The Emergence of Film Noir: Phantom Lady (1944)

What’s the first film noir? The Maltese Falcon (1941) is most often given that honor, but you can make a strong case for Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) and the obscure B-movie Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). The latter is the one film historians most often tag as the first “true” film noir.

Whatever its starting point, 1944 is the year when film noir emerged as a major cinematic style. (I prefer Alain Silver’s designation of film noir as a style rather than a genre.) Nobody knew the term film noir yet; it would take post-War French critics to recognize the changes in the Hollywood crime film and give it a beautiful name. But the success of several stylish psychological melodramas in 1944 created the phenomenon that would extend to the end of the next decade. Double Indemnity, Laura, and Murder, My Sweet are among the big titles of the 1944 film noir wave and were three of the movies that inspired French film critic Nino Frank to coin the term film noir two years later.

But the first film noir to reach screens in 1944 was Phantom Lady, a work from two influential figures in the style: director Robert Siodmak and writer Cornell Woolrich, author of Phantom Lady’s 1942 source novel and the most important writer of literary noir. Add Siodmak’s expressionist visuals to Woolrich’s existential urban suspense tale and you have film noir fully realized. The film’s success boosted Siodmak to A-list director status after work in programmers, and it made Woolrich into a hot property for Hollywood studios, with twenty more feature film adaptations during the classic noir cycle.

Phantom Lady is currently streaming on Criterion Channel as part of a Robert Siodmak noir trilogy with The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1948). Phantom Lady is not as accomplished as the two later films, but it was the one I wanted to rewatch first, and not just because of its prime position in noir history. Cornell Woolrich is the big draw for me, since he’s one of my favorite twentieth-century writers. I’ve made a hobby out of collecting editions of his work. Here are my different copies of Phantom Lady, including a first edition from 1942 (missing the dust jacket) under Woolrich’s pseudonym William Irish, which he used for several novels and story collections during the ‘40s.

The cover illustration on the right is by comics legend Jim Steranko, by the way.

My close relationship with Woolrich’s writing makes watching any adaptation fascinating. The novel Phantom Lady is not one of Woolrich’s best works from his main literary period, but it made for one of the better film adaptations of the ’40s. His most famous adaptation wouldn’t arrive until the 1950s, however: a movie based on the 1942 magazine story “It Had to Be Murder,” but using its reprint title, Rear Window. You’ve heard of it.

Director Robert Siodmak, like his fellow early noir craftsman Fritz Lang, was a German filmmaker who had an established career in his home country before fleeing from the Nazis and seeking work in Hollywood. His younger brother, Curt, also gained success in the US as a screenwriter (The Wolf Man) and novelist (Donovan’s Brain). In 1943, Robert Siodmak entered into a seven-year contract with Universal, and with Phantom Lady he finally got material that allowed him to show his capabilities. He was paired with cinematographer Woody Bredell, who was famed for his skill at using low light levels and shadows—i.e. the ideal visual style for noir—and continued to work with Siodmak on his other important and style-defining thrillers. 

The central conceit of Phantom Lady is undistilled noir: Engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is accused of strangling to death his socialite wife. His only alibi is a woman in an extravagant hat (Fay Helm) he met after a fight with his wife sent him wandering into the night. But Scott doesn’t know the mystery woman’s name and no one can find her. Or any trace she even exists, since nobody who witnessed him with the woman will later admit to the police that they saw her. Scott ends up with a looming date with the electric chair. His secretary, Carol Richman (Ella Raines), with the assistance of a police detective (Thomas Gomez) who feels something went awry with the case, starts hunting the witnesses through the city at night to find out if a conspiracy lurks behind the “phantom lady.”

It’s a great concept for an existential thriller: a race-against-death hunt for an elusive person whom the city has apparently swallowed up. But it requires straining credulity to work. We must believe that Scott and the Phantom Lady never exchanged names or learned anything about each other, and that nobody during the many hours they were together in public can corroborate her existence. The police focus on questioning only three witnesses and tracking down the maker of the woman’s ostentatious hat rather than numerous other methods to verify Scott’s alibi. But this is a built-in part of the noir universe that comes from Woolrich’s own literary worldview: the universe is designed against the protagonists, and both chance and criminal design block them at every turn.

Bernard C. Schoenfeld’s script follows Woolrich’s plot semi-faithfully, taking liberties in the second half. More important is its success at capturing Woolrich’s tone of helplessness and bleak fate. Siodmak’s visual style is impressive, and he knows how to make the city into a sinister trap. The scene where the police confront Scott when he comes back to his apartment to find his wife dead is filled with subtle tricks to give the sense of a man inside a closing snare. Once the murdered woman’s body is carried from the room on a stretcher (something we don’t see, only the reactions of the characters to it), three police detectives form a tight circle around Scott and push in with their insinuations to make him break.

Siodmak conveys a clear message with these visuals: circumstantial everything will ensure Scott is found guilty. The forces of the law are unfeeling and malign—we don’t even need to see the trial to know Scott’s fate. Although I’m glad we do see it, because it’s another highlight of the movie. The trial plays out on the audio track while the camera only shows the onlookers and the hand of the stenographer recording the doom of Scott Henderson. The judge, the jury, the attorneys, all the cogs of the machine sending an innocent man to the electric chair, remain hidden.

The most famous scene, one that explodes right from the pages of the book, is a dervish of a sequence that combines jazz, drugs, and sex—although it can’t overtly mention the second two. It can insinuate, and Siodmak insinuates to the full extent of the law to create a fever-dream scene among hopped-up jazz musicians performing a late-night basement jam. I’ll take a shortcut and quote Bob Porfirio’s punchy description from Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style

[…] jazz as sex sequence. Intercutting shots of Elisha Cook, Jr., reaching orgiastic fervor as he climaxes his drum solo with shots of the wordless sexual innuendos of Ella Raines. Siodmak brilliantly interweaves expressionistic decor with American idiom. If watched without sound, the scene could be from one of the classic German films of the 1920s.

Words can’t do justice to this scene or explain how much Siodmak and photographer Bredell create a heady sex hallucination. Elisha Cook Jr., an icon of noir starting with The Maltese Falcon and reaching all the way to The Killing in 1955, delivers one of his most memorable performances as the panicked hep-cat. It’s a peak point of classic noir. 

The other indelible sequence also comes direct from the novel. Carol puts psychological pressure on a bartender (Andrew Tombes), whom she suspects is hiding information about the Phantom Lady, by spending night after night staring at him from the end of the bar. She then stalks him onto the platform of an elevated train, where the solitary eeriness of the situation almost drives the bartender to push her in front of the oncoming train. The staging, lighting, use of sound effects, and the matte paintings of the station and city beyond create film noir perfection. As a Woolrich fan, it’s breathtaking to see his literary universe of suspense, isolation, desperation, and the oppressive nature of the city caught on screen in such a short space. There are better Woolrich movie adaptations ahead, but few single stretches of film capture his style and themes in such concentration. It’s hard to imagine a better blueprint for all of film noir.

The movie establishes a stronger sense of a main character than the novel, which divides the investigation duties across three different characters and reduces Carol’s importance. The movie promotes Carol to the lead: the heroine on a mission to save the man she loves. Woolrich would do something similar with his novel The Black Angel (1943), which is a better execution of ideas from Phantom Lady. (The Black Angel would also become a classic film noir in 1946, one of the best Woolrich adaptations.)

But the movie then makes the odd choice to reveal the identity of the killer only halfway into the running time, when the novel saves the reveal for the climax. The logic behind this change appears to be Hitchcockian: ratchet up the tension by giving the audience special knowledge the characters don’t possess. The problem is that the movie begins to lose its urgency once the killer becomes a featured character who has overdone “psychotic” tics that teeter into the silly. There’s nothing in the second half of Phantom Lady to match the earlier highs with the jazz jam and the train station encounter, and the fatalist gloom dissipates when viewers get a full grip on what’s happening so early.

Throwing out the mystery of the killer’s identity does allow the movie to avoid the book’s biggest problem and what holds it back from being one of Woolrich’s best works. The novel concludes with twenty pages of dense exposition about how the killer pulled off his absurd scheme to eradicate all traces of the Phantom Lady. The scheme is no less absurd in the movie, but because the killer dribbles out bits of information of his plot throughout the second half, the contrivances are less obvious and it saves viewers from enduring a five-minute lecture from a police detective at the end. I think the best, most noirish solution would be no explanation at all, which is the choice Woolrich made with Black Alibi (1942), one of his masterpieces.

Closing “For Your Edification”: Phantom Lady was the first movie produced by Joan Harrison, one of only three women executives in 1940s Hollywood. She had previously worked with Hitchcock, first in Britain, and then a co-writer of his early Hollywood films: Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942). Harrison’s subsequent producing career after Phantom Lady includes another noir classic, Ride the Pink Horse (1947) directed by Robert Montgomery. She returned to the Hitchcock fold as a producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1958, she married thriller author Eric Ambler (The Mask of Dimitrios and Journey Into Fear), which seems appropriate considering her career in suspense.