weekly inspiration #5: Phantom Lady (1944)
Phantom Lady tells a hallucinatory tale of city life, presenting New York as a cold and lonely landscape, where people are more invested in survival of the fittest inside this concrete jungle than helping fellow men.
The film presents civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who, after a heated argument with his wife, finds himself at a bar talking to a strange woman who is also very upset. Both decide to escape their everyday routine by going around town that night, without exchanging names or information about themselves. When Henderson returns home, he finds the police waiting for him already investigating the murder of his wife. He is not only wrongly accused, as he is indeed tried and incarcerated for the crime. Although he has the perfect alibi, since he had spent the night in public places with a woman who can vouch for his whereabouts, he has no way of contacting her, or even of giving police her name. When the cops try to confirm his story neither the bartender who served them, nor the cab driver who drove them, nor the drummer and dancer who made eye contact with both during a show have any recollection of this woman.
By using this plot device, noir master, director Robert Siodmak offers the question of whether the protagonist actually shared the night lights with a woman or it was all an imaginary vision offered by the illusive city to trick him. So much so, that Henderson, inside jail, starts to believe that he might actually be responsible for his wife’s murder. Luckily, his secretary, Carol Richman, played by the stunning and talented Ella Raines, who is secretly in love with him, decides to slip on the detective shoes herself.
From the moment Scott Henderson is detained by the police, the narrative follows Carol in her investigation. The audience accompanies her investigation and learns information with her when she does. However, we have the advantage of knowing the mysterious woman actually exists, for we have witnessed Henderson’s interaction with her. The suspense is created in a double layer: we fear for Carol safety during her pursue of witnesses, but we also fear that at a point Carol will no longer believe Henderson’s innocence - since she doesn’t have the piece of information the movie presented to us right at the beginning.
Although, in this psychological thriller the audience is the only legitimate witness that can vouch for the character’s whereabouts, Carol’s detective work is going to present us with the reason for nobody else being able to provide an alibi for her boss. She traces back Henderson’s steps for the night, and corners each person that supposedly saw him with the mysterious woman. She interrogates them without measuring consequences - for them or herself.
An instance of that is shown in a sequence where Carol goes on a cold pursuit on foot after the bartender who supposedly was the first to see Henderson and the mysterious woman together, as they met at the bar. The man’s statement to the police offers a version of the night in which Henderson was drinking at the bar by himself, so Carol goes after him first. She decides to make her presence noticed with the intention of scaring him. It works, for the bartender becomes paranoid by her silent specter-like presence, sitting at the counter for the whole evening, staring at him. After he closes the establishment, she is outside waiting for him, and follows him to challenge his account on the night of the murder. The emptiness of the streets is emphasized by the lack of soundtrack - the only sound heard is of their footsteps. Carol’s approaching steps add a pace of suspense to the scene that translates the bartender’s anxiety. This becomes an urban chase sequence, with the bartender finally being cornered at a train station. He goes through the ticket gate and awaits the train. Right after him, Carol walks through the gate, and both stand at the platform. They are the only two people at the station. Carol has no weapon or bad intentions towards him. Therefore, right there, the lonely scenario evokes the idea that makes them switch roles between hunter and prey. Carol’s presence was supposed to intimidate him, just as it did at the bar, but realizing there are no witnessing eyes around, the bartender slowly moves towards her. Still with no score and no line - actually with no sound at all -, Siodmak presents a sequence that clearly communicates to the viewer what’s going on inside the bartender’s head. The audience is the witness watching an idea take form in his mind: pushing Carol from the platform.
As he contemplates this action and we realize he might actually be about to perform it, the sound of a new passenger going through the ticket gate startles the three of us: Carol, bartender, and viewer. Immediately after, the loud sound of the train arriving takes over, and the dark station is field with moving lights. These suspenseful scene is composed by a succession of still and silent shots that culminate in catharsis via a procession of noises and movement through light.
This is the type of scene that Siodmak majestically orchestrates in his psychological thrillers. An artist at building atmospheric thrillers through lighting and art, Siodmak is also a skillful creator when it comes to delivering tension. He does so by carefully arranging each frame and sound, which is a mark of his elegant mise-en-scene, both in more horror oriented pictures like The Spiral Staircase (1946) to pure noir action as in The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949).
Siodmak’s storytelling is also marked by innovative image-making to convey mood and tone. In Phantom Lady, he explores the contrast of city life: the emptiness/lack of human contact versus the chaotic movement of bodies. He uses his expressive visual style to translate these opposing concepts. Most of the isolation and imprisonment is shown with the use of expressionist, noirish lighting that creates strict lines in bleak scenarios. On the other end, the nonstop movement of city life is portrayed by fast paced editing of unusual camera angles that break the geometrical pattern used for the opposing visual style.
After the bartender chase, Carol moves on to extract information from a drummer played at the concert Henderson and Phantom Lady attended on the fateful night. The musician was stationed right next to their seats and he made eye contact with both during the show. Carol picks up the drummer at the same venue and, inebriated with her flirting, he takes her to an underground jazz session.
As mentioned before, Siodmak presents two images of the same city: solitude versus vibrant night life. He does so by employing different types of camerawork. To showcase the imprisonment and enlarge lonely spaces, Siodmak uses compositions that take advantage of the geometry on certain sets aligned with static shots. Present in the production design or created by shadows through lighting, strict vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines cut through the frame. They separate characters, or immerse them in frames within frames. They seem to literally imprison the characters inside the frame, and it is a tool that is largely used to show Scott in jail:
In contrast, Siodmak uses camera movement and longer shots to represent energy. He builds chaos within the frame by adding multiple elements in layered compositions, many times exaggerating their size in the foreground. He also instates visual anarchy by resourcing to unusual angles - mostly dutch - and fluid diagonal lines (both in lighting and production design).
This camerawork infuses the noir, sophisticated narrative with innovative imagery. And it is a creative and efficient way to represent the vibrant inner circles of the big city life that Carol infiltrates herself for her detective work.
The best example of this visual representation takes place at the speakeasy Carol accompanies the drummer to, for the visual style contrasts completely with that of the chase shown through lonely streets:
Robert Siodmak’s sophisticated storytelling lies on the fact he chooses to portray suspense, ideas, and moments through imagery rather than dialogue. He allows his actors to deliver full performances using their expressions in well crafted close ups to convey characters’ intentions, emotions, and change of hearts. His ability to create atmospheric thrillers integrating the departments seamlessly to build suspense is what makes him a master in film noir. However, in my opinion, his unique employment of symbolic visuals to represent psychological thrillers with the least amount of dialogue possible is what makes Siodmak a master in filmmaking itself.
1944 is regarded as one of the best years for the noir genre, since it witnessed the release of great classics like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Otto Preminger’s Laura, and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet. Rodert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady may be an overlooked piece for the noir group, but it most certainly enters the category of classics.
Thank you for reading!
Until next week... and next inspiration!