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Phantom Lady
Remind Me

Phantom Lady

Phantom Lady (1944) is a crackerjack piece of film noir that launched European expatriate director Robert Siodmak's American career. Siodmak, who honed his skills in Germany before fleeing the Nazis in 1938, utilized expressionistic filmmaking techniques (with the help of cinematographer Elwood Bredell) to vastly improve on Bernard C. Schoenfeld's pulpy script. As the director, Siodmak deserves much of the credit for successfully orchestrating Phantom Lady, but there really was a phantom lady behind the scenes. Producer Joan Harrison, who broke into the film industry under the tutelage of Alfred Hitchcock, was a fascinating character in her own right, one of the few female producers to make her mark in the male-dominated world of 1940s Hollywood.

In Phantom Lady, Alan Curtis plays Scott Henderson, a man who, as the film opens, has just had a huge argument with his wife. When he heads out to a bar to drown his sorrows, he meets a mysterious woman played by Fay Helm. The two agree not to tell reveal their names, and spend the rest of the evening together. At one point, they attend a floor show where the singer (Aurora Miranda, Carmen's sister) is wearing a rather improbable hat that exactly matches the one Helm is wearing. (Apparently, both Miranda sisters were into ridiculous headwear.)

When he returns to his home, Henderson discovers that his wife has been strangled with his own necktie. Unfortunately, he can't give the police an alibi, because he doesn't know the name of the woman who was with him at the club. Eventually, he's tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The only person who believes him is his longtime secretary, Carol "Kansas" Richman (Ella Raines.) "Kansas" then goes to great lengths - including, at one point, pretending to be a prostitute - to track down the "phantom lady" and free her boss. This all leads to some nastiness involving frame-up money and Franchot Tone. You probably won't believe a single minute of it, but won't care because it's so well done.

Initially, Harrison seemed an unlikely candidate to end up working in movies. She was born in Surrey, England, where her father was a prominent newspaper publisher. Brainy and determined from the beginning, she attended Oxford University, then the Sorbonne. After graduation, much to her well-heeled father's dismay, she became a copywriter. She then passed through a journalism phase, and - for rather obscure reasons, given her background - started doing secretarial work. Dad must have loved that one.

Luckily, Harrison's unexpected interest in typing and filing for a living led to a job as Hitchcock's personal secretary. She was already a fan of Hitch's movies, and loved crime novels, when she hooked up with him and followed him to the U.S. Eventually, she climbed the cinematic ladder and received screenwriting credit on such films as Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), and Saboteur (1942). But she was involved in many aspects of their production, a crash course that gave her all the training she needed to be a producer.

One day in Los Angeles, Harrison ran into Siodmak at a restaurant near the Universal lot. The two began talking and immediately realized that they were kindred spirits: talented, displaced Europeans who had an interest in the underbelly of life and wanted to make movies that weren't what you expected from the studio's well-oiled assembly line.

Breaking free of her mentor, Harrison soon talked Universal into letting her produce a novel that she had purchased called Phantom Lady, with Siodmak directing. This was no small accomplishment. Women seldom stood toe-to-toe with studio executives in those days, although it probably helped that Phantom Lady seemed a great deal like a Hitchcock picture. Hollywood likes nothing better than trying to duplicate past successes, and Harrison had a bona fide Hitchcock pedigree.

The resulting film was treated as a typical B-movie of the period by critics. David Lardner, of The New Yorker, wrote, "There has been a tendency in mystery movies lately to play down the detective and have the crimes solved more by accident than by deduction. If this is meant to be realism, it is of an ill-advised sort." But that's being a spoilsport. Phantom Lady was actually a profitable film and has grown in stature over the years. It's now rightfully viewed as one of the better film noirs of the period. Surely, Hitchcock must have been proud of his secretary.

Producer: Joan Harrison
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Bernard C. Schoenfeld (based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich)
Music: H.J. Salter
Cinematography: Elwood Bredell
Editing: Arthur Hilton
Art Design: John B. Goodman and Robert Clatworthy Set Design: Russell A. Gausman and Leigh Smith Costumes: Vera West and Kenneth Hopkins Principal Cast: Franchot Tone (Jack Marlow), Ella Raines (Carol "Kansas" Richman), Alan Curtis (Scott Henderson), Aurora Miranda (Estella Monteiro), Thomas Gomez (Inspector Burgess), Fay Helm (Ann Terry), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Cliff March), Regis Toomey (Detective), Joseph Crehan (Detective).
B&W-87m. Closed captioning.

by Paul Tatara