Phantom Lady is a well-regarded film noir from 1944, and no wonder. It is the most unholy mess of a glorious movie that I think I’ve ever seen. This photo ⇒ is a clue to understanding it, by which I mean, not taking it too seriously, except as a cinematic stunt. The frame is from a brief scene — a few seconds only, as the camera pans past these two– set backstage at a wrap party. The dialogue is one line, said by the half-drunk actor, “Then Barrymore said to me, Claude, you’re the greatest Polonius of your day.” These two characters, who represent opposite ends of theater spectrum, are never seen or heard from again, and the scene has nothing whatever to do with the plot; its purpose, instead, in the guise of comic relief, is a sly poke at all things Thespian. It manages to sneak in a reference to the greatest actor of his day, John Barrymore, who was also the foremost souse of his day. The line is heard by the girl, who has probably never heard of Barrymore, or of Polonius, the wrong-headed father of Ophelia whom Hamlet refers to as a “tedious old fool” before he kills him by mistake. Buffoonery is afoot.
So is incoherence. Critics and IMDb reviewers have pointed out some of the flaws in the film, but not all. How could anyone? The plot has more holes than Legoland. Nearly every scene involves a contradiction (the alleged murderer has a best friend in one scene, no friends in another), or fickle and deceitful women (Miranda the lying songstress, Ann the lying hysteric, Payton the lying milliner), or implausible motives (why would the real murderer return to New York after he’s made a clean escape to South America?), or incredible coincidences (foiled at every turn, the heroine finally spots the name of her prey by happening to notice a label on a hatbox), or preposterous dialogue (as when the jazz drummer claims, “I’m an authority on hats”), or implausible situations (why are the characters in this murder mystery invited to wrap party for Miranda’s revue?).
There was too much incoherence, too little buffoonery, until I finally realized– or, rather, concluded– that the director, Robert Siodmak, and his D.P., Woody Bredell, had wilfully thrown verisimilitude to the wind. They focused all their considerable skills on form, and made content their bitch. Pay too much attention to the plot and you miss the point, and probably won’t like the movie. But scenes such as the near-murder on the elevated train platform are not to be dismissed, and that is the point: formally perfect filmmaking can string you out on suspense even when the plot is mashed potatoes. Continue reading