Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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 by the heroine on a brutal killer's desk right as he quietly 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, melted, drugged drink feeling, here 'drying out' facilities double as blackmail fronts with drug dens with cots full of people with half-lit opium pipes; cat houses are barely disguised as dance clubs; drugs and sex are fogged away by censorship to make the whole thing as coded and symbolically abstract as a Dali painting reproduced on cheap newspaper. Nothing ever means only one thing, but neither is it ever fully known, so bathed in shimmer and shadows it blurs the idea of 'known' until its indistinguishable from a fever dream.

The cult noir classic PHANTOM LADY (1944) shows director 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 SEVENTH VICTIM and THE LEOPARD MAN (here), wherein compassionate poetry and the iconography of B-list film noir/horror hybrid thriller are merged, creating an amplified feeling of being alone and in danger with nary but a clicking footstep and a few shadows, which makes the warm havens all the warmer by contrast. When characters are suddenly isolated along a lonely stretch of train platform, you feel it extra deep. We're so used to our horror victims being cardboard shooting gallery ducks that we're not prepared for the shock of genuine (rather than sentimental) emotion.

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 films a sense of feminine strength abounds, the heroine's ability to mix maternal compassion with icy resolve in both films shows that terror can be enhanced--rather than diluted--when femininity is revealed to enhance one's steely courage rather than detract from it.

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 PHANTOM also is the linchpin it provides in better linking wartime noir to anti-Nazi propaganda. Like Siodmak himself, Weimar era artists had fled to Hollywood in droves in the mid thirties when the Nazi writing was on the wall. 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, relishing the chance offered by the B-movie to throw logic and sanity to the wind and create funhouse opposites of Nazi sanctioned art. Aware of censorship's sticky hypocrisy, even in free speech America, Weimar-expats like Siodmak proved too smart for the heimliche 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, LADY works a surrealist sucker punch that would make a healthy Aryan buckle to his knees and a censor do a spit-take, if they knew how to read a leer.

Perhaps this is why noir films generally taunted the outdoors (as in the subversive anti-Abercrombe subtexts of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN), mocking health and sunlight, frolicking instead in shadows and sleaze, petty crime, sexual deviance and relentless drinking, running rat-like through mazes of dark deserted cities where no one had a job or anything resembling a strong Aryan ideal. In this mirrored alley route you can measure in India ink gouache the way calamity fuels creativity. Would we have modernism without WWI? Would we have noir without WWII? Would we have subversion without censorship? No. Before the war, men in movies were either rich saps in tuxes, poor young saps in overalls with big dreams, or suspicious train conductors --all were obliged to heed their elders and get married and obey all laws and curfews as gospel. But the men came home from the war with .45 automatics and German Luger souvenirs and combat experience, and were in no mood to starve on the street. Combat had eradicated their moral squeamishness; robbing a bank to make ends meet or smashing in a window to get a hot girl a bracelet, that was okay --the standing laws were wrong if they meant war heroes collapsing from hunger outside pastry shop windows. And if they came home from the war to find their wife shacked up with some Laird Cregar-ish masher and holding cocktail hour in their honeymoon apartment, look out.

Joan Harrison (Hitchcock's former script doctor) produced PHANTOM LADY, leavening and increasing the Hitchcockian suspense simultaneously by making villain more human and the detective (Thomas Gomez) a warm human being who genuinely cares about helping Ella Raines catch  her man. By the time the climax rolls around, all you need is a shadow falling over her 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, and I mean that as a compliment, as I meant it for the sculpture studio in another Universal film from the same era, HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946).

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, and it leads to a tense silent subway scene ala the one in SEVENTH VICTIM. And as in Lewton's best films, the unrelenting heroine can chill the heart of the killer even more than vice versa.  Raines isn't the atypical adoring wallflower secretary, when her boss is out she slides into his chair with a cigarette and starts giving dictation, and 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 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. His last name was Freund, so I dubbed him Sigmud and he was sweet and capable on his Korgi but being short and a ginger was not used to such open interest from an  attractive female in the audience. He was so turned on by her dancing right by the stage and giving him the eye that he launched into one of the most blazing solos of his career, he was crushing it! Her friends were excited and she was turned on, for a second, then he 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 song. Elijah at the drums in PHANTOM reminds 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 herself so well into a kind of creepy jazz-loving libertine it's more than an act, it's like she's conjuring up his solo like she's a crazy Bruja at her pot, and the sound of his frenzied solo is like 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 PHANTOM, 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 here, instead of that fox just running away from our poor Sigmud. 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.


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