Finding yourself in an American cinema in 1944 would have been an experience of dynamic contrasts. If you could drag yourself away from the brightly colourful world of St. Louis and the soothing sound of Judy Garland wailing her heart out serenading a few suspiciously perfect snowmen, you might stumble into a significantly darker auditorium.
If your eyes can adjust in time you’d be treated to a world of shadows and cynicism. An inexplicably dark and yet resolutely popular portion of the American marketplace, the Noir film seemed to provoke and revel in the audiences unconscious desire for unhappy stories of sexual transgression and murder. It’s the kind of revelation that wouldn’t allow for a peaceful night’s sleep for anyone except maybe Sigmund Freud.
Someone looking for an opportunity to tap into their inner deranged killer in 1944 would have had no shortage of films to satiate their appetite for femme fatales, serial murder, smoking guns and silhouetted mystery men. In a year that included perhaps the best known noir Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), and a return to screen for iconic private eye Phillip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944), Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944) was a film that committed the cardinal sin of having nothing to do with Raymond Chandler.
The film follows Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman (Ella Raines) investigating alibis for her boss Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) for the night of his wife’s murder, the crime for which he is now incarcerated for. As the film comes to a close the hat worn by a mysterious woman quite inexplicably becomes the sole piece of evidence needed to get Scott off death row. This and other features of the film’s narrative amounts to dream like logic. It’s these trappings of problematic narrative devices and confusing (and often just plain bad) dialogue that might provoke someone revisiting Phantom Lady to dismiss it as one of Noir’s misfires.
Director Robert Siodmak however elevates this overtly B movie script to a position of masterful structural integrity producing an overall fairly unique experience. Despite being burdened with what might be dismissed as ‘un-realistic’ plotlines we have a neatly mirrored narrative of character involvement evident throughout. Opening with the woman with the hat whose absence until the point of near resolution is an essential through line, alongside the mcguffin hat itself. A structure carried across each character encountered the night of the murder, and then re-examined and disposed of by the narrative in the same order in the second half.
The neat structure is evident both narratively and visually. What on the surface appears to be a contraction of structure and story can be reconciled on a level of experience. The dynamic goes something like this: Having the plot hinge on inexplicable motives and character choices leads to for instance the strange duality of Kansas as she pretends to be a ‘hussy’ and is led by a maniacally grinning drummer into a jazz room that appears to be a permanent fixture of an alley way. The pacing of the sequence is manic as the film quickly cuts between the wide eyed drummer and the anxious Kansas. Visceral sequences like this do not advance the plot in any way but appear as isolated doses of the bizarre. They exist across a narrative that feels dream-like and illogical, and in a world that feels like it exists in a vacuum of nuts and bolts characterisation and weirdness. For instance when Scott’s friend is mentioned there’s a sense of inevitability that he will soon be appearing, and that he’ll probably turn out to be the killer. The sparse set design (due to budget limitations) furthers the almost surreal impression the film gives you.
Though the characterisation of the villain being limited to a weird obsession with the power of his hands feels underwhelming in a narrative sense, it provides some of the beautiful imagery that the film delivers consistently. This isolated and strangely watchable ‘attraction’ simply works in this dream world of the visceral and disorientating. This may not be most people’s reaction to Phantom Lady but there is material worth revisiting here.