Phantom Lady is a Robert Siodmak film, one of the best noir directors from the classic era. Siodmak is probably best remembered for a string of noirs made in the 40s, including the 1946 version of The Killers with Burt Lancaster and The Spiral Staircase. He started out in Germany during the last gasp of German expressionism, and was friends with Edgar G. Ulmer and Billy Wilder. All three left the country in the early 30s as things got harder in Germany, with Siodmak first moving to Paris and then to the US.
This was his first full-blown noir, an early entrant in 1944, featuring a basic noir plot. Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) and his wife are supposed to go to a stage show, but they get in a fight. He goes to a bar and picks up another woman—the mysterious “Phantom Lady” of the title, who refused to tell him anything about herself, including her name—and takes her to the show. He returns home, and finds that while he was out, she was murdered. So he has an alibi, but no evidence to back it up. He was in the bar, but no one saw him with the woman. It seems like someone may be trying to set him up.
His secretary, Carol Richman (Ella Raines), is secretly in love with him. While her boss is in prison, wrongfully convicted for the murder, she sets out to clear his name.
It’s a straightforward story, and beautifully photographed. Siodmak was one at the best at using shadow, and along with his cinematographer, Woody Bredell, it looks fantastic. Shadowy matte paintings of New York City are used to fantastic effect (see the stills below). It’s a textbook noir, where you know where things are going, but that’s OK. It has a slight gothic horror aspect, and definitely has an atmospheric feel.
One of the special features is Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, a BBC documentary from the early 90s on the history of noir. It focuses on the originals but also the neo-noirs that were showing up then, such John Dahl’s films. It ties it in with Bryan Singer’s then current film The Usual Suspects, who has since become a bit infamous, who shows up talking about how seamy and shady Hollywood is… (he would know, having been accused of multiple sexual assaults against underage boys). He’s conveniently not mentioned in the press release, no surprise there. It was made by the same team as The Reel Women on female directors that can be found on the Arrow disc for Gas Food Lodging, and the Sam Peckinpah Man of Iron feature-length documentary. Lots of the principal figures were still alive at the time, including Robert Wise and Edward Dmytryk, so it’s well worth a watch. Probably the most interesting interviewee was James Foley, whose most famous noir was the Jim Thompson adaptation After Dark, My Sweet. There’s also a radio dramatisation of the same story, a stills gallery and a booklet by Alan K. Rode.