a total of 22 films released between 1943 and 1956. Among her notable works in 1944, three films stand out as personal favorites: “Phantom Lady,” “Tall in the Saddle” alongside John Wayne, and “The Suspect,” also directed by Robert Siodmak.
Ella Raines possesses not only striking beauty but also a remarkable ability to portray strong female characters. In “Phantom Lady,” she becomes the driving force behind everything good in the film. As Kansas, she embodies a spirited and determined woman, albeit not reaching the levels of feistiness seen in “Tall in the Saddle.” Nevertheless, she fearlessly defends Scott when all hope seems lost, willingly placing herself in harm’s way to prove his innocence.
Ella Raines’s portrayal of Kansas adds depth and vitality to the story, as she emerges as the unwavering advocate for justice amidst a cloud of doubt and suspicion. Her character’s resilience and selflessness shine through, making her an indispensable force in the quest to clear Scott’s name.
Portraying the character of Scott Henderson, the wrongly accused man of strangling his wife to death, is Alan Curtis. While not a widely renowned name, Curtis managed to build a career appearing in 55 films between 1936 and 1951. He gained recognition with his breakthrough role in the 1943 film “Flesh and Fantasy.”
In “Phantom Lady,” Curtis’s screen time is somewhat limited since his character spends a significant portion of the film in jail. Once the premise of the story is established, there isn’t much exceptional for Curtis to explore in his performance, and his role doesn’t provide ample opportunities for him to showcase his talent. However, this is not to imply that Curtis delivers a subpar performance. While any male actor of that era could have taken on the role, Curtis’s portrayal is by no means lacking in quality.
Elisha Cook, Jr., known for his talent as a character actor, delivers one of the most unforgettable scenes in the film as a nightclub drummer. In this particular sequence, he takes Kansas to an after-hours dive, showcasing his ability to maintain a powerful rhythm. The scene is charged with an overtly sexual undertone, featuring cuts between Cook’s frenzied drumming, suggestive close-ups of his crotch, and Ella’s encouragement leading to an intense and climactic moment. Such explicitness was uncommon in films of the 1940s, making it a distinct and remarkable aspect of the movie.
Thomas Gomez’s portrayal of Inspector Burgess in the film left a strong impression on me. His dynamic with Ella Raines’s character was notable, showcasing a compelling rapport between the two. However, I found Alan Curtis’s performance as Scott Henderson to be somewhat lacking. I struggled to fully believe in his character’s love for Kansas, even until the end. Nevertheless, Curtis managed to deliver a reasonably effective portrayal of a man unjustly accused, resigned to accept his predetermined fate.
Although I found enjoyment in the film, it does have a slow start. Ella’s character takes quite some time to make an appearance, and she truly becomes the highlight of the movie. Once she enters the scene, however, the film picks up its pace and becomes a thrilling ride filled with numerous twists and turns.
I do have one criticism, though. Around halfway through the film, there’s a significant reveal that, as a viewer, I had already anticipated. Unfortunately, the film spoon-feeds this revelation to the audience, which, in my opinion, weakens the overall impact. Without giving away any spoilers, I believe the second half of the film loses some of its momentum, and the ending left me somewhat unsatisfied.
Regarding the romantic aspect, I remain unconvinced of Scott’s true love for Carol. However, the majority of the film delivers a great murder-mystery experience, amplified by the presence of Ella Raines. What more could one ask for? In my rating, I would give this film 3.5 out of 5 stars, as it provides an enjoyable and entertaining experience despite its flaws.