Saturday, 28 December 2013

PHANTOM LADY: THE NOIR FUNHOUSE

I watched Phantom Lady tonight, marvelling yet again at the way Robert Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell create a series of weird shadow-worlds, as if Manhattan were a kind of fun-house, and we're looking at it in a distorting mirror, except when we see beautifully clearly, and it becomes threatening, scary. They would work their magic again two years later on The Killers, where the noir world is starker and harsher, more fixed into what we now imagine it to be. There's a fascinating comparison to be made here too: the fatalism of Swede at the start of The Killers and in the Hemingway story is matched by the fatalism of Scott Henderson, once he's convicted of his wife's murder. He tells his loyal secretary that he can finally sleep, now that he knows his future. This is perfect noir fatalism, helped by the fact that Curtis is perfect as a noir hero, nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is, including not being able to see the perfect woman right before his eyes. In the novel by Cornell Woolrich, you come to believe that Scott may be deluded, and the woman may not exist. In The Killers, Burt Lancaster as Swede is a different sort of fatalist—he's smart enough to know he made a mistake with a woman, and he knows he has to pay for it. There's no question of delusion, just of fatalistic judgement.

The story of Phantom Lady, in case you don't recall or haven't seen it (and there will be spoilers of a sort later) is that Henderson and his wife argued, he went to bar, met an unhappy woman in a funny hat, spent the evening with her, and came home to find the cops all over his flat and his wife murdered. He needs to establish his alibi, but the woman can't be found, and the witnesses deny she was ever with him. So his secretary Carol (or 'Kansas', as Scott calls her, because she's from Topeka) goes on the search.

Between Scott's gloomy night on the town and Carol's search, we are presented with a cross between an odyssey and sideshow (when you think about it, isn't the original odyssey a bit of freak show too?). The city takes on the character of a nightmare world, and the population turns out to be seriously unbalanced. Carol stalks the bartender who served Scott and the woman, shot brilliantly at the end of the bar, staring at him. In cheap disguise, she becomes a 'hep kitten' and hooks up with drummer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who gave the woman the eye when she and Scott went to a show—Cook takes her to an after-hours jam session playing Gene Krupa hophead drums completely out of time, occasionally out of all semblance of dubbing the Krupa solo. Ella Raines is superb as Carol—not just in her disguise but in the way she hides her feelings from her boss, and the way, the first time she actually calls him 'Scott' it simply zips past him but satisfies her.

Thomas Gomez, always so threatening in noir, is good as the cop who tries to help her but the top-billing in the film went to Franchot Tone as Scott's best friend, who of course is the killer, though they try to make his entrance into a shock. The mere fact he's top-billed in such a relatively small is all the clue you need. Tone is well cast as a psychopath, because he looks more like Jiminy Cricket than a leading men, and he does overplay the twitches of his killer; it reminded me of a bigger version of Tim Robbins doing a retard in Mystic River. There's a sense, though, that Tone would have made a brilliant Cornell Woolrich, had anyone ever done a movie about him—and you could use those sleazy sets from Phantom Lady to shoot it: maybe this was Woolrich exploring the neighbourhood of his own imagination.

Watching the film though, I wondered for the first time why Raines needed to find the woman in the hat at all. In the trial montage scenes, the prosecution fixes the time of the killing at 8pm, and we know from the bartender he was in the bar at 8:05. He doesn't need the woman for an alibi. By the same template, his friend's alibi, that he was on boat sailing for Brazil at 8:30 should not have eliminated him either. I'm sure there's a reason why it doesn't just as convincing as Cook's drumming, or Tone's twitching. It doesn't matter—Phantom Lady is a film you can get lost in, at your own peril.

One other note: I watched the film on You Tube, where there's a sort of time-code bar at the bottom of the player. When Raines goes to visit Curtis, the guard tells them they can have only five minutes. It's 9:40 into the film. He comes back to tell them time's up at 11:40 into the film. No cuts or dissolves.That's only two minutes, anyway you shake it. That guard could get a job as timekeeper at the Royal Rumble.

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