Throughout the 1944 film Phantom Lady directed by Robert Siodmak, Hollywood star Franchot Tone plays the unhinged killer that after rejection murders his best friend’s wife only to cunningly frame him for it. We witness a ruthless man that ingeniously manipulates his entourage, all the whilst falling prey to his own narcissism… and obsession with his hands.
We are introduced to Tone’s character Jack Marlow rather late in the film when we are brought out from the underworld of the jazz club scene to the apartment of drummer Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.). Thinking that we have exited the hellish, degenerate world associated to jazz at the time, we find ourselves trapped much like Cliff, in a world far darker when brought face to face with the cold-blooded murderer.
With the light shone bright on the petrified drummer backed up against the wall paralleled to the disturbingly calm and intimidating poise of Tone opposite him, a disturbing power play is staged. Though Tone may be sitting, he in no way compromises his dominance within the situation. Sitting in darkness and leading the dialogue with questions answered hesitantly by the drummer, the scene resembles that of a police interrogation that clearly establishes Tone as the authoritative figure.
The dramatic lighting as well as heavy play on chiaroscuro shadows at this point clearly demonstrate the influence of German Expressionism on Siodmak’s work, German himself and having made his directing début shortly after the movement’s peak in the 20s. Absorbed by his hands, we see Marlow obsessively staring and playing with them, reciting the many ways of “how interesting a pair of hands can be”. Laying them out in front of his dark figure, like a pianist, with a spotlight shining onto them as though they were performing on stage, these hands that become a recurring motif throughout the film are presented not only as the instruments of death but also of creation, of artistic ‘birth’ and life, offering an image all but unknown to the German movement.
The juxtaposition of madness and artist into one freakish entity reminds us of a common figure in expressionist narratives. Mimicking Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac in which the hands of pianist/murderer protagonist Orlac are a physical incarnation of the mad artist dialectic is just one of the many influences that have managed to creep into Siodmak’s frame. Think of Murnau’s classic villain Nosferatu played by appropriately named Max Schreck when approaching his victim, his shadow stealthily climbing the stairs, his hand slowly engulfing a terrified damsel in pure white gown before the scene abruptly ends on a dark and suspenseful note.
One need only replace the damsel by the petrified drummer, backed up against the wall, the shadow of Jack Marlow steadily swallowing up his prey, rising for the kill and ending the scene with a sudden cut to black. Add some deep focus, a little asymmetrical composition to Marlow’s entry into the room, and you’ve got Nosferatu in a fedora hat. Is this classic Film Noir? Defined by James Naremore as (according to standard film history) “emerging out of a synthesis of hard-boiled fiction and German Expressionism”, the Noir in this sequence appears to stem from the encounter of American pulp and a European émigré director.