Search

Reel Encounters

Film and TV Criticism

UnBound by Lisa Mosse

boound-movie-poster1

 

The Wachowskis directorial début, neo-noir thriller Bound (1996), could not have come at a better time. Released mid-90s at the height of the erotic thriller, Bound adds a twist to the heavily sexualized takes on film noir: lesbians. And these lesbians are not secondary roles nor their sexuality a dark, erotic twist to their characters. They are the protagonists whose sexuality does not define the plot in any way, but rather is carefully and naturally woven into the fabric of the narrative. The Wachowskis cleverly use this popular genre to both highlight and subvert the stereotypes of lesbian sexuality so easily exploited by their contemporaries.

 

At the center of Bound we find Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon), femme fatale and butch lesbian entangled in a steamy romance and a heist plan gone wrong. Fallen for each other with the desire to free themselves from the lives they are bound to, prostitute Violet and ex-con Corky devise a plan to rob Violet’s Mafioso boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). A suitcase of 2 million dollars that sits on Caesar’s desk waiting to be picked up by mob boss Marzzone and son (Richard C. Sarafian and Christopher Meloni) is the prize: so begins a classic cat-and-mouse game between the odd love triangle.

 

Throughout the film we are lead through a landscape of highly stylized stereotypes that we cannot help but laugh at. We ask ourselves of the early exchanges between Violet and Corky that are overflowing with not so subtle sexual innuendos – is this supposed to be a ‘real’ movie or soft porn? But what Bound ultimately achieves is to make use of film noir with humor in order to subvert the many stereotypes it upholds, particularly with regard to female homosexuality.

 

In a pair of back to back love scenes we are introduced to two alternative perspectives of lesbian intercourse. Both are embedded in the narrative early on in the film, marking the erotic interaction between the two women as central to the plot. As consecutive scenes, they act as mirrors to each other and beg for comparison. The first offers an exchange shrouded with mystery, innuendos, and symbols; it relies heavily on stereotypes to convey a fantasized image of the encounter. The second strips the two characters bare (literally) of stereotypes, and does not leave it up to fantasy for us to visualize their intimacy.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-19-45-53

 

In the first, Corky is called to Violet’s apartment to recuperate the earring she “accidentally” dropped down the drain. What follows is a long sequence of witty and flirtatious exchanges that draw out the intensifying sexual tension in the room until it can no longer be contained solely by dialogue or imagination. Corky is depicted as the typical butch lesbian through the masculine loose clothing she wears, her traditionally masculine job as plumber that makes her both economically independent and marks her out as belonging to the working class, her somewhat James Dean-y attitude and of course her labrys tattoo through which she clearly identifies as lesbian. Violet on the other hand inhabits the femme role; her high-pitched husky voice that delivers her flirtatious lines seems excessive and laughable, but not unintentionally so. When asked what she would like to drink, Corky says “Beer.” Violet responds, “Beer, of course.” What else could a butch lesbian want other than the classic male worker’s drink? In this clever exchange the Wachowskis exemplify a self-aware use of stereotypes that we are supposed to laugh at because they are ridiculous. The comic relief we are given at this point follows throughout the rest of the sequence, particularly when they are interrupted by Caesar walking into the apartment.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-19-45-57

 

Caesar interrupts the scene at precisely the moment where the growing sexual tension explodes into physical expression. Like in classic film noir, we are left with our own fantasy of what could have happened to satisfy our spectatorship. We are allowed to imagine, but not to see. This same paradigm is shown to be what restricts lesbian relationships to the realm of fantasy within visual media. The very shift from fantasy to reality (when the two women actually engage in intercourse) is interrupted by no other than a man that reasserts his authority through his mere presence between the two. The problem that ensues is the creation of a void regarding authentic visual representations of lesbian intimacy, and thus no way of dismantling the detrimental stereotypes that surround them.

 

 

Violet: I’m not apologizing for what I did. I’m apologizing for what I didn’t do.

 

 

After the interruption, Violet rushes after Corky into her pick-up truck to deliver this key seductive line that links the two love scenes together. What Violet apologizes for not doing is exactly what cinema has not done: gone through with it. In the scene that follows, the Wachowskis fill in the void of lesbian representation by offering an explicit visualization thereof. A scene without dialogue or stereotypical markers, this scene is in every way unlike the first. It is not a laughable accumulation of clichés but rather an innovatively realistic approach made to highlight the inaccuracies of the latter.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-19-46-02

 

 

 

The first thing to call our attention is the reversal of active/passive roles within the physical exchange. Whereas Violet is depicted as stereotypically femme and therefore passive in the first scene, she is now clearly portrayed as an active figure within the intercourse. She is the first one of the two that we recognize, lying on top of Corky, her hand later shown to be the instrument of pleasure. Corky on the other hand, naked and stripped of the visual elements that would allow us to categorize her as butch, is as feminine as it gets. The choice of Gina Gershon, a sexy feminine icon, to play Corky now makes sense as it allows for butch stereotypes to be challenged. Where the first scene made use of classic editing and montage techniques to cut up the scene’s different shots, the second makes use of a continuous circular long-take that pans fully around the couple. The scene therefore flows naturally and beautifully, uninterrupted by both classical Hollywood editing and uninvited male gaze.

 

In watching this Wachowskis masterpiece, we become aware of how bound we are to stereotypes in much the same way than the characters are. It becomes difficult to imagine alternative realities without visual examples to represent them. In Bound, this lacuna of representation is responded to by offering a humorous dismantling of stereotypes through the juxtaposition of these two wonderfully crafted love scenes.

 

Lisa Mosse

 

 

WALKING IN THE DARKNESS—A SAMURAI’S POETRY by Cassandra Qiu

There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s

Unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle

samourai13

A great film invites a conversation between the audiences and the film itself. A great criminal story asks audiences to imagine a murder and a murderer. Jean-Pierre Melville is doing something better than that by holding back those conversation and that work of imagination. By alienating us from his murderer, the samurai, Melville refuses any explicit emotional attachment and sentimental judgment. The impassive, cold samurai, with his elegant white gloves, remains as a poet holding the gun, falling to his own heroic death at the end.

samourai5

samourai10

Jef Costello (Alain Delon), is probably too handsome, or precisely pretty, and elegant as a professional killer for hire. As a man walks in the shadow of the night street, lingers around the lethal and potent French underworld, Costello is designed and performed as a beautiful figure too perfect by every inch of his skin. Consider the straight black suit covered by a well-organized pale trench coat, the absolute flatness at the brim of his fedora, which is neatened every time when he puts it on, his calm, cold, blue eyes that pierce straight through the screen, and his rigid manner sorting out the keys one by one, the bright white gloves he carefully wears, the tightly holding hands for 48 hours in the police, and his constant silence: our killer seems to be totally indulged in his own enigmatic and alienated world, in the untouchable solitude of a samurai. Just as film critic David Thomson once describe him: “a beautiful destructive angel of the dark street”.

samourai4

Perhaps we don’t necessarily need to understand his world, but we are certainly manipulated to like him, as Melville masters our feelings and questions. Throughout the film, Costello hardly bares any emotions and  offers little dialogue, thus going beyond our imagination and hindering conversation, which results in our endless curiosity and interest towards this attractive and charming killer.

samourai8

The storyline is pretty simple and straightforward. It does not confuse us as much as the impassive romanticism between the two women and Costello, and the intricate but alienated feelings inside our killer. As a professional killer for hire, Costello shoots a man to death in the bar, witnessed by a pianist Valerie (Cathy Rosier) passing by the door. An investigating officer (François Perier) considers him  the prime suspect. However, he is proved innocent through the support of an alibi provided by Jane (Nathalie Delon), a woman who claims to be Costello’s fiancé. Free from detention, he is later under continuous surveillance and tracked by the cops, even as he is betrayed by the men who provided the police with his alibi. They then try to kill him, which drives him on the way of revenge.

samourai3

Melville is definitely a master of storytelling. The lack of lengthy dialogue, use of silent moment, detailed and rhythmic character actions, unsettling music and fluid camerawork perfectly illustrated what Alfred Hitchcock refers as using the images to tell a story rather than showing images of people talking. Looking into the excellent  sequence where he gets a gun from the mechanic, atmospheric suspense and character traits are built up spontaneously by pure action, performance and cinematography. After driving down to a narrow pathway in an outskirt area out of nowhere and wheeling into a garbage, Costello simply gets out of the stolen car and watches the mechanic changing the license plate. Without any dialogue, he reaches his hand for the request, with a sudden cut to a close up and rising unsettling score. Exchanging the money and gun, he leaves with the car. Everything is simple and straightforward. The whole sequence is presented as the essence of banality and silence. But the dramatic information and suspension are concealed in Costello’s minimal gesture and cold glance, in the smoke, in the gun, in the shadow, and ultimately, in the mind of spectators.

The films flows as smoothly as poetry, as pieces of beautiful images coherently building up a world of fantasy and dream. As Melville says: ‘I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.” Obsessed with a passive and gloomy color scheme: grey, blue, white and black, Melville’s images are as beautifully constructed as pieces of paintings in the shadow of a nourish, expressionist lighting. The camera lingers around the city, the night streets, the underground, the bar, and Costello’s drab hotel room. And we, the spectator are drawn into an obsession with the perfect killer, linger around a fantastic art gallery in the heart of French underworld.

samourai9

samourai7

samourai2.png

samourai6

samourai11samourai12.jpg

If you’re observant, Melville offers us hints  right at the very beginning. The spiraling smoke catches our attention in the darkness, with titles turning up and disappearing in the mist of the still image. Before approaching our solitary samurai, the camera suddenly shakes and blurs the images, creating a dizzy and disorientated effect. It is probably an invitation for the spectators to enter Melville’s fantasy, and the dream of a samurai.

samourai1.png

The most romantic and fantastic moment of the film, is probably the eye exchange between Costello and the pianist in their first encounter, as they see each other as their cars pass in the rain. As the camera zooms in to Valerie (Cathy Rosier)’s window, her glance at that beautiful face of coldness and determination means everything. Perhaps she doesn’t love him. But at the moment, when the rain washes off the window, revealing Costello’s cold glance into the screen, we may fall in love with him, a solitary samurai as beautiful as a poetry.

Cassandra Qiu

Introduction: Dossier No. 2 — The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1956)

the-killing-kubrick

 

This week, the focus is on Kubrick’s The Killing. We highlight four different takes on the classic film:  Gopi Selvaseelan’s appreciation focuses on the dark humour in the film and how it inflects the different strands of narrative in The Killing. Lauren Nwenwu’s piece distinguishes itself by integrating image capture as part of the argument. It’s no mere illustration, it’s evidence for her argument on the combination of gentleness, violence and morality in the film, as seen through its use of noir devices and with a particular focus on the racetrack scenes. Liam Smith asks, ‘Is it not so that the interaction between the horse that sprints with all its strength spurred on by the jockey that rides it, resembles the very interplay that we see between the femme fatale and the entranced male ? The sexual instinct as raw energy surges forward running blind like the horse, towards the femme fatale who harnesses like the jockey, it’s impulse and behaviour, controlling it, teaching it how to desire.’ You’ll want to know the answer. Finally, Anne Amarawansa highlights the film’s fascinating deployment of the inter-connections between time and narrative. Four different perspectives that are bound to enhance the appreciation and enjoyment of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.

 

José Arroyo

Editorial collective and copy-editing: Daedyn Appleton, Albert Hill-Eldridge, Lisa Mosse, Cassandra Qiu.

Picture Editing:Ann Amarwansa, Lauren Nwenwu, Gopi Selvaseelan, Liam Smith.

 

 

 

The Killing: “Gang aft agley” by Gopi Selvaseelan

Recent repeated viewings of Stanley Kubrick films have left me with the impression that he may in fact be one of the subtlest comedic directors, his films laced with moments of dark humour. The doubt of whether this may have been due to the sheer number of times I had watched these films was put to rest with my first viewing of one of his earlier films ‘The Killing’ (1956).

The plot revolves around Johnny Clay, played by Sterling Hayden, a criminal hoping to hit the jackpot and settle down. He assembles a group of men hoping to perform an immaculately timed heist at a horse racing track. Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail is explicitly evident within the plot itself, as he uses a narrator to aid the viewer in mapping out the whereabouts and actions of each member of the gang at specific times throughout the course of the day. Each of these perfectly executed moves are countered by acts of fate that bring about the gang’s downfall. Pressure is built up throughout each of these individual strands of narrative as the audience watch the events of the heist unravel, however these lead to ironic conclusions for each story.

Nikki Arane, played by Timothy Carey, is hired to shoot the favourite horse as a distraction. However, in an attempt at a getaway, his tyre is punctured by a horseshoe brought to him for luck. This conclusion to the Nikki narrative is shown to the audience in a comically simple shot, which serves as a punchline.gopi 1.png

The protagonist of the story, Johnny Clay, acts as the mastermind behind the entire scheme. His character seems to be cool under pressure and for the most part makes quick and intelligent decisions. However, in the finale of the film, a disobedient dog becomes the embodiment of his comeuppance who reveals the stash of money stowed in his suitcase during his attempt at a getaway. The shots of the thousands of dollar notes flying on the airport runway juxtaposed with a defeated Johnny evokes nervous laughter due to the amount of stress experienced during the first two acts of the film, and watching his hard work escape him so nonchalantly.

gopi2

Kubrick also manages to flip this formula within the film by reversing the setup and punchline within the relationship between George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr) and Sherry (Marie Windsor). George is obviously the weakest link in the gang who cannot help but blabber to his wife about all their plans. Following his wife’s betrayal which ends in a hilarious shootout sequence, George returns to his home and fatally shoots Sherry, leaving a chirping parrot in the room as the sole survivor. Kubrick manages to twist this narrative from one of humour at George’s inept nature and Sherry’s lack of respect for her husband to an intense, short scene of harrowing uxoricide. The shots of George’s blood spattered face speaking dazedly to his wife seem to be pulled right out of a horror film, and can be seen as a glimmer of the surreal seen in Kubrick’s later films.

Gopi Salvaseelan

A Menagerie of Murder: The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) Review – Lauren Nwenwu

Kubrick’s The Killing[1] piques our interest with its gradual reveal of the cyclically layered plot, opening at the racecourse – the location which is revisited from a series of perspectives, and where the criminal heist is yet to be pulled off by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and his gang of crooked inside men. However it sustains our intrigue with the “notion of master plans undone by human fallibility”[2] which occurs catalytically with recurrent motifs that give us clues to precede the fatal failings in the meticulous plan. The presence of animals in particular underlines each event with tangible dramatic irony.

 

Take Nikki’s (Timothy Carey) introduction for instance, visited at his farm by Johnny and displaying his hitman talents, only to swap a rifle for a border collie puppy when discussing his terms for hire. This rapid juxtaoposition of violence and gentleness encodes a sense of Nikki’s flawed morality, and an imbalance to be corrected the only way a Noir knows how: with his death.[3] Kubrick here signals a poetic justice for Red Lightning, the racehorse Nikki shoots in order to distract he public from the heist, as it is a horse shoe (a common enough symbol of good luck, intended as a gift by the black attendant he racially abuses in order to stay on schedule) that punctures his tire and prevents him from escaping being fired at. It acts as an eerie equalizer of fate – a representative phantom remnant of Red Lightning.


There’s something darkly comical in the gradual decay of Johnny’s plan in The Killing being twinned with the recurring animal images, which enhances Kubrick’s thematic concerns of chance, flawed humanity, and instinct. It only aids in shifting the tonal progression of the film, from assumed planned perfection to the haywire helplessness of it’s ending.

 

figure-5-sherrys-marie-windsor-parrot-gets-in-the-last-word-after-the-femme-fatale-meets-her-end-at-the-hands-of-her-husband-george-elisha-c

Figure 5 Sherry’s (Marie Windsor) Parrot gets in the last word after the femme fatale meets her end at the hands of her husband George (Elisha Cook Jnr.)

Most comical of all is Sebastian the runaway poodle, seen moments before the film’s close in a cringe-worthy scene where his elderly owner smothers him with baby-talk, but then later makes a dash for freedom across the airport runway. The humorous nature of the sequence is paired with the seriousness of the failure of Johnny’s own attempted escape with the money and girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray) – as it is the dog that causes the baggage driver to swerve and send the loot pouring onto the asphalt. It reiterates Kubrick’s point on a ‘master plan undone’ by ‘human infallibility’ and a case of plain bad luck.

Kubrick’s dramatic irony enhances the labyrinthine plot and temporal structure of the film, as the pre-laid tension of these instances which we almost don’t realise exist until the last tragic second cerebrally marker the meaningless of Johnny’s plan, it’s doom being re-woven in each reiteration of the heist.

figure-8-sebastian-is-free
Figure 8: Sebastian is free

Lauren Nwenwu

 

[1]Adapted from Lionel White’s novel Clean Break

[2] The Guardian, The Killing review – Philip French on Stanley Kubrick’s influential breakthrough movie, Sunday 1 March 2015 08.00 GMT

[3] A common system of restoring narrative equilibrium in film noir being the fatal punishing of taboo practices through the guilty character’s death, in this case, the slaughter of an animal.

‘The beast a’runnin and the gambler a’bettin: The Killing as Film Noir’ by Liam Smith

“Cause everybody knows, the things she does to please, she’s just a little tease, She’s a femme fatale. Ooh ooh oh” (The Velvet Underground).

The Femme Fatale, almost like the fallen woman but more sexual vampire, either hardened or defeated by experience emerges from social repression with left hand gripping her vanity and a faint smirk on a shadowed face – just enough to consume the man’s imagination leaving him completely vulnerable, a victim. And for what ? The sake of money, revenge, jouissance, hope, destruction, just because she could ? Whatever narrative situation surrounds the femme fatale in cinema, one thing to be sure of is how simply the enigma of her desire is one of the major forces that shroud the experience of a film noir with such mystery and fog. She is not completely to blame however – it takes two to tango; the femme fatale would not be so fatal without the complicity of a man reduced to almost infantile dependency on her every spoken word.

Screen Shot 2016-10-18 at 22.16.25.png

Stanley Kubrick’s momentary excursion into the world of film noir with The Killing, expresses quite a distinct exploration of this ‘battle of desire’ and stages it rather profoundly at the site of an addiction: the racecourse. Is it not so that the interaction between the horse that sprints with all its strength spurred on by the jockey that rides it, resembles the very interplay that we see between the femme fatale and the entranced male ? The sexual instinct as raw energy surges forward running blind like the horse, towards the femme fatale who harnesses like the jockey, it’s impulse and behaviour, controlling it, teaching it how to desire. And of course we have the crowd, the spectators watching this interplay of forces, staking their bets and hoping for the big win ! Sounds almost like commodity fetishism ..

Screen Shot 2016-10-18 at 23.28.10.png

Speaking of fetish, the relationship between George Peatty and his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) in The Killing ironically reflects this metaphor of desire as George with all his poor animal instincts raging, is simply overruled by the enigma of his wife’s desire yet cannot bear the weight of her promiscuity in reality, so allows himself to be psychological tormented. He succumbs to the fantasy in that we as humans, when confronted with a reality that hides beneath our own psychoses and dreams, know very well what exists there but nonetheless would much rather continue believing in our delusions anyhow ! As for the Femme Fatale herself, it is poignant that Kubrick presents Sherry as being also ensnared in the same trap as she stakes her own chances for the money in order to satisfy a purpose for the man she cheats with. If anything Kubrick’s treatment of fantasy and seduction (homogeneous to other noir films), is allegorical in its depiction of the racecourse as resembling our most human tendency to refuse rationality and, being over-ruled by desire, take bets on romance, heist plans, silly horses, and hope we win !

Screen Shot 2016-10-18 at 23.31.12.pngSo why would a racecourse be Kubrick’s choice of setting for this heist ? The question may also be asked what makes us as humans so dissatisfied with our lot, marriages and money and sex, that we would be willing to risk it all for the chance of something more ? Whatever the answer, Kubrick’s message is clear: the beast keeps running, and all we can do is weigh our chances and hope for the best.

 

Liam Smith

 

‘The Killing (1956): Sherry Peatty, A Dame to Kill For’ by Ann Amarawansa

Considered to be “his first mature feature”, The Killing (1956) came to define Kubrick’s distinctive cinematic voice. The 27 year-old Kubrick was drawn to the crime novel Clean Break, written by Pulp novelist Lionel White. The novel tells a story about an ingenious scheme to rob a race track, which would become the backbone of Kubrick’s The Killing.

 

The Killing infuses the moral ambiguities of noir with the thrill-seeking atmosphere of the race track, keeping the viewer clinging to the edge of their seat. The narrative of the film is punctuated with a detached and documentary-style narration, which consistently transports the audience back and forth through the plot. The film has a delineated narrative, which disrupts the typical step by step scheming found in heist films. This distortion of time provides us with glimpses of each of the character’s individual arcs. Though the shifting timeline and disruption of the flow of events may have a jarring effect, the film retains its audience’s attention and interest through its rich atmosphere and wry dialogue.

killing1

The story follows an unlikely group of individuals brought together by veteran criminal, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hay) in attempts to rob the Los Angeles race track. Each of the men venture on this risky job with the belief that the stolen riches will open up opportunities that were previously unattainable. Johnny needs the money so that he can run away with his innocent lover, Fay (Coleen Gray), corrupted police officer Randy (Ted DeCorsia) wants to pay off a malicious loan shark, book keeper Mike (Joe Sawyer) wishes to take care of his sick wife and bartender Marvin (Jay C. Flippen) hopes to maintain an odd paternal relationship with Johnny. The final addition to this ensemble is the weak-minded clerk, George Peatty (Elisha Cook). He naively partakes in the heist with the belief that the money will salvage his withering marriage and satisfy his harpy wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor). The interactions between George and Sherry Peatty were the most entertaining within Kubrick’s puzzling heist. They are the only two characters which transcend the main narrative of the robbery.

the-killing-1956-4

 

 

Ann Amarawansa

 

Introduction: Mini Dossier on The Phantom Lady

Introduction: Mini Dossier on The Phantom Lady

screen-shot-2013-08-17-at-10-40-24

We are proud to present four different perspectives on one landmark film, Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1944). ‘If you could drag yourself away from the brightly colourful world of Meet Me 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’ says Daedyn Appleton in The Elusive Phantom Lady. Cassandra Qiu in a ‘A Visual Palace of Light and Shadow’ demonstrates how, ‘the film is considered as a landmark in the history of film noir’. Lisa Mosse in Phantom Lady, Pulp and Emigrés develops this and shows that one of the reasons why is the film’s debt to German Expressionism. Lastly, Albert Hill-Eldridge argues that there are holes in the plot whilst pointing out the importance of the detective in the film being a woman.

 

Editors: Alice Hone and José Arroyo

Copy Editors: Anna Amarawansa, Daedyn Appleton, Alexander Archbold-Jones, Natasha Bowen, Joe Curry, Lawrence Deighan, Bertie Hill-Eldridge, Alice Hone,Amira Mitchell, Lisa Mosse, Lauren Nwenwu, Cassandra Qiu

Images: Lisa Mosse, Cassandra Qiu, José Arroyo

The elusive Phantom Lady By Daedyn Appleton

Screen Shot 2013-08-17 at 10.00.23.png

 

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.

Screen Shot 2013-08-17 at 11.12.51.pngSomeone 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.

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 11.26.24.pngThe 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.

Screen Shot 2013-08-17 at 09.52.24.png

Daedyn Appleton

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑