Phantom Lady – Blu Ray Review

Weird noir/horror mashup that's not always successful, but recommended for genre lovers 3.5 Stars

Arrow Academy has released noir-meister Robert Siodmak’s very weird 1944 film adaptation of William Irish’s (Cornell Woolrich) Phantom Lady on Blu Ray.  It’s the story of a dedicated female employee’s nightmarish, mostly nocturnal, journey through war-time Manhattan to clear her handsome boss of murder.  The movie kind of plays like a grotesque variation of The Wizard of Oz with the Kansas born heroine encountering corruption, greed, perversion, and ultimately madness while being tasked with delivering a hat instead of a witch’s broomstick.  It’s something for the kiddies.

Phantom Lady (1944)
Released: 28 Jan 1944
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 87 min
Director: Robert Siodmak
Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir, Mystery
Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda
Writer(s): Bernard C. Schoenfeld (screenplay), Cornell Woolrich (based on the novel by)
Plot: A devoted secretary risks her life to try to find the elusive woman who may prove her boss didn't murder his selfish wife.
IMDB rating: 7.3
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Universal
Distributed By: Other
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 27 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Keep Case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 03/05/2019
MSRP: $39.95

The Production: 3.5/5

Jilted engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) walks into a nearly deserted pre-theater bar on a sultry summer night.  Other than the bartender, the only person in the bar is an unnamed, visibly distraught woman (Fay Helm) wearing an exotic hat.  Striking up a conversation, Henderson offers the mysterious woman his theater tickets.  She too, it appears has been stood up and declines.  At this point, Henderson nearly forces himself on the woman until she agrees to attend the theater with him.

They take a cab to the theater; the cabbie is duly noted as a typical 1940s New York character.  Nothing unusual there.  In the theater the couple, particularly the woman is noticed by and given the eye by the orchestra’s randy drummer (Elisha Cook, Jr.).  The woman is also noticed, or more importantly her hat is noticed by Estella Montiero (Aurora Miranda) the star of the show, who just so happens to be wearing the exact same hat.  Raging backstage, Estella discards the hat as if it were radioactive.

After the show Henderson returns the woman to the bar where they met; they part never exchanging names.

Henderson returns to his luxury apartment to find three mysterious men waiting in the dark.  Henderson’s wife has been murdered and the three men are cops led by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) and as naturally happens when a wife is murdered, the husband is the prime suspect.

Henderson explains to the police that it was his and his wife’s wedding anniversary and after entertaining friends, including Scott’s best friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) the couple quarreled.  Instead of celebrating with the intended night on the town and a trip to the theater, Henderson ended up in the bar where he met and attended the theater with an anonymous woman.

The trio of detectives take Henderson to all of the places he told them about.  While all of the witnesses acknowledge seeing Henderson, they all deny seeing him with the phantom lady.  Henderson’s alibi is smashed, and he is quickly convicted and sentenced to death.

When all is lost, Henderson’s girl Friday Carol Richman (Ella Raines) decides to investigate, and eventually with the help of Burgess and Marlow, sets out to clear her boss of the murder charge.

Phantom Lady is a wacky movie; all of what is described above occurs in approximately the first reel of the film.  This first section is from Henderson’s point of view and has a Kafkaesque quality to it.  When Henderson returns to the apartment and finds the three strangers it is some time before they identify themselves as police.  One would think that the police would identify themselves immediately, but there is almost a sadistic element to the game they play with Henderson.  It is creepy.

Once Henderson is arrested the movie shifts to Carol’s point of view.  The murder trial is unconventionally shot with the camera locked on Carol’s face throughout the brief trial.  The DA and judge are only heard.  Other than spectators sitting with Carol, the courthouse is never shown.  This is similar to the way John Ford shoots the trial in The Prisoner of Shark Island, with the exception being that the focus in that scene is on the face of the accused.

The script of Phantom Lady by Bernard C. Schoenfeld is also wacky.  I haven’t read the Cornell Woolrich novel that it is based on, but without revealing the killer, I will say that it is unusual.  I don’t know if the Woolrich story is structured the same as the movie, but I wonder if the filmmakers didn’t set out to make something ‘different.’  If so, they certainly succeeded in creating an unsettling atmosphere and tone, but dramatically they made a huge mistake.

I’ve read several Woolrich stories, he may be one of the most adapted fiction writers in film history, and not only in America, as his stories are also popular in Europe particularly in France.  His popularity has a reason – the stories are weirdly irresistible.  They don’t always make sense, and this often gives them a dream like quality, but I have yet to read one that wasn’t entertaining.  While the influence of writer Edgar Wallace is obvious in later produced Giallo and Krimis, I think it might be worth noting that Woolrich was also clearly inspirational.

The movie is different in that once the leading man is locked up, it is the leading lady that pursues the truth, or more specifically, the killer.  Carol is in many ways a conventional, innocent leading lady.  It is quickly established that she is not a native New Yorker but is from Kansas.  This automatically makes her an outsider.  What is not conventional is what the filmmakers put Carol through.

Carol is introduced in a sunny office arriving on a Monday morning for a routine day at the office – though I confess I do find the timeline a little sketchy.  She picks up where she left off on Friday.  But her world is quickly upturned when she learns from the morning newspaper (?!) that her boss (and secret love) has been arrested for murder.

Once committed to clearing her boss, Carol embarks on a perverse nocturnal odyssey through New York city.  The scenes of Carol stalking the bartender play like a slasher film turned upside down as the male victim is pursued relentlessly and ultimately fatally by a woman.  It’s an expertly filmed and edited sequence.  It’s almost as director Siodmak is spoofing genre conventions before they exist!

The most remembered and citied scene of the film is the one between Carol and Cliff.  This is prime Elisha Cook, Jr., as everybody knows, the ultimate patsy.  It’s a sex and alcohol (drugs?) fueled musical scene that features a not so subtle drum solo.  How they got this by the censors is beyond me.

It is later in this sequence that Carol learns that greed was the motivation for most of the witness’s false testimony.  This is foreign to the forthright and honest Carol.  What is interesting about the sequence is the sluttish role Carol assumes to bait Cliff.  It comes out of nowhere.  Though up until this point, her character is depicted in the traditional Hollywood virginal fashion, one might ask, even though she is repulsed by Cliff’s kisses, how far will Carol go with Cliff to get the truth?

Phantom Lady is an early Hollywood depiction of a psychopathic serial killer.  Interestingly, the other film from that era that leaps to mind is Shadow of a Doubt from the previous year which was made by producer Joan Harrison’s former and future boss, Alfred Hitchcock.  Harrison (Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Ride The Pink Horse, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) was an unsung trailblazer in that she was one of the rare female writer/producers in the Hollywood studio system.

Director Robert Siodmak is well known to noir fans (The Killers, Criss Cross, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Dark Mirror).  Phantom Lady is hard to categorize, but I wouldn’t argue it being called a noir, though it could easily be called a horror film like Siodmak’s visually similar Son of Dracula.

Siodmak escaped from, along with his writer brother Curt, and a group of writers and directors too numerous to list, Nazi Germany.  It isn’t coincidental that these refugees would be major contributors to what later was recognized as film noir as noir is commonly recognized as evolving visually from German Expressionism, but equally important, thematically from German politics of the era where to sane people the events occurring in the real world must have seemed like an endless and tragic nightmare movie.

Siodmak, however is unique among his contemporaries in that in the early 1950s he returned to Germany where he mostly worked the last decade and a half of his career.  I would be curious to see some of his pre and post Hollywood German work, particularly The Devil Strikes at Night, a 1957 film about a serial killer in Nazi Germany.

Though well shot and directed, Phantom Lady is let down by the script.  Writer Schoenfeld worked mostly in episodic television but did write a few features including The Dark Corner, Caged, Macao, and There’s Always Tomorrow.  The killer is revealed far too early removing most of the suspense from the second half of the film.  There is also the question of how Carol’s presence at two related deaths doesn’t seem to raise any alarms with police.  They’re more than willing to fry Henderson for a lot less.

Video: 3/5

3D Rating: NA

Arrow Academy’s transfer of Phantom Lady is something of a letdown.  It is beautifully shot by Woody Bredell.  Like the work of John Alton, it is almost a text book example of noir photography.  Unfortunately, this appears to be an older transfer and there has been little or no clean up as the print has plenty of marks, scratches, and blemishes.  That said, I have to confess that I’m still happy that it’s out.  When I worked at a revival house in the late 70s through the mid 80s there were no theatrical prints of Phantom Lady.  My only other exposure to this title was on local television in the middle of the afternoon over 35 years ago.  If I saw a 35mm print that looked like this at the time, I would have been happy as I would have been thrilled just to see it on the big screen.

Audio: 4/5

The DTS-HD Master 2.0 (mono) audio sounds fine.  Dialogue and music are clear as are the sounds of heels clicking on the pavement and other late-night sounds.

 

Special Features: 3/5

Extras are a little light for an Arrow release:

Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir – a documentary from the early 2000s featuring writers and directors discussing the genre with emphasis on later films.

A 1944 Lux Radio Theatre version of Phantom Lady with Raines and Curtis.

A gallery of stills and promotional images.

A booklet featuring an informative essay by writer Alan K. Rode

English Subtitles

 

 

Overall: 3.5/5

Phantom Lady is a mystery in more ways than one.  The first half is nearly perfect, but there is a shift at the midway point.  The movie goes off in a strange and not entirely successful direction.  But I have to confess that given the talent involved with Phantom Lady that I wonder if this wasn’t a conscious effort to fool around with genre conventions as it sometimes feels similar to the postmodern work of David Lynch.

https://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Lady-Blu-ray-Franchot-Tone/dp/B07LD4P45N/ref=sr_1_1?crid=T92A11AR2WAM&keywords=phantom+lady+arrow&qid=1556064119&s=movies-tv&sprefix=phantom+lady+a%2Cmovies-tv%2C149&sr=1-1-catcorr

Published by

Timothy Bodzioney

editor

13 Comments

  1. Regarding the source, whatever Universal has given to Indicator for this Blu, while it's entirely serviceable and well handled by the Arrow technical team, it's compeltely different to the source used for the older French Carlotta DVD from ten years ago. My review of the new Inidactor with some screeens from that and the Carlotta DVD here.
    https://filmalert101.blogspot.com/2019/03/on-blu-ray-david-hare-reveals-in-robert.html

    LIke Mr Crawford I too rate the film at the highest level Noir.

  2. Thank you for this thorough review, Timothy. As a fan of this film, my copy is in transit, so I’m grateful to also read Robert and David’s positive opinion of this transfer.

    David, your review covered a lot of technical territory about the source materials used, which I found fascinating and informative. Also, I’ve not seen Christmas Holiday before, but it’s now on my radar.

  3. I have The Glass Key (also Arrow) and am thinking about The Blue Dahlia and Phantom Lady. I was a little disappointed with the very grainy image of The Glass Key. Would anybody who has them care to comment on the relative picture quality of each.

  4. Keith Cobby

    I have The Glass Key (also Arrow) and am thinking about The Blue Dahlia and Phantom Lady. I was a little disappointed with the very grainy image of The Glass Key. Would anybody who has them care to comment on the relative picture quality of each.

    I'm no expert but I assumed that The Glass Key looks that way because it's an accurate reflection of how the film appeared on big screens when it first came out. I'd like an opinion from someone who really knows what Paramount films of that period looked like. I don't have a strong opinion about the picture quality of The Blue Dahlia but I can confirm it's a worthwhile upgrade from the DVD. I'm glad I bought both discs.

  5. As I posted elsewhere, Woolrich’s novel (as William Irish) is brilliant and much better than the screenplay derived from it. It doesn’t advertise the killer as if he was walking around with a big arrow pointing at him saying KILLER. I do enjoy the film, especially up to the point where the reveal happens.

    And, as those who read my other post are aware, the transfer is absolutely an older transfer, like most of what Universal is licensing out these days. Want to see a perfect example of that, check out The Big Fix – that’s a classic old Universal transfer and is fairly horrid.

  6. I like the movie too. I just don't think it's 'great.' It loses steam after the reveal, and I think it's mostly due to the script as the direction, acting, and photography are very good. I too like Woolrich, he in some ways feels very much of the era and yet not which gives the stories a dream like quality. I have to order a copy of the novel.

    As far as the transfer goes, it's fine and I'm glad it's out. As I wrote in the review, 30 years ago I would have been thrilled to see a 35mm print that looked like this transfer because it wasn't available. It's just that video transfers have come so far that I feel spoiled and grateful at the same time. We've seen how good these movies can look. It seems that movies have become like the rotation of an oldies radio station – there are a few dozen standards or classics that get played or issued all the time. I just fear that titles outside of that designation aren't getting new transfers anytime soon.

  7. haineshisway

    And, as those who read my other post are aware, the transfer is absolutely an older transfer, like most of what Universal is licensing out these days.

    I have the DVD set that TCM released from five years or so back which also includes THE BLUE DAHLIA & THE GLASS KEY. First of all, the visual quality of the THE BLUE DAHLIA and THE GLASS KEY were abysmal. They were so dupey that it was difficult to make out what was going on, plus there was a flurry of dirt and scratches.

    I have the Arrow Region B releases of THE BLUE DAHLIA and THE GLASS KEY. Based on the DVDs, they look like new transfers to me. There is a bit of graininess in THE GLASS KEY, but I think it's sublime compared to the way it looked on DVD. The Paramount pre-1948 holdings were I believe mostly dupes (I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong.) so there is going to be more grain simply because of the elements they are dealing with. THE BLUE DAHLIA is less grainy and smoother looking in terms of the lighting having more of that Paramount glamorous sheen, but then it's also less dark then THE GLASS KEY, which in some cases resembles German Expressionism. The cinematographer was Theodor Sparkuhl, who I believe worked at UFA in the 1920's, and he didn't use a lot of lights for some of the more suspenseful scenes, which of course will bring up more grain. But I loved every second of it.

    The PHANTOM LADY Blu may be the same transfer as the TCM DVD, but if so they did an extraordinary amount of clean-up as the DVD is littered with scratches and debris. The contrast on the DVD is very good, but there are a lot of really big vertical negative scratches that go on for entire scenes, and almost all of that is missing on the Blu.

    In particular, the scene where Ella Rains goes to visit Donald Curtis in prison, and they are in this room with one barred window that lets in this smoky light has a huge white line in the middle of the frame all the way through the entire scene on the DVD, and that is not on the Blu-Ray.

    I'm of the opinion based on comparing the DVD with the Blu in terms of negative damage that they may have done a new transfer. While there is still some minimal and fleeting damage on the Bu, it's possible whatever element was available to them had a lot of damage and disintegration. In my opinion, based on the prior DVD, I think they did an extraordinary job with this Blu-ray. Also, the contrast and black levels are, I think, just wonderful, so at last one is able to be awe-struck by Elwood Bredell's stunning and influential high contrast cinematography.

    .

  8. haineshisway

    Listen, it may not be that OLD of a transfer – and it's perfectly fine – but I don't think it's a new transfer, like brand new 2K or 4K

    Bruce. No. It's not a 2k or 4k, but I'm very happy with it.

    Also, while I love the novel, I'm very fond of this film, though as you noted above, there are major flaws in terms of the way that the script deviates from the novel which really don't make a lot of sense. However, while the screenplay may falter more or less continuously, especially in the second half, Robert Siodmak & Ellwood Bredell maintain an extraordinary high level stylistically, to the point that the deviations kind of work visually in spite of the fact that they're fairly illogical. It's impossible to defend this film on a narrative level, but I think you can stylistically. As long as I ignore what I know about the novel and just let the images flow, even though stylistically the film is kind of a mosaic of scenes of varying quality, somehow it works for me.

  9. Keith Cobby

    Thanks for your comments regarding the PQs. Ella Raines is great in all her too few films.

    Thanks, Keith. I hope my comments were helpful. I think it also has to do with expectations. Since the DVDs of the three noirs licensed from Universal by Arrow (PHANTOM LADY, THE GLASS KEY & THE BLUE DAHLIA) were so problematic, by comparison the Blus, to my eyes, look great. On the other hand, since on PHANTOM LADY there is some very minor and fleeting damage, if i was expecting it to be pristine, I would have been disappointed. My take on the PQ of PHANTOM LADY is about the same as Robert Harris', though since I was expecting a lot more damage, I was pleasantly surprised.

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