The Wrong Man – Rediscovering ‘Phantom Lady’ (US 1944 – 87 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - January 25, 2016
The Wrong Man – Rediscovering ‘Phantom Lady’ (US 1944 – 87 mins)

A wonderfully dark and moody thriller, ‘Phantom Lady’ is rarely mentioned in the same sentence as other classic film-noirs. Yet, I think it’s one of the more accessible thrillers of the 1940’s, and one that holds your interest as we root for its appealing female lead to solve the central mystery.

Returning home from a date with a mysterious hat-wearing lady, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is shocked to discover the dead body of his wife. Henderson is arrested for her murder, and in need of an alibi, can find nobody who can remember seeing him with the woman. After exhausting all avenues, his devoted secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) turns amateur sleuth, prowling streets and bars, in her dogged search for Henderson’s ‘phantom lady’, who holds the key to his freedom.

Based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 novel, ‘Phantom Lady’ provided a rare lead role for its sultry female star. As the determined Carol Richman, Ella Raines is very good and I think this remains her best role in her rather short career. Alan Curtis was pretty forgettable as the wrongly imprisoned Henderson, while top-billed Franchot Tone played Henderson’s anxious best friend, although he doesn’t actually appear until nearly an hour into the movie. The supporting cast was actually more exciting, with the cult character actor Elisha Cook. Jr playing a jazz drummer, and has a memorable nightclub scene where he manically plays the drums while leering at Raines’ investigating sleuth. Reliable Thomas Gomez was the friendly inspector, and Fay Helm the shadowy phantom lady of the title.

Famed noir director Robert Siodmak incorporated some if his trademark motif’s here, such as staircases and mirrors, and certainly created an unsettling atmosphere. Siodmak had bigger success the following year when he made the superb chiller ‘The Spiral Staircase’ (’45), and then followed that with the classic flashback favourite ‘The Killers’ (’46). A big plus here is the excellent cinematography by Woody Bredell, who also photographed the fun mystery ‘Lady on a Train’ (’45) as well as Siodmak’s ‘The Killers’ (’46).

A stylish and sometimes strange B-movie, ‘Phantom Lady’ has a diverting plot that takes in smokey bars and deserted train stations. It’s not without fault though, as it’s a bit uneven and I’ve always preferred the first half of the film, as I find that it loses some of its excitement towards the end. Nevertheless, it’s worth sticking with and genre fans will find much to enjoy in this quirky and fast-paced whodunit.

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