An Examination: Phantom Lady

When thinking about textbook “film noir”, a number of movies spring to mind. Popular examples of the WWII and post-war movement are such well-remembered classics as The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. In reality, the series of films spanned almost 15 years from 1940 until its (commonly accepted) termination in 1955. Released in 1944, Phantom Lady is a striking deep cut into the movement. The film features not only stunning visuals, but also layered and striking performances. As such, Phantom Lady establishes itself as an  interesting entry into the film noir movement worthy of more love than it receives.

Phantom Lady follows Carol Richman (Ella Raines) as she struggles to clear the name and reputation of her boss (Alan Curtis), who was recently arrested after the mysterious death of his wife. With the court case beyond their control, his conviction hangs on his alibi, which unfortunately hinges on the word of a mysterious woman who they can’t seems locate. Along the way, Carol meets with a mutual friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) as Carol descends into a noir-ish environment of seedy dive-bars and jazz clubs in order to clear her friend. The film is directed by noir legend Robert Siodmak from a script by Bernard Schoenfeld.

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Phantom Lady comes from director Robert Siodmak. The German director worked prolifically throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, specializing primarily in film noir as well as thrillers. In this movie, Siodmak crafts a textbook example of perfect film noir. The post WWII film movement is defined primarily as a visual one. In fact, the picture above even graces the covers of film noir textbooks. This use of light and dark in this frame (as well as shadow) is a stunning example of what makes film noir what it is. There are a number of moments throughout the film where Siodmak (and cinematographer Woody Bredell) craft a beautiful but visually imposing frame. When examining this aesthetic, Phantom Lady is a truly impressive visual entry into film noir.

Further examinations of film noir continue to demonstrate the important role gender norms played during this movement (and at the same time in American history). Phantom Lady is a rare example of film noir subverting the movement’s common narrative structure, which held up character tropes like “The Femme Fatale” and the usually stereotypical “Good Girl”. There’s alot more to this story…

While the first act assumes the perspective of Scott (Curtis), the narrative quickly shifts to Carol. In fact, for much of the film we see things through her perspective (with only occasional interference from Marlow and Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez)). While the narrative begins by assuming the perspective of Scott, we are shown repeatedly how beaten down he is. He’s trapped. He’s passive. There’s no way this male lead is going to be the winner of his own story. As such, the narrative quickly shifts to Carol’s perspective. In his essay, “Phantom Lady, Cornell Woolwich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic”, author Tony Williams deep dives into the complicated role gender plays throughout the course of this narrative. He writes:

When Scott receives the death sentence, Carol becomes an avenging female, pursuing the barman and drummer Cliff Milburn with the power of the gaze to gain information, thus usurping a traditional male prerogative.

In a particularly interesting sequence in act three, Carol finds herself trapped inside a room with the sleeping Marlow. While we see her silent panic, she is not the damsel in distress in this moment. Rather, we see her take a very direct and active role in the scene. The camera quite literally assumes her perspective as she looks from Marlow to the weapon in his hands, and once again back to the door. This is incredibly rare in this era of Hollywood, and even rarer in film noir. As such, Phantom Lady actually stands apart from other works of film noir during this era. There’s a great deal more analysis to be drawn on this movie.

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Meanwhile, in his role as Jack Marlow, Franchot Tone takes an interesting step passed his work in Hollywood up until this point. In the last week, we’ve started the process of documenting the path of Tone’s career on this blog. Up until landing this role, Tone worked primarily in parts of the romantic and dramatic variety. Typically he played the secondary male lead opposite rough-and-tumble types like Clark Gable and Robert Taylor, as well as equally strong and powerful women like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. There were few opportunities for the charismatic actor to truly stand out.

However, in Phantom Lady, Tone takes a dramatic step away from what had been his bread and butter. He receives top billing in the role above co-stars Rains and Curtis. He comes into the film late into the second act. At first glance, he feels to be playing into his usual type. He’s sophisticated and seemingly intellectual (he is an artist after all). As the narrative continues to develop, Tone slowly spreads the wings on his character. At times, Tone absolutely steals the frame as he silently perfoms an action, completely stealing the dynamic away from the actors around. His performance feels incredibly layered, Williams continues,

…Franchot Tone’s stereotyped Mad Artist (comes) complete with delusions of grandeur, symbolic migraine headaches, and overdone hand gestures. He appears to owe more to Siodmak’s German Expressionist interests rather than the hard-boiled world of ‘40s noir.

Tone once again brings a hint of his earlier star persona to the role, making his character much more interesting. Rather than seeing a hardened criminal, viewers see Tone’s inherent vulnerability for much of the movie. This feels like an incredibly deep dive into Jack Marlow, and Tone’s layered performance allows him to stand out as more than a goonish film noir villain. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

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An examination of the 1944 feature Phantom Lady shows that this deep dive of the film noir movement is worthy of so much more love than it deserves. A beautiful example of film noir, the movie stands out through not only its interesting subversion of normally rigid gender roles, but also through a (so far!) career performance by actor Franchot Tone.

Phantom Lady is available on iTunes. Come back next week for our continuing look into the career of Franchot Tone.

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