A man with a spare ticket to a show invites a random woman to go with him. He’s been stood up, he explains and this is a geniune “shame to waste it” offer. She, wary of this stranger but distraught about something and needing distraction, half-heartedly agrees. No introductions, she insists, no names. To emphasise that this is no prelude to a pick-up, or beginning of a relationship, or anything of that sort. It’ll just be an evening of fun at a show.
And so it is. They take a cab from the bar where they met to the Chica-Boom-Boom musical revue, where the revue’s drummer gives the mystery lady the glad eye. Her hat catches the attention of the star of the show, who’s wearing an identical one.
Later, they say their farewells and the man goes home, to find his wife dead and the police already in his apartment. Where was he this evening? At a show. Who with? A woman he just met and doesn’t know. What was her name? He doesn’t know.
Things are looking bad for Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis). With no alibi, he’s in the frame for the murder. Unless he can find this mysterious woman, or someone else who can clear his name.
The police ask about, talking to the bar tender, the cab driver who took Scott and mystery lady to the show, to the drummer and the star of the show. None of them can remember her, a fact that’s enough to land Henderson in the dock and then in jail for murder.
Convinced her architect boss Henderson could not be guilty, and secretly in love with him, Scott’s right hand woman, Carol (Ella Raines), turns sleuth, and discovers there’s more to the silence around Scott’s presence (or not) at that show on that night than meets the eye.
There’s a crater-like hole in the plot set-up to Phantom Lady – whatever else they can’t do, the witnesses can and do place Scott well away from the scene of the crime at the moment it took place. However, the entire justice system carries on as if the missing mystery woman was somehow the key to the whole thing.
Treat that plot hole and the phantom lady as a necessary but otherwise trivial Hitchcock-style Maguffin. And why not – the writer of the story is Cornell Woolrich, who wrote for Alfred Hitchock (Rear Window), and the producer is Joan Harrison, who was Hitchcock’s high-powered associate on a number of his films, and would later be in charge of his hugely popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show.
To be fair to Woolrich’s plot, there is a cop, Inspector Burgess (always excellent, always underrated Thomas Gomez) who goes some way towards plugging the logical hole. He realises there’s been a rush to judgment and lends an unofficial hand to Carol as she investigates.
But really this film is less concerned with plot per se and more with a woman doing what men in films of the 1940s generally do – and doing it well. “This is a man’s job,” Carol is told at a key moment. “I can’t just sit by,” she meekly responds, though she’s anything but meek in her actions.
This was Joan Harrison’s first producer role away from Hitchcock so there may be an over-the-shoulder “Hey, Hitch, cop this,” aspect to a female protagonist sorting out the “innocent man” plot so often deployed by Hitchcock. And Ella Raines as Carol makes a feisty investigator, really getting stuck in as Carol doggedly pursues the truth.
But there’s also Franchot Tone, top billed but only turning up from about 45 minutes in, as the boss of both Carol and the beleaguered Scott, there to add a pathologically psychological slant to things. There is much talk of psychopaths in this film, and much twitching by Tone.
Robert Siodmak’s direction adds to the sense of pathological mental states – claustrophobia here, psychosis there – and he also gives us a hep-cat tour of night-time New York with visits into clubs, bars and backstage at the theatre. Racy stuff.
But literally overshadowing all these attractions is Elwood Bredell’s superb noir cinematography – deep pools of darkness, harsh slanting light, everything tightly controlled. There’s a sequence that’s a symphony of noir photographic brilliance where Carol follows the barkeep through the night-time city streets. Bredell also did The Killers for Siodmak, the film that made both Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner stars.
Ignore the plot, in other words, and bask in the offbeat textures. Fans of histrionic noir climaxes will love this one too.
Phantom Lady – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
I am an Amazon affiliate
© Steve Morrissey 2022