"Since the trial, I've been doing a lot of thinking. The only defence Scott offered was to continually talk about a woman with a funny hat. My kid coulda done a better job of describing it. No, only a fool or an innocent man woulda stuck to that alibi. A guilty man woulda been smarter. Scott wasn't being smart, he was telling the truth."
This quote from a detective in 1944's Phantom Lady has, to me, a larger meaning. The movie's whole plot barely makes sense--in fact, it makes so little sense I'm forced to wonder if it's even meant to, if it's not simply dedicated to serving some other purpose. Maybe this is a case of a movie not being smart, but telling the truth.
Scott Henderson meets a woman in a bar one night who agrees to accompany him to a show after his wife has refused to go with him. The woman does so only on the condition of not telling Scott her name. This becomes inconvenient when Scott's wife is murdered while he's at the show and the mysterious woman becomes his alibi.
Well, you might say, surely the woman would only be part of his alibi. If the bartender, cab driver, and people at the show can remember Scott to the police, as they all do, what does it matter if Scott was with a woman or not? Yet not only do all these people mysteriously deny having seen the woman, a jury convicts Scott when this one part of his story doesn't hold up. It feels, bizarrely, more like he's being condemned for apparently making up a story about a woman than for murdering his wife.
Scott's not the film's protagonist--most of the film is told through the perspective of Carol (Ella Raines), Scott's secretary, as she independently investigates the murder in the hopes of clearing imprisoned Scott's name. Even when the detective "unofficially" joins Carol's effort, she's still clearly in charge, giving her a someone unusual position for a female character in a film of the time. Though the fact that, after joining forces with the detective, the first thing she does is disguise herself as a sort of caricature of a loose woman to seduce the drummer for the show Scott saw at the beginning of the film makes her seem a bit more like a male fantasy than a female audience avatar.
One has to presume that Scott told the police the drummer had been winking at the Phantom Lady because we don't see this directly revealed to Carol. But assuming she did learn of it, it still doesn't quite explain why Carol didn't try a subtler tact with him.
The drummer, Cliff, played by noir regular Elisha Cook, Jr. (one of Sydney Greenstreet's lovers in The Maltese Falcon), takes Carol to what appears to be a jam session where musicians randomly wander in all night. It's filled with not terribly subtle sexual imagery.
Cliff kisses Carol, after which she looks privately in a mirror as though she's struggling with a feeling of dirtiness. This is followed by a fascinating bit where she and Cliff appear to be vigorously fucking each other with his drum kit. There's really no mistaking it for anything else.
After the experience, Carol goes back to being an innocent secretary from Kansas. Meanwhile, Franchot Tone, who has top billing, finally shows up at around the film's halfway point. I've seen him in several movies, though I still mainly think of him as Joan Crawford's husband in the 1930s who appeared with her in a few of her many "shopgirl" films. I've never thought he was a particularly interesting actor, though he has the most fully formed role in this film, coming off as a really creepy mixture of Joel Grey and Chevy Chase.
The movie's plot continues to react more to a sort of dream logic than to a credible string of reasoning. This is heightened a bit by the fact that it was beautifully and spookily shot. My favourite part of the film is earlier than the jazz scene when Carol decides to shake down the bartender by showing up every night just to stare at him constantly until following him home on the train.
Already she seems oddly predatory, incongruously sexual. When we finally learn the killer's motives for killing Scott's wife, the whole movie seems borne of a mind both consumed with and mystified by women, at turns perceiving them as blankly innocent and then dangerous and sexually dominant while the men are victimised both by their desires and their misfortunes. There's no real film fatale in the movie--it's like all the walls and shadows are one big femme fatale.
Twitter Sonnet #193
Cat eye questions shoot an empty marble.
Rapid Pong games exhaust horizontals.
Old grey pixels emit a clam warble.
Frenetic butler ghosts seek free tonsils.
Indecisive lava will sometimes burn.
Dearly got numbers vanish in vapour.
Cold doors show a cat's claws little concern.
Labyrinth walls allow a mouse caper.
Short and unique monsters appear at whim.
Thimbles of milk sew a thin lactose shirt.
Hairs aren't useful growing on every limb.
All vestigial crane legs want a long skirt.
Water flies spot vertically stalking fish.
Limbo Jell-O is a really cold dish.