Story and Structure
The Phantom Lady has a fairly recognisable plot, the detective works to save a wrongly accused man while the villain tries to intervene. What’s interesting about the film is that the detective in question, is a woman. Ella Raines’ character, Carol, is unique as she can assume various archetypes of femininity from the period. Her travels see her begin as the secretary, she then becomes the conventionally male detective, and through the course of which she disguises herself as a hooker. The transition to the prostitute leads us to the drumming scene, the culmination of the film’s sexuality. A very odd sequence in which the imagery of death and insanity is overbearing, and lacking any formal explanation.
Praiseworthy, perhaps, is the way in which the villain is introduced. Jack Marlow is identified as being the killer the second time we see him, which is about half way through the film. It seems an odd choice to, in a sleuth film, reveal the object of the detective’s quest before the very end. Yet, for at least a limited time, this proves to be effective as we don’t know Carol’s safety is guaranteed at any point. Indeed this dramatic irony leads to opportunities for humour which the film sorely needs.
The characters in the film hinge their investigation on the acquisition of the ‘hat’. Everyone seems to be agreed upon the fact that the finding of this hat will completely exonerate Scott Henderson. This ridiculous conceit just seems lazy, and an excuse to have more delirious characters like Kettisha. The whole plot is somewhat tainted by this fact, as I just don’t agree that the existence of the hat would have any bearing on Scott’s predicament.
The Phantom Lady is somewhat lacking in a convincingly cohesive plot. The film’s so called ‘genius’ villain Jack Marlow leaves evidence of his murdering Cliff in a cabinet in his bedroom, hardly the behaviour of a mastermind. Much of Jack’s behaviour in the film is tainted by Franchot Tone’s overacting the tortured nature of his character, manifesting itself in long takes of him obsessing over his enormous hands. These sequences seem often unprompted, Marlow merely needing to glimpse his hands in a completely unrelated setting to suddenly become crippled with intrigue. Whereas they are undoubtedly there to show the mental instability of Jack, in an effort to be creepy and unnatural, they end up just seeming silly and overplayed, which seriously damages the atmosphere of the film.
The final scene in Jack’s apartment is devoid of any real tension. The long cross cutting between Carol trying to phone for help in the bedroom, and Jack lying in the stance of a dead man on the sofa, defeats any air of suspense that has been created before that point. Along with Marlow’s hasty, unobserved suicide, this proves to be an underwhelming ending to a film which has such interesting points to praise.
Albert Hill Eldridge