There's some level of basic cinematic verisimilitude that we never think about or notice until a film fails to meet it, and Phantom Lady fails to meet it. There's never a hint that the actors in this film believe they are actually the characters in the story, and you can't blame them. They are forced to act their way through a painful mishmash of dated styles, deal with scene-stopping directorial choices, make sense of absurd character motivations, and remain wary of sets that seem like they could collapse inward at any moment and kill everyone. If the people behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 never picked Phantom Lady as one of their objects of merciless ridicule, they really missed out -- it would be perfect for them. This is a film in which the good guys stand around and discuss their theory that the unidentified killer should be easy to unmask because all serial killers are "paranoiacs" and paranoiacs are easy to spot because they have uncontrollable mannerisms. While they are having this discussion -- I'm not making this up -- one member of the group, Franchot Tone's businessman character, actually begins squinting one eye as though it were squirted with lemon juice, and watches as his own hands involuntarily clutch into claws. If someone said this film was so bad that it was fascinating to watch, I guess I wouldn't disagree, but I seriously recommend a stiff drink first.
Based on a pulp novel, (the author jumped off the Golden Gate bridge immediately after seeing the movie) Phantom Lady was screened last week at Film Forum's B-Noir festival as part of a double feature tribute to 40s movie siren Ella Raines. (The second half of the bill was The Suspect) Raines stars in this film as Kansas, a young gal Friday for a businessman named Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) who gets himself into some serious trouble. Henderson happened to be stepping out on his wife on the night that someone burst into their apartment and murdered her. The woman he was romancing at the time was a weirdo: She was strangely quiet the whole night and walked as if in a trance. She also refused to give her name. That didn't stop Henderson from trying to get her to a motel of course, but in the end, the best he could do was take her to a bizarre Brazillian band concert. At this concert, the singer leading the band practically stomps off-stage after noticing that the nameless woman with Henderson has the same hat as her! After the concert, the woman splits from Henderson and he returns home to find detectives waiting for him with lots of questions about where he's been all night while his wife was being murdered. After telling them that he was at a Brazillian band concert with a woman whose name he didn't know, they understandably arrest him for the murder.
The film hasn't left Earth's gravity by this point; it still seems like recognizable, if exotic, film noir. In the next reel, however, everything goes kablooey. Kansas decides to retrace the steps Henderson and his mystery woman took on the night of the murder. She wants to try and get one person from that night to admit that they saw Henderson with the mystery woman; that may be proof enough to get him a new trial. In order to accomplish this, she gets "in character" in order to bamboozle these people. Don't ask me why that's necessary. When visiting the Brazillian band musicians, she acts like a complete floozy so that one of them will take her home. "I'm a hep kitten!" she purrs. She also visits the bar where Henderson and the mystery woman drank, and tries to intimidate the bartender by staring him down. For what seems like hours, she simply stares wordlessly at him from across the bar, hoping that he will eventually crack and spill his guts. I'm not even sure that, by the film's own internal logic, he would know who she is, but nevermind. And so on. Eventually Kansas hooks up with Franchot Tone, whose businessman character has to rank among the most rococo villains ever created outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Phantom Lady was directed by Robert Siodmak, a Weimar-era German director whose transition to English-language films was less successful than contemporaries like Billy Wilder. His biggest claim to fame was helming the Wilder-scripted German classic People on Sunday, which very few have seen because it hasn't been released on a home viewing format in the U.S. Knowing the director's Weimar background makes some of this film's bizarre choices a little more understandable. For example, Siodmak clearly saw Franchot Tone's over-the-top villain as an opportunity to translate some kind of Mabusian nightmare pathos to an American film -- the crazy eyes and the clawed hands -- but the transition just doesn't work in this case. The audience I saw the film with became conditioned to howl with laughter every time Franchot Tone appeared on screen. There are a million ways that film noir can be, and surely was, successfully melded with aspects of German expressionism, but none of those ways are on display here. To sum up, Roger Ebert once said that the film Mad Dog Time should be chopped into ukelele picks and those picks should be distributed to the poor. I can't think of anything better than that, so I'm saying the same thing should happen to all existing copies of Phantom Lady.