Sunday, March 25, 2012

Phantom Lady

Aavenainen / Döden kan ej vittna. US © 1944 Universal. P: Joan Harrison. D: Robert Siodmak. SC: Bernard C. Schoenfeld - based on the novel (1942) by William Irish (= Cornell Woolrich). DP: Elwood Bredell. AD: John B. Goodman, Robert Clatworthy. M dir: Hans J. Salter. Song: ”Chick-Ee-Chick” (comp. Jaques Press, lyr. Eddie Cherkose – perf. Aurora Miranda). Choreo: Lester Horton. ED: Arthur Hilton. C: Franchot Tone (Jack Marlow), Ella Raines (Carol "Kansas" Richman), Alan Curtis (Scott Henderson), Aurora Miranda (Estela Monteiro), Thomas Gomez (inspector Burgess), Fay Helm (Ann Terry), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Cliff March, drummer), Andrew Tombes (Mack the bartender), Regis Toomey (detective chewing gum), Joseph Crehan (detective Tom), Doris Lloyd (Miss Kettisha, hat designer), Virginia Brissac (Dr. Chase, Ann Terry's psychiatrist), Milburn Stone (D.A. [voice]). 2350 m / 87 min. A Universal studios print viewed at Cinema Orion (Robert Siodmak's film noir cycle), Helsinki, 25 March, 2012

There is a new kind of bite, a more personal and profound tone in this movie that launched the greatest period in Robert Siodmak's long career. There is a murder mystery but also an even more compelling dimension about alienation and disappointment. It's evident already in the meeting of the two strangers in the bar. In a medium shot we see the troubled faces of "the phantom lady" Ann Terry (Fay Helm) and Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) about to be accused of the murder of his wife. Nobody admits having seen the lady in the company of Scott who loses his alibi and gets so totally depressed that he loses his fighting spirit in death row. But his secretary Kansas never gives up, and she becomes the second phantom lady of the movie, solving the mystery against all odds: the witnesses who had at first denied having seen the phantom lady are now being eliminated one by one. The Hawksian discovery Ella Raines carries the picture. She was good with John Wayne, too, in Tall in the Saddle.

The anthology piece of the movie, the jazz cellar sequence with Elisha Cook, Jr.'s drum solo, has lost none of its power. There are memorable visual touches based on reduction. A trial scene where we see only the reactions of the audience. A subway station scene where we don't see the train. The final prison meeting where the characters are reduced to shadows. There is a continuity in the "phantom" approach of such solutions.

This is a film noir about a desperate experience, but the counterforce is Kansas, whose love and trust are unconditional and who will never give up even when the innocently accused man himself has given up hope. There is a personal sense of humour and satire in the movie, and a droll sense of vitality.

A high contrast print from a source far removed from the original camera negative. An experience visually probably more stark and graphic than intended.

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