The Franchot Tone Blogathon: Phantom Lady (1944)

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Hi, everyone! I’m so happy to be back with what will likely be my last post for the month. Today I’ll be celebrating one of the most underrated actors in classic film, Franchot Tone! As always, I’d like to start off by thanking the gracious host of this blogathon, Finding Franchot, for dedicating an entire blog to celebrating such an iconic person and giving us all something really great to write about. I wish your first blogathon all the success possible, and I hope that it could become an annual one in the future! Without further ado, on with the post!

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An original theatrical poster for Phantom Lady (1944).

The first half or so of Phantom Lady (1944) follows engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who prior to the events of the film had an argument with his wife Marcella when she turned down the opportunity to go to the theater with him. Despondent that his marriage isn’t working out, he heads to the nearest bar, where he befriends a mysterious woman wearing a daring black hat. The two decide to go to the theater instead, where they have a fun time despite getting stared at by the skirt-chasing drummer of the show’s band (played by the iconic supporting noir actor Elisha Cook, Jr.), and despite the star of the show Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda, whom I found out was the sister of Carmen Miranda) becoming infuriated with the woman for wearing the same hat as she was. Scott and the nameless woman part ways, and upon reentering his home, he discovers that his wife Marcella has been strangled to death by one of her husband’s neckties and suddenly he’s being questioned by a mob of detectives. Though it’s obvious that he is innocent of the murder from the start, he is unable to cough up an alibi that suits the police. The next day is spent with Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) as the two of them attempt to retrace his steps from the night before. The bartender, the taxi driver who took Scott and the phantom lady to the theater, and Estela Monteiro all claim to have seen Scott, but not the woman that he was with, while Scott himself can hardly remember what she looked like. Due to circumstantial evidence, a judge and jury rule Scott guilty of Marcella’s murder and sentence him to death row.

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Director Robert Siodmak, Ella Raines, and Franchot Tone on the set of Phantom Lady (1944).

Scott’s faithful and lovestruck secretary of fifteen years Carol (Ella Raines) remains by his side throughout the trial, and when he informs her that he has only eighteen days left before he is executed, Carol begins to conduct an investigation of her own. She starts by essentially stalking the bartender, occupying the same booth at the bar night after night for weeks before one day attempting to follow him home. It appears that she has terrified him to the point of attempted murder, as we see him almost push her onto the tracks of the train that they are both waiting for, yet his plan is foiled by the appearance of another passenger. Finally he confronts Carol as she continues to follow him, questioning her motives and attempting to get physically violent with her before strangers interfere and restrain the man. Terrified once again, he runs out into the street and is run over. After the bartender’s death Carol finally gets some help with her investigation in the form of Inspector Burgess, who originally conducted the investigation against Scott, but now Burgess too feels that he is innocent. Carol and the inspector move onto the next witness, the drummer at the show named Cliff, who they plan to get talking by having Carol disguise herself as a trashy dame named Jeannie hoping to earn his affection. The plan works, and after a few drinks and some incredibly impressive drumming that’s said to have been dubbed in by Buddy Rich, one of the most famous jazz drummers of all time, Cliff reveals that he was paid $500 to say that he had never seen the lady that Scott was with that night. Soon afterwards the rest of Carol’s plan is foiled when Cliff finds a police file on him in “Jeannie’s” purse that was undoubtedly supplied by Inspector Burgess, and Carol flees Cliff’s apartment.

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Ella Raines and Franchot Tone in a publicity still for Phantom Lady (1944).

After she leaves, the real murderer is revealed. We find out that Scott’s best friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) was the one who really killed Marcella with Scott’s necktie, and due to Cliff’s loose lips about being paid off Jack strangles him in the same fashion. Soon Jack himself joins Carol and the inspector’s investigation in order to derail it and kill everyone who can help clear Scott’s name, but will the truth be revealed in the end? The most interesting part about this plot is that Jack is revealed to be the true killer about halfway into the film, unlike most mysteries and noirs that save that juicy tidbit for the end. The choice that Phantom Lady (1944) made added some much needed suspense to the film, and every time you see Carol or the inspector on the right track or Jack closing in on them, you really feel like you’re at the edge of your seat and the question is no longer who the killer is, but when the protagonists will find out who the killer is, and if they can before it’s too late. Unfortunately what the plot has in originality and structure, it lacks in just about everything else.

The entire movie supports itself on the search for the phantom lady that Scott was with the night of the murder, but there are two main issues with that pursuit of an alibi:

  1. The first witness questioned the morning after the murder, the bartender, claims that he saw only Scott just after 8pm, after the murder had already taken place. Therefore Carol and the inspector should not have been searching for the lady who Scott spent time with during and after his visit to the bar, but trying to find out where Scott was during the murder so they could form a substantial alibi.
  2. Even if Scott was supposedly with the woman at the bar or the theater during the murder, the fact that the bartender, the taxi driver, the drummer, and the star of the show all saw Scott (which they claimed that they did) should have been more than enough of an alibi for him, and whether they saw who he was with or not should have been irrelevant.
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Franchot Tone and Ella Raines appearing in the most suspenseful scene of Phantom Lady (1944).

Still somehow the entire film was built up around finding this woman, and there lies my biggest problem with it. I must admit that I’m not always thinking while watching films and most plot twists really do end up shocking me, but the fact that I figured all of this out before the film even finished should be a testament to how obvious these mistakes were. Desite the obvious plotholes I really did enjoy Phantom Lady (1944) as a whole, though, and was really impressed with the amount of suspense as well as the performances given. Alan Curtis wasn’t top billed for his portrayal of Scott Henderson, but he really held his own as the main character in the forty-five minute timespan until Franchot Tone first appears onscreen. The fact that anyone can receive top billing when their character doesn’t enter for the majority of the film is baffling to me, but I have to admit that I adored Franchot Tone playing a psychotic villain.  It was very much against type for the charismatic romantic idol of the 1930s, and it made me wish that he had done more challenging roles like this one. Before watching this film I had already seen Ella Raines in the B-movie The Second Face (1950), and after seeing her in such a memorable performance for such an inconsequential picture I was even more excited to see her in this film. She didn’t disappoint, and the beauty and brains that she brought to the role proved to be essential to this movie as a whole. All in all I believe that this film can be easily enjoyed if the audience doesn’t care whether the plot makes sense or not, but if it did, it would probably receive a perfect score from me that I just can’t give otherwise.