Robert Siodmak made his first indelible mark on the film noir genre with Phantom Lady (1944).
Ella Raines gives a star-making performance as the Girl Friday to a civil engineer (Alan Curtis) who is convicted of murdering his wife, a crime he insists he didn’t commit. His only alibi is a mysterious woman who attended a musical revue with him, a woman whose name he never learned, so she turns amateur detective to find out why the witnesses are lying to police about this phantom lady’s existence. Franchot Tone takes top billing in the film as a famous sculptor and best friend of the convicted man, and he has ulterior motives when he joins the investigation.
It’s a minor masterpiece of film noir, produced on a low budget by Joan Harrison, a former Alfred Hitchcock screenwriter who developed the project from a novel by Cornell Woolrich (writing under the pseudonym William Irish). She chose Siodmak to direct, a German émigré with a knack for elevating B-movie projects with wit and style. Together they made this pulp mystery into a classic of the genre.
Even with generic studio sets, Siodmak produces superb set pieces and dynamic images (credit cinematographer Woody Bredell for some amazing lighting). Such invention would be mere flourish, however, without the solid script. Sure, it’s built on the kinds of plot contrivances common to murder mysteries of the time but it has wit and Sidmak drives it with a snappy pace. And it is centered by a strong, professional working woman brought to life by Raines.
Siomak went on to direct more film noirs than any other director, including such classics The Killers (1946), Cry of the City (1948), and Criss Cross (1949), and Harrison went on to produce Ride the Pink Horse (1947) and the landmark series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This is the film that, for all intents and purposes, launched both of those career.
Cult actor Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon) plays a drummer who takes our heroine to an underground jazz jam session on one of the standout sequences and future Oscar nominee Thomas Gomez is the no-nonsense police detective who helps out our amateur investigator. Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) and Regis Toomey costar.
Black and white
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The Blu-ray from Arrow features the 1995 British TV documentary “Cinefile: Dark and Deadly” featuring directors Robert Wise and Edward Dmytryk and cinematographer John Alton and the 1944 radio adaptation starring Raines and Curtis.