Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Roadblock (1951)

I consider Roadblock to be Charles McGraw’s best film noir. RKO’s B-movie alternative to Robert Mitchum was certainly in better crime thrillers. The Narrow Margin for one is today considered a classic - and it is. Before becoming a leading man, McGraw appeared as a supporting actor in a slew of films like the great T-Men and The Killers. I never doubted McGraw’s acting ability - I always enjoyed in everything he was in. Seeing Roadblock for the first time surprised me however. Who knew he could play a love-sick sucker? McGraw's surprising performance is the reason this one stands out.

The film starts by showing McGraw as he usually was in the dozens of thrillers he appeared in. He plays a hard-nosed gravely-voiced investigator who’ll do anything to solve his cases. The clever opening teaser shows McGraw and his partner faking a shooting to scare a suspect into showing them where some stolen money is hidden. So far, not much different than the cops McGraw played in Armored Car Robbery or Loophole. Everything changes when Joe Peters (McGraw) falls in love with a con woman (Joan Dixon) just moments later at an airport on his way back to Los Angeles. Seeing McGraw wave at Dixon like a kid with a crush, or even later when he breaks into her apartment to decorate a Christmas tree is a wonderful change of pace for the tough-guy actor.

Joan Dixon no doubt broke into film acting because she looked a lot like Gene Tierney. If you want to talk about an actor without much range check her out in the otherwise entertaining Bunco Squad or Experiment Alcatraz. In Roadblock she too is better than expected. Dixon flirts with the love starved insurance investigator and quickly has him eating out of her hands. Once she has him hooked, Diane (Dixon) tells McGraw that they would never work out because he just doesn’t have enough money. She quickly stops McGraw’s attempts at seduction. A few weeks later, Peters finds out she’s a play thing for a local Los Angeles mobster (Lowell Gilmore) who rents her an apartment and buys her lots and lots of furs. Dixon is sexy and funny and you can’t blame McGraw for continuing his courtship of her despite her ties with organized crime. Unfortunately, one of the few flaws of Roadblock is that Dixon doesn’t get to be a true femme fatale. Right when Peters decides to risk it all to get rich quick and win the love of Diane, she turns and decides to love Peters no matter how much cash he has. It’s nice that she does this but she’s a heck of a lot sexier when she was a money hungry con artist earlier in the film.

The plot is simple. When Peters falls for Diane he concocts a scheme to rob a train loaded with cash. Instead of doing the robbery himself he sells the idea to Diane’s mob boyfriend. The agreement is Peters would get a great percentage of the take. The mobster agrees. Diane and Peters go off on their honeymoon -which doubles nicely as an alibi. Diane wants Peters to call off the risky crime but it’s too late. The mob won’t cancel the job. After a few stressful days in the woods the couple hears via radio report that the train robbery goes off nicely. Peters is mailed his share of the loot and Diane is disappointed in him for planning the crime. Diane at this point keeps telling Peters that she’s changed but I suspect that Peters knows the truth. Eventually Diane will probably want the “finer things in life” and eventually leave the working-class Peters.

Now the sticky part comes up. After the honeymoon in the wild Peters goes back to Los Angeles and is assigned to investigate the robbery. Peters tries as hard as he can to lead the investigation away from his mob partners but eventually his best friend - equally square jawed Louis Jean Heydt - easily figures out Peters is the inside man. Heydt tries to convince Peters to turn himself in but instead gets a beer bottle in the head.

The film climaxes when Peters and Diane try to escape L.A. with their bundle of cash. Peters is shot dead on the concrete bed of a nearly-dry Los Angeles River.

Roadblock is a well-paced true film noir. The fatalistic story has a few nice touches in addition to the two lead performances including a slick opening credit sequence and a decent (but generic) film score.

Don’t miss it the next time it airs on TCM.


Written by Steve-O

Monday, February 18, 2008

52 Pick-Up (1986)

Posted by Steve-O

One of the pleasures of being a fan of classic film noir is finding some old hidden treasure forgotten by everyone. For every big-budget Bogart film there's a dozen of B-movies that are just as entertaining. Check out Decoy, Time Table or Walk the Dark Street (if you can find them) and you'll see good film noir made “on the cheap” could be put together outside of the WB or even RKO studio system.

Neo-noir is the same. For every Pulp Fiction there was a Kill Me Again or Delusion waiting to be discovered on a dusty video store shelf.

Producers Golan/Globus of the Cannon group were known in the 80s for putting out trashy films. Their movies would usually contain Chuck Norris, over-acting character actor Wings Hauser, ninjas or some sort of combination of the three. In 1986 they surprised movie lovers by putting out an exploitive thriller that was actually pretty good. That was probably due to people hired to make 52 Pick-Up.

Writer Elmore Leonard must have been relieved when he found out his novel (and screenplay) was to be directed by thriller expert John Frankenheimer. The Cannon Group also did a great job with the cast by convincing some excellent actors to appear. Roy Scheider, Vanity and Clarence Williams III in particular brought the books characters to life. Female lead Ann-Margret (in her 40s at the time) playing Scheider's wife gave more to the role than should have been expected.

From the start to finish the film plays just like a Leonard novel. A new-money business man (Scheider) is blackmailed by three sleazy characters after having an affair with a sexy 22-year-old. They plan on giving video tapes to Mitchell's wife if they don't get 105-thousand from the business man. John Glover (playing one of the thugs Alan Raney) would say what everyone in the movie audience was probably thinking after seeing that Mitchell's wife is Ann-Margret and girlfriend is Kelly Preston, “I like your taste in women!” At first, the criminals have the upper hand catching Harry Mitchell off guard. They assume Mitchell is soft and will fold quickly. They turn out to be wrong when Mitchell fights back. With a few clues, he searches for his blackmailers identities in the dark corners of L.A.'s strip clubs and adult film world. Eventually he finds all three men and (in classic Leonard style) trick them into turning against each other. Lots of twists and turns follow ending with an extremely satisfying climax.

Roy Scheider starred in a lot of blockbusters. However, he had hit a lull in the mid 80s. Films like 2010 and Blue Thunder should never be compared to The Seven-Ups, French Connection or Jaws. I think 52 Pick-Up ended up being his last critically successful lead role before moving to supporting roles.

In this thriller his New-York-style acting chops probably make the film much better than if stone-faced Charles Bronson was cast in the lead. Scheider's tanned leathery face in closeup always showed what he was thinking. When he turns from victim to judge-and-jury in this one it's totally convincing. Scheider, when first confronting the wonderfully slimy Golver, has a classic line, “You just have a face I just want to slap the shit out of!” That's was Scheider's best line since “We're gonna need a bigger boat!”


Ann-Margret's part in the film is beefed up compared to the novel. She has her professional life to think of in addition to humiliation when the blackmailers first strike. Her performance is just right especially in the scenes where she and Scheider try to keep their marriage together despite being hurt by her husband's cheating and the pressure brought on by the sleazy blackmailers.

Then there's Clarence Williams III. He plays a doped-up stone-faced killer that's not as tough as you would think he is. Williams steals every scene he's in just by looking bad ass. A great role for him.

It's worth noting that Doug McClure is billed above Williams in the credits. Clearly the film has been trimmed before release since McClure has one line in the film and Williams is a major character. I imagine the film was a lot longer but it was edited just right. There's not fat - it's all meat. That actually makes the film feel like a quick-read Elmore Leonard mystery.

Is the film trashy? You bet it is. It's filled with 80s porn stars, one particularly violent murder and plenty of nudity. That is to be expected from a Golan/Globus production. But it doesn't mean 52 Pick-Up isn't a crackling little neo-noir. It is. Despite the exploitive nature of the film (as well as Ann-Margret's sholder pads, lots of eye makeup and a Miami-Vice sounding soundtrack) this is one very satisfying film. The low-budget, forgotten 52 Pick-Up deserves to be seen again.

The movie poster: One note about the poster. Scheider is shown holding a gun. In the film he never uses one. In fact he makes a point out of saying he never shot the gun he owned for protection in his house.

Side note: Roy was always one of my favorites. Check this out:

Monday, February 11, 2008

Du rififi chez les hommes (AKA Rififi 1955)

Review contains many spoilers.

Adversity is the touchstone of friendship.
-French Proverb

While not a clear cut case of art imitating life, director Jules Dassin’s 1955 film Rififi is a strong example of a tumultuous life event serving as a muse. Bearing Dassin’s unmatched ingenuity in the study of duplicity and devotion under the guise of a film noir heist movie, this inspiration came from a burdensome and pathos filled experience for Dassin. A talented Hollywood director and writer in the 1940s, Dassin was eventually named as a communist sympathizer to the HUA committee by friend and fellow director Edward Dmytryk in 1952. This led to Hollywood blacklisting for Dassin and eventual exile from the United States. The trauma afforded Jules Dassin the opportunity to understand profound dimensions of loyalty and betrayal. This same understanding remarkably paved the way for Rififi's themes to resonate in a manner that still wields power today as it did over fifty years ago.

's opening shot is a card table filled with poker chips, cash and hands being played. Through this visual establishment we understand risk, chance and big stakes set the tone of this film. Taking part in this backroom game is Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais). Tony is an older Parisian con just out of the joint after a five-year stint in which he took a pinch for his pal Jo le Suedois (Carl Möhner). When a caper they tried to pull went awry, the inexperienced Jo could easily have been the one incarcerated, but Tony was solid and took the fall for his cohort. The time in prison has taken its toll on “Le Stephanois” as he’s known, looking haggard and also nursing a deep malign chest cough. Jo gravely realizes the effects five years on the inside had on Tony; he understandably feels indebted to him because his sacrifice. Not to be discounted there is also a genuine affection between the two men. Jo’s wife Louise (Janine Darcey) and son have also embraced Tony as family, as he was the inspiration for their boy’s name ‘Tonio’ and also serves as the tyke’s Godfather.

Fresh out of prison and Reliant on Jo for money, Tony takes a meeting regarding a job Jo has planned with fellow heist man Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel). The three have successfully worked together in the past so Tony is all ears. Jo and Mario’s plan is to smash and grab some rocks in the window of the infamous Mappin and Webb Ltd. Jewelry store located in the film’s setting of Paris. Tony dismisses the idea and declines the offer by interjecting, “Mappin and Webb, you’re nuts. Why not the bank of France?” adding, “I don’t run so fast anymore.”

While passing on the prospect of some new business, Tony has the unfinished kind with his old flame Mado les Grand Bras (Marie Sabouret). She quickly hooked up with another underworld player, and nightclub owner, named Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) after Tony was incarcerated. Mado had also pawned all of Tony’s possessions ‘to survive’ before meeting Pierre. As much as Tony feels betrayed by her, Mado is equally surprised when Tony unexpectedly shows up at her door. Mado was unaware of his release and nervously asks about his new freedom. With a foreboding nod to what will happen next Tony tells Mado, “They let me out, for good behavior.” Motivated by Mado moving on with her life while his stagnated in the pen, Tony orders Mado to strip out of her clothing, jewels and furs she claims some of which she earned. Most likely though we glean Pierre provided her with the lion’s share. Tony forces her in the bedroom, grabs a belt off the door and we hear him quickly beat her with it while the camera zooms in on a picture tacked to the wall. The photo shows Mado and Tony in happier times, drinking champagne at a nightclub, looking suave and unaffected; a lifetime away from this present scene of brutality. There seems to be no joy for Tony in giving Mado five belt lashes on her back judging from his wrought look afterward while throwing her clothes back at her. Dassin is sure to interject ambiguity as he consciously contains the act of violence off screen. Tony strongly feels he was not only robbed, but is owed something and leaves the marks on Mado’s back as a violent symbol for Pierre Grutter and Mado to fathom his rancor.

Tony’s acrimonious action functions as a catalyst: immediately he tells Jo that he’s in on the Mappin and Webb caper. “A mans gotta live” he reasons when asked why he changed his mind. Perhaps he realizes his life before prison is dead and through this monumental heist he may acquire something where now there is simply a void. Tony agrees to the Mappin and Webb job with Jo and Mario but the conditions must change: he wants the big haul, namely the safe inside the store full of millions in diamond jewelry. For the specialty work the safe requires they call in Mario’s friend Cesar le Milanais (Played by Jules Dassin himself under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) from Italy. Mario concisely attests to Cesar’s strengths and weaknesses by informing Tony and Jo, “They say there’s not a safe that can resist Cesar, and not a woman that Cesar can resist.”

When we are finally introduced to Pierre Grutter at his nightclub, he is smacking around his younger brother Remi, a junkie who is so desperate for heroin he pulls a straight razor on his older brother in a feeble attempt to threaten him for some. A hardened Pierre doesn’t seem fazed at the sight of the blade. Pierre’s unyielding manner stems from having his hands in many nefarious pies; the night club is merely a front for his other lucrative illegal activities. Judging by the introductory sibling interactions, loyalty is not their strong suit. On the other hand Tony and his crew are just the opposite. When Tony decides to go the club solo to confront Pierre, Jo, Mario and even Cesar show up to watch his back. Before the impending confrontation a musical number by the club’s leading attraction Viviane (Federico Fellini favorite Magali Noël) is performed. Viviane sings about her ne’er-do-well gangster boyfriend being so “rififi” as the song she sings is the basis of the film’s title (the word “rififi” in Parisian slang translates to ‘rough n’ tumble’). She performs the fantastic number in front of a stage of silhouetted figures: noir archetypes in suits, fedoras, brandishing guns, smoking cigarettes, while slapping their molls around and so forth. The number serves not only as a point where an enraptured Cesar falls hard for Viviane, but the accompanying exaggerated visuals to Viviane’s number are a clever meta-noir moment and wink from Dassin. Anticipating a confrontation with Pierre after leaving his calling card all over Mado’s back, Tony initially scoffs at his friend’s protectiveness asking why Cesar (whom he just met) is there. Mario tells Tony, “He says we should stick together on everything.” Tony calls him a St. Bernard, alluding to his loyalty but ironically foreshadowing Cesar’s betrayal. The confrontation with Pierre isn’t as climactic as Tony expects. Pierre is in the dark as to Mado’s whereabouts. Perplexed, Tony learns Mado left town the previous night after being ‘marked’ by Tony and didn’t run to Pierre for protection. At this development Jo states that Tony, “Just learned some women have guts.”

The second act of the film consists of the four men preparing and executing the heist. Jo, Tony and Mario learn the people and neighborhood surrounding the jewelry store and all their comings and goings by heart. Cesar cases the Mappin and Webb store by going inside to buy an expensive lighter. He cavalierly leaves his fat wallet hemorrhaging cash on the counter demonstrating his nonchalance toward money and perpetuating his upstanding high roller façade (he dresses and looks like a fastidious banker). Cesar asks to use the phone and in doing so two key things happen: he is able to scope out the make and model of alarm system the store employs, and he notices a particularly opulent diamond ring an employee is evaluating. He makes note of where the ring is kept and walks out of the store. Later, our four protagonists manage to get a hold of the same alarm system Mappin and Webb uses in order to study it in their underground ‘workshop.’ The four spend a bit of time testing its limits (slight levels of sound set it off for example) and figuring out how to neutralize it. This scene not only shows their ingenuity, but also gives us a tantalizing idea of how they plan to break into the jewelers and execute the job; the meticulous teamwork we will witness during the heist is being cultivated.

’s infamous heist scene is nothing short of a masterpiece second act for an entire thirty-three dialogue free minutes. Our men break in to the apartment above Mappin and Webb, where Webb himself lives, chloroform him and tie him up. The crew then proceeds to chisel their way down into the jewelry store through the apartment floor. All this is done with near utter silence as to not trip the alarm or alert any outside variables. With the nerve wracking exception of Jo accidentally touching a piano key on the baby grand in Webb’s flat, Dassin opts for sans music during this extended sequence. The effect draws the viewer in closer to the physicality of the heist, as if they were in the room with the thieves themselves. The little touches Dassin incorporates for the robbers to remain stealthy are ingenious (placing a thick sock over a hammer’s head to reduce the clanking between it and the chisel used to go through the floor) and humorous (Dassin’s recherché character Cesar ops for ballet slippers instead of his crew’s preferred tennis sneakers when they clandestinely move about the store). The heist must be seen to be appreciated for not only Dassin’s wonderful choices in filming the process, but the wit in which our larcenous leads execute the robbery. One noteworthy aspect Dassin conveys so well is the amount of physical labor and eventual exhaustion the caper requires from these men. By the end of the sequence the audience feels they too may have sweated a liter and are drained from the amazing pressure they witnessed the protagonists operate under for hours. We, as the audience, bond with Tony, Jo, Mario and Cesar because we’ve shared an extraordinary experience together; like combat or childbirth. We’re all much closer now through their sustained felonious toil.

The haul is spectacular, netting them millions of francs worth of jewelry which they stash at Mario’s apartment. As soon as the fence gives them their cash, they can go their separate ways rich beyond compare. Of course human fallibility will impede this as Cesar’s Achilles heel is women, namely Viviane. The brilliant diamond ring Cesar noticed earlier while casing the Mappin and Webb store was irresistible. After the loot was obtained and everyone else had left the store, Cesar quickly goes back for the ring unbeknownst to the rest of his crew. After the caper he places the ring on Viviane’s finger in an opulent way of wooing her. A rock worth a million francs is hard to miss however and her boss at the club, Pierre Grutter, is no exception. After asking her some questions about where she obtained such a ring, he learns Viviane is Cesar’s paramour. Pierre also determines Cesar works with Mario who in turn runs with Jo and Tony. As the heist has become all the news in Paris, Pierre realizes the four did the job. Determined to find and keep the jewels for himself, he tortures Cesar and murders Mario and his girlfriend. Mario’s girlfriend Ida (Claude Sylvian) warns Tony just before Pierre snuffs her out that Pierre is on to him and looking for the loot.

The ethics of Rififi’s underworld and the people operating within develops into an integral part of the narrative at this point, transcending the foundation of this theme Dassin had been establishing during the film. Despite the unsavory business these people practice, there is a code of honor between our anti-hero thieves. When Pierre and his goons hold Mario and his girlfriend Ida captive in an attempt to get the diamonds, the scene is heart wrenching as the couple both know that they will die. Their loyalty to Tony however, is paramount over the drowning fear they must have experienced in the fatal moment. They give up their lives instead of the diamonds while simultaneously protecting Tony and Jo with their sacrifice. Tony later recovers the diamonds from Mario’s when the coast is clear and stashes them with Jo. Le Stephanois then heads to Grutter’s nightclub to exact revenge from the man who murdered his friend. The club is empty with the exception of a tied up Cesar who asks Tony about Mario. Tony informs him he’s dead. Cesar’s strained expression tips Tony off: Cesar gave up Mario to Grutter. Pained at this development, Tony explains to Cesar while raising his gun, “I liked you, I really liked you Macaroni, but you know the rules.” In an exceptionally emotional twist due to Dassin casting himself, Cesar (Dassin) barely manages his solemn explanation, “Forgive me. I was afraid” just before Tony backs up and deposits several slugs in him. In an interview on the Criterion edition of the DVD, when describing his thought process while writing this scene, Dassin said, “I was just thinking of all my friends who at that moment during that McCarthy era, betrayed other friends.” Dassin being one of the aforementioned betrayed and playing the betrayer in his film gives the scene an eerie a particularly tangible power.

Meanwhile the tension of this last act is ratcheted up even further as Pierre and little brother Remi kidnap Jo’s son Tonio as ransom for the jewels. The desperation of Jo and his wife Louise mounts as they cannot inform the police of the kidnapping as per Grutter’s instructions (and obviously the fact they have stolen 240 million francs worth of diamonds), but they’re willing to give the loot to Pierre and his gang to get back their son. Tony le Stephanois knows better and puts the kibosh on that idea. The kid is a witness and Grutter won’t let him live as soon as they get the jewels. Tony knows the only option is to go after Grutter and his goons to snatch the kid back before they know what hit them. Entrenched in a network of hoods that draw the line at kidnapping, Tony calls upon their streetwise knowledge to find Grutter’s hideout. Even Mado comes back and plays the most crucial role in helping Tony find and recover little Tonio. Despite what Tony put Mado through, she is loyal to a moral benchmark above her ambivalent feelings toward Tony. Lines of loyalty continue to fortify in this third act as Jo must trust Tony to get back his son even when he has the capability to give up the loot as ransom while Tony is out chasing down leads as to his son’s whereabouts. Solidarity is paramount between these characters and when it is broken (Cesar) chaos ensues and innocence along with weakness is exploited by the morally devoid. These motifs are a wise guy’s credo in the film but also beliefs straight from Dassin’s own heart.

The film ends in a violent flurry and race against time. Dassin conveys this in a beautifully edited, stylistically staccato way that I would bet inspired Godard’s jump cuts when he made Breathless five years later. Visually the conclusion is a departure from the rest of the film where his use of the gorgeous Parisian streets at night, and overcast damp sidewalks during the day make for a cohesive and memorable aesthetic. The Director of photography Philippe Agostini also had a knack for framing the wonderful streets, bridges, and staircases of Paris in such a way that from the camera’s perspective, produce an elongated effect giving the shots a wonderful stylized depth. The film looks amazing and is assembled in a crisp, intelligent and daring fashion.

’s cast is very solid overall with Jean Servais as Tony leading the memorable ensemble. His worn and sorrowful look is perfect as he is also able to convey a steely toughness when necessary. The standouts are the actors playing Italians namely Robert Manuel as Mario and I would argue that Dassin nearly steals his own film as Cesar le Milanais. He’s quite good in the role as he is able to mix in humor and sell the dramatic final scene between Cesar and Tony (Dassin however is not as good in a straight man comedic role in his otherwise charming 1960 film Never on Sunday.)

Rififi is bold, imaginative and near flawless filmmaking. The exposition and characters are so well crafted that Dassin’s many subtle and daring directorial touches only contribute to the aggregate of an outstanding work of art. Rififi’s heist scene has been copied and imitated repeatedly over the years and is the jump-off point in most discussions regarding the film, but surrounding that brilliant nucleus is a network of wonderful acting, cinematography, music, editing and writing which make the overall cell of Rififi fortified and resilient to time. But beyond the biology of the film its turbulent emotional content of loyalty and betrayal is what makes Rififi truly sing. Like the lyric from the film’s song declares, “All it means is rough n’ tumble,” and you will not want the ride any other way.


Monday, February 04, 2008

Cell 2455, Death Row (1955)

Posted by HJ

This film isn't really a noir, although the subject matter is noirish enough. I had recorded it off TCM a week or two ago and just got around to watching it this afternoon.

Caryl Chessman, upon whose autobiography this film is based, was a juvenile delinquent and a career criminal, some of whose crimes involved violence and some of which merited capital punishment. He was finally sentenced to death on California's interpretation of the "Little Lindbergh law," which concerned harm done to people being kidnapped. (He removed one of his rape victims from the location where he "kidnapped" her, so by subsequently raping her in fact caused bodily harm to his kidnap victim.)

This movie has all the usual boiler plate about being fiction and not representing any actual person, but with a great big "wink! wink!." The bad guy in this flick is named Whit Whittier (played with a perpetual sneer by actor William Campbell), and he comes across as a truly loathsome human being.

His parents were good folk who tried to raise him properly, but the injuries suffered by his mother in an automobile accident (making her a paraplegic) while he was a kid probably contributed to his anti-social behavior throughout his later childhood and entire adulthood.

Both the character and the real Chessman were quite intelligent, and both studied law extensively while incarcerated in order to postpone the death sentence imposed by the court on his final conviction. He was supposedly a "dead man walking" 8 times before his actual execution. This, by the way, finally took place in May of 1960, 12 years after his death sentence was imposed.

The movie was filmed in 1955, and ends with another stay of execution which resulted from his skillful use of technicalities of law. Chessman was the darling of the anti-Capital Punishment movement in the 1950s.

As I said in the beginning of this review, this is not a noir in style, but certainly in subject matter. I guess you could sneak it in the back door of the noir classification in that it's sort of a Police Procedural type of movie told from the criminal point of view.

If you'd like a fascinating little excursion away from noir to a parallel universe of crime, IMO this movie is well worth the 75 or 80 minutes it lasts.

Phantom Lady (1944)

What a place. I can feel the rats on the wall.

1944 was a hell of a year for film noir. Really a turning point. The year saw the releases of Laura, Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet. The trio would go on to influence the entire body of film noir to come.

One film from that year is unfortunately forgotten today by most is the amazing Phantom Lady directed by Robert Siodmak. Filled with plot holes and unlikely occurrences, Phantom Lady succeeds because of Siodmak's knack for being able to create a creepy and gloomy nightmare-like atmosphere. Siodmak was just a few years into his Hollywood movie making and in 1944 he had three dark films released that year - Phantom Lady, the period-noir The Suspect and a suspense film with the incredibly misleading title of Christmas Holiday. During the 40s, Siodmak would go on to refine his skills at horror and suspense when he helmed the director's chair for Criss Cross, Cry of the City and the gothic Spiral Staircase.

Siodmak takes Cornell Woolrich's novel (written as William Irish) and strips it of some of it's nerve-racking suspense. Instead he paints a picture of a night time world that is very different from the day - a dangerous place to venture out into alone.

The story by Woolrich - who constantly reminds us life is absurd and meaningless - appears to be about unhappily married Scott Henderson. Henderson (Alan Curtis) heads off to a bar after an argument with his wife on their wedding anniversary. While nursing a drink he starts up chatting it up with a woman who would later be known as the “phantom lady”. Eventually, Henderson convinces the nameless woman to use his wife's ticket for a musical review. The two head off in a cab to the show. At the show, the two notice that Henderson's date has the same outrageous hat as the lead singer. Neither of the woman are happy that their exclusive hat is being worn by someone else. The two split after the show and Henderson heads home.

Meanwhile back at Henderson's apartment his wife has been found brutally murdered. When he returns he finds coppers in his living room and is informed bluntly about his wife's death. Suspecting the husband - who has a motive and no alibi - the police question him like he's the number one suspect. Henderson can't prove his innocence and is quickly locked up.

The story now shifts to “Kansas” - played nicely by Ella Raines. With her boss behind bars, the plucky secretary must play detective and find out who really killed Henderson's wife. Things don't go easily for her. Every one that saw her boss the night of the killing now have clammed up. Worst of all, the “phantom lady” cannot be found.

Kansas haunts the bar that Henderson spent the night in - eventually spooking out the bartender. Later the nervous man is killed in an accident. That leaves Kansas to begin investigating the two others that should remember him from the night: the cab driver and the Latin American singer who noticed the woman was wearing the same hat as hers.

With only the help of a police detective (Thomas Gomez) Kansas' investigation finally leads to a promising witness. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the drummer in the show. He has an eye for the ladies and he remembers every inch of the “phantom lady” when she went to the show with Henderson. Kansas puts on an act and easily convinces drummer Cliff to take her out after the show in an attempt to get any information out of him.

These few scenes are amazing - both sexy and repulsive. Raines is so self confidant playing the tramp groupie and Cook is wonderfully creepy. Late that night they end up in a scary, apparently drug infested, after-hours jazz club. You can almost smell the sweat and booze when they enter the place. Cliff puts on a show.

Kansas continues to play hot-to-trot for Cliff when she's clearly repulsed by him. Things do not go when when they get to the drummers little room. He makes the moves on Kansas - who must still pretend to be interested - while at the same time spilling the beans. He admits that he was paid to forget Henderson and the phantom lady. Cliff finds out Kansas is working for the police and she barely escapes with her life. Once in safety, Kansas realizes she has finally gotten the first piece of evidence that there is a conspiracy against Henderson.

There's more to the story following but to tell it would give away the end - even though it's not that hard to figure out “who-done-it”.

If you're looking for the movie finding it on DVD may be a challenge but it does air occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. The film's not available on a Region 1 DVD but there is a decent French DVD release out there.

Phantom Lady may not have the notoriety of other 1944 noirs but most noir film buffs know that this is one of the best.

Written by Steve-O

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