Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Degenerate Drums of the Leopard Woman: PHANTOM LADY (1944)

One of the coolest frisson effects in film noir is the sense of collapsing time--the melting clock warp as an incriminating love letter is accidentally found and opened on a brutal killer's desk while he quietly opens the lock and lets himself in downstairs, switchblade flicking from his trench coat--it only takes a few seconds to climb stairs or shut a drawer but noir time carries a heady, druggy feeling of being outside normal realms of time/space. This drugged drink frisson is bolstered by the presence of Satanic psychiatrists running dubious 'drying out' facilities that double as blackmail fronts with drug dens with cots full of people with half-lit opium pipes, cat houses barely disguised as dance clubs; sex drugs and sex fogged away by censorship to make the whole thing as coded and symbolically abstract as a dream.

The seldom seen noir classic PHANTOM LADY (1944) shows Robert Siodmak to be not only a master of this druggy slowed-down form, but of a weird side current of humanity that's reminiscent of Val Lewton's 1940s RKO horror films like THE LEOPARD MAN (here). Especially in LEOPARD, Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur brought a fusion of humanist compassion and lit studies poetics to the B-list film noir/horror hybrid thriller, creating scary scenes that are charged with an amplified feeling of being alone. The trick of course is to have genuine human connection between characters, so when they're suddenly isolated along a lonely stretch of train platform, you feel it extra deep. Like THE LEOPARD MAN, PHANTOM LADY comes from a source novel by Cornell Woolrich and contains a high-strung Latin cabaret singer (Aurora Miranda, Carmen's sister), and an unseen killer that moves through the scenes like an collective unconscious eruption of the death drive. Throughout both a sense of feminine strength abounds, the heroine's ability to mix human warmth and compassion with icy resolve in both films shows that terror can be enhanced--rather than diluted--when compassion is revealed to enhance feminine power rather than detract.

I'd never really focused in on Robert Siodmak as a notable auteur (I got him mixed up with his brainy brother Curt) but after seeing PHANTOM, I looked him up in David Thomson's Biography of Film:
"He (Siodmak's) was never more than an assignment director but he never lost a mordant sense of humor, narrative economy, a relish for actors and actresses, a special care for interiors, and a readiness to extract the best from the system... He was an artist, and he deserves fuller retrospectives."
Man, now I agree. What I love about this film also is the linchpin it provides in better linking wartime noir to anti-Nazi propaganda: a lot of the Weimar film and theater craftsmen the Nazis drove from the Third Reich in the early 1930s found a home in Hollywood. After they left, the German films under Goebbels were all sunlight, health, mountains, and music with shadows and urban blight reserved for negative depictions of Jews. Over in America the 'degenerate' German emigres used their intellect and surrealistic shadowplay to mock--via the 'film noir'--Goebbel's ideals, as if to say to him, "You think we're dangerous, dirty urban dreck? Motherfucker, wait til you see this!"

Perhaps this is why noir films generally taunted outdoorsy attitudes (as in the subversive anti-Abercrombe subtexts of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN). Eschewing health and sunlight, they reveled instead in shadows and sleaze, petty crime, and sexual deviance in dark deserted cities where no one seems to have a job or anything resembling a strong Aryan ideal. German Weimar-era expat 'degenerate' artists relished the chance to throw logic and sanity to the wind and create funhouse opposites of Nazi sanctioned art. In this mirrored route you can measure in black ink splashes the way calamity fuels creativity. Would we have modernism without WWI? Would we have noir without WWII? Before the war, men in movies were either rich saps in tuxes or suspicious train conductors. Men came home from the war with American .45 automatic and German luger souvenirs; combat had reduced their squeamishness about robbing a bank to make ends meet. And if they come home to find their wife shacked up with some Laird Cregar-ish masher and holding cocktail hour in their honeymoon apartment, look out. Fortune hunting may have been a ticket to an early grave or long trial, but it beat out starving or being bored at a desk job. Beautiful blondes with ridiculous hats tore whole nations to pieces with just a flash of leg. And under it all, rich sons of bitches with perfect alibis slaughtered willy nilly. It was madness, but at least it wasn't Hitler's madness. By contrast, even deranged stranglers were granted a measure of sympathy.

Aware of censorship's sticky hypocrisy, even in free speech America, these Weimar-expat auteurs nonetheless were too smart for the morons at the ratings board: dangerous political statements were sewn into details as small as spotlights on strangling hands and sweat on bartenders' shirts. Even today, or last week when I saw it on TCM, the film still packs a surrealist sucker punch that would make a healthy Aryan buckle to its knees, and a censor do a spit-take, if they knew how to read a leer.

But even so, PHANTOM's subversion and straight-up thriller elements are spiked with humanism and a feminine sense of decency: Joan Harrison (Hitchcock's former script doctor) produced, leavening and increasing the suspense simultaneously by making villain more human and the detective (Thomas Gomez) a warm and compassionate human being. By the time the climax rolls around, all you need is a shadow falling over heroine Ella Raines' beautiful face to put the whole thing into 'go' mode, and Siodmak knows it, so that's all you get, 'cuz there's a war on, and props are scarce: Franchot Tone's bizarre sculptures draw odd associations to Pabst and Von Sternberg, but with a sparse empty-ish set B-film austerity that shows off the masterful and economic lighting as well as a poverty of set decoration, and I mean that as a compliment.

Best of all is the gorgeous Ella Raines who brings such a wealth of attitudes to her character that you fall in love with her badassedness. She spends an entire evening just staring dead-eyed at a bartender until he practically craps his pants. As in Lewton, sometimes the victimized heroine can chill the heart of the killer even more than vice versa.  Raines's supposed to be the atypical adoring wallflower secretary who needs to step up her game and free her man for a crime he didn't yadda yadda, but look a the way she rips chunks out of Elisha Cook with her eyes (below). That is fierce! She can out-fatale any femme fatale on a dime. And yet she's the good girl heroine!

The notorious bits of PHANTOM LADY are the justly celebrated sequences with Elisha Cook Jr. as a lascivious little jazzbo drummer. Personal anecdote: somewhere on the NJ shore around 1991 our band was playing and a pack of Jersey Shore-style girls were there, drinking and cheering, and one caught the eye of our Elisha Cook-ish keyboardist who then launched into one of the most blazing of solos--I mean, he was crushing it! Her friends were excited and she was turned on, for a second. Thrilled to finally win some female attention he sublimated the hell out of his awakening hunger, wowed the crowd for awhile, then kept going, faster and crazier, and she gradually went from turned on, to thrilled, to a little creeped out, to wanting to leave, to leaving, all within the space of a solo. Seeing Elijah at the drums in PHANTOM reminded me instantly of that 20-year old moment! In short, Cook's insane Gene Krupa-dubbed solo in the basement bar is one of the most gloriously unseemly bits of sexual sublimation in sound cinema. And as I said, it happens! It's totally understandable, that's the genius! It's sexual sublimation gone horribly right and wrong at the same time. And though Ella Raines is basically cozying up to him to get information. she still turns into a kind of creepy jazz-loving libertine, conjuring up his ferocious solo like its a spirit borne wailing from her fallopian tubes to his drum sticks and back again. This one sequence seems to capture all that the jazz club basement finale of DEMENTIA (1955) was trying for.

In sum, PHANTOM LADY is awesome, and the print on TCM is crisp enough that the white lighting on the heroine burns your mind. What RAW DEAL was for Anthony Mann, or DETOUR for Ulmer, PHANTOM LADY is for Siodmak, with its tender, twisted foot planted just deep enough in B-movie minimalism to make every bizarre touch stand out. Can I suggest a Blu-ray Criterion Robert Siodmak boxed set with this, KILLERS, COBRA WOMAN, and CRISS CROSS? There's a Siodmak set in region 4, meanwhile, proving once again Europe and South America are better at discerning our art than we are...Get it together, USA! Somewhere in Buenos Aires a short bald musician who can really swing is getting it on with a foxy jazz fan, and that's how it should be. Mis Estatos Unidos, sometimes you're just a stinker.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done. Glad you were able to discover this -- it can be notoriously hard to find. Thanks as well to TCM for airing it last week.