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As the light fades in, the film begins with a master medium shot of a woman’s back and her feathered hat. It’s a distinguished hat, posh and well-designed, existing in the centre of the image. A concrete figure juxtaposed with a background of illusion which was created by blurry lighting and shadows. Then the camera moves behind and we are introduced to the encounter between a man called Scott Harrison (who just had a quarrel with his wife) and a sad women in the bar. They take a taxi and go out for a show. However, the men is only left with a blank name of the mysterious women. Later Scott is involved in the crime of murdering his wife while the only witness of his innocence, the women has disappeared and to be told as “unseen”. The opening 10 minutes set up a very much mysterious tone for the film and be ready to invite us into the darkness and illusion of its crime world.

 

Adopted from a pulp crime novel by Cornell Woolrich and directed by Robert Siodmak, the film is considered as a landmark in the history of film noir. Its visual spectacle deals with juxtaposition between light and shadow, harsh outlines of architecture and distinguished camera angles, which is inhabited in the influence of German expressionism.

And the expressive lighting gives its characters emotional and psychological excess, establishing a concrete vision of a crime world overwhelmed by radical darkness, danger, illusions and otherness. Certainly, this visual style responds to the film title: The Phantom Lady and raises the question: Who and where is the phantom lady with the funny hat? Is she an illusion or a concrete being?

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The most famous image in the film, and one of the most famous in the history of film noir, features a stylistic and symbolic moment between Scott and his secretary Kansas, the women who embarks on the crime solving adventure to prove his innocence. The light only comes from the window and creates a small confined space for the two characters to inhabit. The overwhelming darkness surrounds them and their shadow images both indicate danger and signify that they have been trapped in by the crime. Thus a sense of fatality is illustrated by this excessive juxtaposition of lighting and shadow. As being used by many film noir magazines and books as front cover, this image represents the very symbolic visual style of film noir and the film’s attribution to this catalogue.

 

Cassandra Qiu