“When she appeared at the dining room entrance presently, she was hatless, and he was surprised at how much the hat had been able to do for her. There was something flat about her. The light had gone out; the impact of her personality was soggy, limp. She was just some woman in black, with dark brown hair; something that blocked the background, that was all. Not homely, not pretty, not tall, not small, not chic, not dowdy… just colorless, just a common denominator of all feminine figures everywhere. A cipher. A composite. It was only in the foyer that she finally put her hat on again. And at once she came alive, she was something, somebody, again.” –Phantom Lady (1942) by Cornell Woolrich
Siodmak’s breakthrough in Hollywood, Phantom Lady (1944) would also represent one of Cornell Woolrich’s most identifying and defining writings in his homonymous novel (penned in 1942 under the pseudonym “William Irish”). Translated through an uneven screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld (co-writer of The Dark Corner and Caged), Woolrich’s story revolved around a beautiful and loyal secretary (Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman, played by Ella Raines) trying to absolve her boss of the charge of his wife’s murder brought against him. The first part of the film narrates how Scott Henderson (an engineer played by Alan Curtis) fails to reconnect with his only alibi: a mysterious lady (Ann Terry, played by Fay Helm) with whom he had spent the night after a bitter argument with his wife. The film’s explicit working title was Condemned to Hang and was released in USA on January 28, 1944 (just two months before another noir masterpiece sourced in crime fiction: Double Indemnity).
The most impressive similarity with Woolrich’s novel is the emphasis on Carol (encouraged by producer Joan Harrison, a former assistant of Hitchcock who defined herself as a ‘thwarted writer’), and her multiple transformations throughout the tense and turbulent plot. She oscillates between the dutiful stenographer (secretly in love with her boss), a vengeaful Gorgoneia and a ‘hep kitten’ floozie. Ella Raines becomes the absolute moral center, mesmerizing us and the rest of the characters with her resplendent orbs and sharp sleuthing skills. Despite not having received great appraisal at the time, Ella Raines renders the most interesting portrayal of her underrated career by becoming an unassailable noir heroine.
A remarkable departure from the novel is the dandified figure of the villain, Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), who wouldn’t appear for the first 45 minutes. Tone approached this “psychopatic intellectual” by documenting his role attending sessions with a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills. His is one of the most memorable maniacs on film, due to the exquisitely amoral performance elicited by Tone, specially harrowing during his last scene with Raines. Tone’s character feels that the sense of stable hierarchy has become increasingly exhausted in the Big City, without clear rules to abide by. This polluted urban honeycomb and their inhabitants’ scattered emotions lead Marlow to suffer migraines, nervous tics and eventually rabid madness, although he will deny suffering from any mental disorder, since he is utterly incapable of recognizing a madman when he’s looking at his reflection in the mirror.
Henderson’s wife “was not in love with anyone but herself. She was the type that likes to flirt and string people along. She let him arrange his whole future around her, knowing darn well she wasn’t going to be there to share it with him. She let him sign on for five years with this oil company in South America.” Marlow discloses to Carol his clandestine love affair with his best friend’s wife : “I never liked cities. The noise, confusion, the dirt. They hate me because I’m different from them. I don’t belong here. Neither do you. You should have never come to New York. Never met Scott. The world’s full of men like him! You can buy nice stupid people a dime a dozen! Never allowed myself to love anybody before. I was always naïve about women.”
The filthy aspects from the city’s underground are faithfully captured in the drum solo scene, brillianty delivered by Elisha Cook Jr. (Cliff), his syncopated lust for Carol/Jeannie projecting a radical antagonism to Marlow’s brainy sublimity. In the novel, Carol briefly escapes the intoxicating jazz dive: “the open air made her almost light-headed, it was so cool and rare and crystal clear after that fever chamber. She thought she’d never breathed anything so sweet and pure before. She leaned there against the side of the building, drinking it in, her cheek pressed to the wall like someone prostrated.”
Woolrich’s poetic lines (“An up and down intersection glided by beneath him like a slightly depressed asphalt stream bed”) were matched or even surpassed by Siodmak’s translucent lighting and spectral atmosphere. The coveted orange hat featuring a sequined double bird appliqué (an exclusive designed which is copied by the titular Phantom Lady) is equally transfixing in the film context as it was conjured on page, symbolizing a vain attempt to control our vagrant fates. Siodmak, who came from the Weimar cinema and had been censored in Germany for his occasionally racy mise en scène, wisely juxtaposed his masterly angled compositions (helped by cinematographer Woody Bredell) to Nietzschean paranoid ideas permeating Marlow’s speech, creating a disconcertingly frightening effect in the viewer as a result.
This is one of the most delightfully perturbing entries from Siodmak’s genial ouvre, available in DVD since last year. Highly recommended, not only for the fans of the noir genre, but also for those admirers of German expressionism and inspired literary adaptations.Powered by Sidelines