A civil engineer is framed for the murder of his wife and his loyal secretary tries to find the killer before it’s too late.
The film starts with a man sitting in a bar next to a mysterious woman. They strike up a conversation and she agrees to go with him to a show. After it ends he returns to his home to find the police there and his wife murdered. No problem, you think, he was with the woman. Only issue is, he doesn’t know what her name is and she has vanished.
Henderson and the Phantom Lady
Suddenly no one can seem to remember her. Not the bartender, the cabbie who drove them to the theater, nor the performers and the singer at the club. Even though they all obviously noticed her in the opening scenes.
The man, Scott Henderson, is arrested, convicted, sent to prison and is facing the death penalty. The only person who doesn’t believe he is guilty is his faithful secretary, Kansas. Her attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery are thwarted at every turn. Witnesses clam up, run away or turn up dead.
Kansas on the case! She really needs a raise for this.
Phantom Lady is a frustrating film to review. Great concepts, performances and cinematography ruined by a hackneyed plot you can drive a truck through. Just who is this mysterious killer? How is he able to convince rooms full of people to risk arrest and perjury charges to protect him? How can he reach out and strike just when Kansas closes in on a vital clue? The plot never explains this power, even when the villain is unmasked, no reason is given as to how he is able to manipulate and terrorize that many people.
Beautiful night shot, very atmospheric.
Pacing is another problem, the film stops mid-stream several times for extended jazz numbers. While they are very good jazz performances, they don’t really do much to advance the story and make the film seem dated. Especially when compared to other films of the era, which have managed to hold up better over the years. Characters also spend excessive amounts of time giving speeches to each other. One especially long one towards the end of the film is a data dump of 1940s pop psychology and will make your eyes glaze over.
Another issue is that the headliner in the film, Franchot Tone, doesn’t even appear for 45 minutes of the film and when he does appear, his performance is so broad and over the top that it quickly becomes distracting. He honestly seems to be miscast in this film. A competent comedian and romantic lead, he seems over his head in this film and just isn’t believable in his role.
Well maybe just a little.
If anyone deserves top billing in this film it is Ella Raines, who plays Kansas the secretary. She is the prime mover in the film and is in the majority of the scenes after the intro and does the most to develop the plot.
Ella Raines and Franchot Tone
I suspect that Franchot Tone’s top billing was more about the novelty of a famous actor known for light comedy, playing in a murder mystery.
This was not an easy film to watch and it left me frustrated because it has potential but never quite lives up to its promise.
2 gavels out of 5
Moody atmosphere and good cinematography can’t save this plodding melodrama from itself. Pacing issues, massive plot holes and over dramatic performances conspire to ruin what could have been a promising film.