PHANTOM LADY (Robert Siodmak, 1944)

The contrived story counts for little except to erase the taint of misogynism, which at least figures into the appearance of most film noir. (Actually, The Maltese Falcon, John Huston, 1941, and Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder, 1944, ambiguate that impression.) Among the living, three female characters are associated with bedeviled civil engineer Scott Henderson, who, although framed, is about to be executed for the murder of his wife. (The identity of the murderer is so clear to us almost from the start that it becomes an issue why people in the film, such as the police, the prosecuting attorney and members of the jury, do not allow themselves to see it.) One of them, stage performer Estela Monteiro, a parody of Carmen Miranda with her ridiculous (though unique) hats, lies about seeing Henderson with a woman at the time of the murder only because vanity interferes with her telling the truth. (Three males—bartender, cabbie, drummer—also lie because they have been paid to.) Another, Carol Richman—“Kansas”—is in love with Henderson, who is her boss, and is doing everything she can to prove his innocence. Most interesting of the three is the “phantom lady” of the title, Henderson’s legitimate alibi who doesn’t come forward not because she is a femme fatale seeking his destruction but because she is secluded, under psychiatric care, in her own private world of misfortune and pain.
     Adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 novel (his first to be published under the pseudonym William Irish), Robert Siodmak’s dark, stark, frightening Phantom Lady weaves a spell with its seedy urban nightmare and shameless boo-tactics. The result is somewhat diminished by acting that ranges from poor to mediocre; only Thomas Gomez is good, as the detective who comes to believe in Henderson’s innocence.

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