PHANTOM LADY (1944)
This 1944 film with a weak title that accurately suggests the plot is based on a novel written by Cornell Woolrich published under one of his pseudonyms, William Irish. Not especially known today, Woolrich is still admired in circles that appreciate Noir novels- and in the 1940’s, he was one of the best. For those who want realistic characters and a well-defined plot, this is a film you may enjoy picking apart. For those who can settle back, buy-in, and enjoy the ride, this is a well spent hour and 27 minutes.
The movie begins in a bar. Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), obviously agitated, comes in, sits down and orders a double scotch with a water chaser from the bartender (Andrew Tombes). The only other person in the bar, a woman in an odd hat (Fay Helm) sits down beside him. She offers her two tickets to a show. She refuses, she has no one to go with. He asks her to go with him. She agrees as long as there are no names, they are just companions for the night.
They take a taxi to the club where they exchange only small talk; the hot New York weather is mentioned. At the club Cliff (Elisha Cook, Jr), the drummer notices her; she’s not interested. The Latin singer Estela (Aurora) notices the hat. Scott whispers to his companion, “She could murder you.” After the show, Scott returns his companion to Anselmo’s and tries one more time to get her name.
Scott returns home. When he turns on the light and calls out, “Marcella, I want to talk to you.” There are three men there; police detectives. They allow Scott to go into the bedroom where he sees his dead wife. Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) comes across as sympathetic but they try to pressure Scott into a confession. (The other detectives: Regis Toomey and Joseph Crehan.) All we see of Marcella is a full-length portrait. They have been married five years; the last time he saw her was 7:00; he had asked her for a divorce but she wasn’t going to give him one. She had been murdered around 8:00; strangled with one of Scott’s neck ties. He offers the woman he had been with as his alibi; he has to admit that he doesn’t know her name.
The next morning they take Scott to Anselmo’s. They get the bartender up. He recognizes Scott and the “Gloomy Gus” he had served the night before but he doesn’t remember any woman. Then they take him to the garage and question the taxi driver. He also remembers Scott but is certain there was no woman. At the theater, they question Estela; no hat like mine.
The trial is handled quickly and cleverly. Scott’s secretary Carol (Ella Raines), who he calls Kansas, is there and obviously distraught. In a Voice Over the District Attorney (Milburn Stone) mostly ridicules nameless woman alibi. He’s convicted.
Shortly after the verdict, Carol meets an exhausted Scott. He doesn’t want to appeal; he’s surrendered. He has lost faith in his own memory. Carol is convinced that he couldn’t kill anyone.
Carol goes to the bar and spends the next three days staring at the bartender. Finally, after closing, she follows the bartender to the train station. While they are alone on the platform, he comes up behind her, thinking about pushing her on to the tracks but another passenger arrives. Eventually, they end up in his neighborhood and begin to argue. Several men attempt to intervene. In the scuffle that ensues, someone in the crowd pushes the bartender into traffic.
Carol returns to her apartment and finds Burgess waiting for her. He knows about her following the bartender and he believes that Scott is innocent because a guilty man would have come up with a better story. They go to the theater where a provocatively dressed Carol gets Cliff the drummer’s attention while he’s on stage. He takes her to an after-hours jazz club that is a little too wild for her. Cliff sits in for a song and drums maniacally.
Cliff’s place turns out to be a dump; he says he spends his dough on other things. Eventually, he admits to getting $500 for saying he didn’t see “some dame.” Carol wants to know who gave him the money. He says it was some man. Carol’s purse spills. (The purse has a J on it; she claims to be Jeanie.) Cliff finds a police document that describes him. Carol runs out and calls Burgess from a Deli across the street.
While she waits, Cliff has a visitor (Franchot Tone), who we will later find out is Scott’s friend Marlow. Marlow gives a weird speech about hands, how they can be used for either good or evil. He pulls off his scarf and wraps the ends around his hands.
Carol again meets with Scott at the prison. There are 18 days left before his execution. This is the time and place where he suggests she call him Scott. He senses that she is in love and he wants to be happy for her. She tells him that she is in love with her boss; he didn’t know she had another job. As she is leaving, Scott’s friend Marlow arrives; he had been away in South America and didn’t know what had been happening.
At Marlow’s office, Carol tells him that there is only the singer, Estela Monteiro, left. And she’s leaving town, tonight is the last show. With Burgess they attend the wrap party, Carol wants to get the name of the milliner. After the party, Carol makes her way to Estela’s dressing room but everything is gone. Marlow followed her in; he turns the lights on at the dressing table. Burgess comes in and Carol leaves. There follows a conversation about murders. Burgess calls them paranoiacs. Marlow becomes defensive, tries to massage away his headache before he collapses. When he gets him up, Burgess tells Marlow to see a doctor about his dizzy spells.
Though she didn’t catch Estela at her apartment, Carol sees hat boxes from Kettisha being carried away. At Kettisha’s shop, Carol, with Marlow, sees a sketch of Estela’s hat. At first, the hat maker denies making a copy of the hat but when a man’s life is in the balance… She admits taking $50 for making a copy for a regular customer, Miss Ann Terry.
After getting the name and address, Marlow drives them to a large house in the country. Dr. Chase (Virginia Brissac) tells them that Miss Terry was removed herself from society after her fiancé died. The Doctor agrees to take Carol, alone, to see Ann. “Don’t let her get too excited.”
The doctor took Carol in; Ann is slow to respond to their presence. Finally, she agrees to talk to Carol alone. “I’ve been sick,” she admitted. This is my grandmother’s house; I’ll never marry. She doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Carol left but returned a few minutes later to find Ann looking at the hat. Carol asks if she can borrow it. Earlier, realizing that Carol was in love, Ann said, “You want to wear it for him.”
Marlow drives Carol home; so relieved, she rests her head on his shoulder. Marlow’s head is aching, he twitches. At the first store they see, Carol wants to stop and call Burgess. Marlow says that he will do that. He claims that Burgess will meet them at his apartment.
At Marlow’s apartment, Carol is happy and chatty. Silly hat- She wants to hear the real murderer sentenced as Scott was sentenced. She notices Marlow’s headaches, gets him to lay down on the couch and put a wet rag over his head. While he’s laid out, she finds the bag, Jeanie’s bag in Carol, as Jeanie, bedroom along with the police report.
Then there’s a rush of events: Marlow lying on the couch- the phone rings- Marlow lies there lifelessly. He asks her to come to him; she does. He turns off the lights; “Hurts my eyes.” People have lived here for thousands of years and they want to give…. I don’t know.
For Marlow, this is a desperate time. He wants to kill Carol. He wraps the ends of his tie around his hands. As he approaches her, Marlow makes it clear that he thinks his life is more important than anyone else’s life. But as he approaches her, Burgess breaks through the door. He has used the experiential, but everyone is impressed.