Singled out by Goebbels as a “corrupter of the German family,” Robert Siodmak fled to Paris in 1933, where he made several charming and successful comedies before escaping Nazi heat yet again in 1939, this time landing in Hollywood. His seventh film there, and first unambiguous triumph, was Phantom Lady (1944) an almost parodically distilled noir of the “persecuted sad sack” variety, based on a pseudonymous Cornell Wooldrich novel.
The naif here is engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) who offers an extra concert ticket to a stranger in a bar after his wife—who refuses both divorce and sex—declines the invitation. The mystery lady agrees, on the condition they remain anonymous throughout their date. Henderson returns home after the show to three schlubby cops who inform him that his wife has been strangled with one of his neckties. His only alibi is the nameless woman from the bar, identifiable only by her “ridiculous” flamboyant hat, which drew plenty of attention on the night in question. The trouble is, she’s gone, and the characters they both encountered that night—a bartender, a nightclub singer, a jazz drummer—don’t recall the woman at all. It’s as though she’s become a phantom lady. Henderson begins to doubt his sanity as he’s tried and convicted and sentenced to death, leaving his secretary, Carol aka “Kansas” (Ella Raines), to track down the disappeared woman and find the killer, a Randian Superman obsessed with hands.
In a genre known for its use of literal and metaphorical bars to entrap its heroes, Phantom Lady offers a hysterical surfeit of the stuff, including one incredible jailhouse sequence where Henderson, surrounded by iron-barred cells, descends a staircase with prominent bars on its railings and takes a seat on a bench with a barred back. The scene ends with a guard swinging a door into the frame, presenting yet another oppressive layer of BARS. Siodmak’s comedic intention here is ambiguous, as the scene is played mostly straight. Testament to the master’s touch that the scene works as expressionist angst as well as no less pleasurable melodramatic overkill. Less subtle is a raucous scene in which Kansas, in moll disguise, seduces a jazz drummer, a potential witness played by noir patsy par excellence, Elisha Cook Jr. In a staccato flurry of canted angles, she gives him eyes while the band plays, and his own eyes bulge wildly as he whacks his drum in an unmistakably masturbatory up-and-down strike that bests the untold thousands of popping corks designed to get audiences giggling about sex. Phantom Lady is as fun, visually stunning, creepy and perverse as any classical noir.
Phantom Lady screens on 35mm in Film Forum's The Women Behind Hitchcock series August 7, 9, 15, and 19.