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The Phantom Lady's hat of horror (1944)

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

When times are hard, I disappear into cinema. And I have very specific requirements for my hiding place.

I demand classical narrative progression - more specifically, a mystery set up at the beginning, ideally a determined and charismatic woman to investigate it, growing peril, and a satisfying, concrete conclusion. I also want to fall headlong into a cinematic world created by master scene directing, rich production design and invisible editing.

This means when the going gets tough, I get going to classical Hollywood cinema.

I started my PhD on silent cinema, and ended up writing my thesis on the 1930s. So, I tend not to gravitate too much towards the first thirty years of Hollywood - it reminds me too much of working.

I've never been into the 1950s - horror or otherwise. Hammer is not for me (which I have moaned about extensively here. The minute colour comes in, I am out.

There are horror gems of this period of course, including one of my Top Three All Time Horror Films, Night of the Demon (1957), but notably, this is black and white. Even two of my other favourites, Burn Witch Burn and Seance on a Wet Afternoon, are both from the 1960s, but are also black and white. Oh, and Some Like it Hot (1959), my favourite film of all time is also black and white.

Oh, as I write, I suddenly sense there's a theme here of "I love black and white horror films" that I didn't realise....

What this means, anyway, is that the 1940s are my salvation. I seek out women-led horrors, often with strong film noir, mystery and gothic tones. Something like Ministry of Fear (1944) fits the bill beautifully. This is ostensibly a crime / noir film, with Ray Milland as lead, but it has amazing creepy notes, including the story beginning as the protagonist leaves a 'lunatic asylum' after a two year stint there, palmistry, a fantastic seance, an antiquarian bookshop and extensive interest in the weighing of cakes. I am desperate to get my paws on the Criterion blu-ray release.

1940s Hollywood is awesome for women-led horror - with men away at war, there were more women working in Hollywood, particularly in writing. Also, the studios' perception was that more women were going to the cinema now, so they needed more 'women's stories' and women write 'women's stories' (*sighs*). Plus everyone had started getting obsessed with Freud's psychoanalysis so there was a big rise in psychologically-driven, female-centered really dark and weird films. As Lizzie Francke says in Script Girls: Women Writers in Hollywood, this was the decade 'when the women's picture could begin to show some of the stresses and strains of the female experience'.

Just the ticket!

My mate Tim has written a great book, Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front, all about this period of horror cinema, and the women audiences who flocked to see these films. In another life, I so would've been one of these women.

Which finally brings me to today's comforting hideaway from reality. Tim's book's namesake: Phantom Lady (1944).

Arrow produced the first blu-ray of this film in 2019, and described it thus:

From one of the masters of the film noir, Robert Siodmak (The Killers, The Dark Mirror), comes the consummate crime classic, Phantom Lady. After a fight with his wife, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis, High Sierra) heads to a bar to drown his sorrows. There he strikes up a conversation with a mysterious, despondent lady who agrees to accompany him to a show uptown but withholds her name. Arriving home, Scott is met by grimly countenanced cops - his wife has been strangled with one of his neckties and he is the prime suspect. He has a solid alibi but his theatre companion is nowhere to be found and no one remembers seeing them together. When Scott is charged with murdering his wife, it falls to his devoted secretary ‘Kansas’ (Ella Raines, Brute Force) to find the phantom lady and save Scott from the electric chair...

This horror-noir first tempted me though because it was....

Ignore the 'Associate' bollox that Universal demanded in front of her name; this is 100% a Joan Harrison produced picture.

YAASSS women-made horror!

In an article for Crime Reads, Christina Lane writes about Harrison and revealed that Phantom Lady is 'now considered by many to be the high point of film noir', and the 'landmark picture launched the American career of director Robert Siodmak and made Joan the most powerful female producer in Hollywood—and the first woman to become a full-fledged producer at a major studio'. Joan Harrison also collaborated extensively with Alfred Hitchcock, and wrote Rebecca, Suspicion and Saboteur among many others. She's also discussed in Helen Hanson's lovely book, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film, which is well worth a look if this is your kind of thing.

When the film began with this languid scene, I was in. This is totally how me and my husband feel right now in lockdown three.

This is Scott, the seemingly leading man, sat next to the 'phantom lady', who refuses to tell Scott her name or anything about herself. She is wearing a flamboyant hat, which will very quickly become our macguffin for the film.

While this was a good start, I got seriously more invested by the end of act one, when moustachioed Scott gets put behind bars for the murder of his wife. The story starts properly then as his secretary Carol (Ella Raines) sets out to find the phantom lady, and thus provide Scott with an alibi for the time of the murder.

(He's really not all that Carol, I don't know why you are so into him, with his funny little 'tash).

Carol begins her own investigation. She returns to the bar shown in the opening sequence.

The barman told the police that was Scott was in there alone. He said, steadfastly, that there was no lady in a flamboyant hat.

Carol calls bullshit on this. And she decides to get under his skin.

Each night, she sits alone, at the end of the bar.

Look at these disappearing perspective lines along the bar! Converging upon Carol in the background plane! Where she is high-key lit FOR THE GODS!

Carol doesn't speak to the barman.

She just stares

He does not enjoy this. Look at the shimmering sweat on his pate.

Then she starts stalking him, silently putting on more and more pressure. Never explaining why she is there, or what she wants. I know stalking cannot be condoned, but there is something refreshing about the reversal of a beautiful young woman doing it to an old man in a horror film (even if it is an Overall Bad thing).

She follows him one night after he closes up the bar in a long, silent sequence that gives me Rififi meets Cat People.

Then she gets entangled with a very sleazy jazz drummer, Cliff, in her quest to find out why everyone who saw Scott and That Woman, on that night, says Scott was on his own. She gets herself in a very precarious situation when the drummer discovers the truth about her. He can't believe she didn't actually fancy him. FFS! Look at her! And look at yer'sen Cliff.

The reason I've excerpted this though isn't just Cliff's delusion at the beginning of the sequence, nor the canted angle at the end that so beautifully reflects her precarious position.

What draws me in here is something else. It's Carol dashing down the steps of Cliff's boarding house, then down the steps onto the street, and up, finally, into the sanctuary of the deli. That high angle as she pegs it out of Cliff's room and across the landing, down the stairs, gave me Psycho - when poor old Arbogast gets to meet mother.

Of course, Phantom Lady is way before Psycho, but it really made me think about the connections between space and character, between women in moments of high peril, and interactions with staircases. How frequently (in the kind of horror films I like) the women are running down the staircase, or getting stuck halfway up when confronted with a giallo-gloved killer in The Spiral Staircase, or, in the case of The Shining's Wendy Torrance, backing up the grandest of hotel staircases, ineffectually swiping at her murderous husband.

Staircases are a major space for women and horror and I am going to do More Thinking About It. It's time to re-readThe Poetics of Space and Dark Places.

During Carol's investigative phase - the second act of the film - the director Robert Siodmak also has a thing for placing her as the only light in dark spaces. Here she stands under the window in a prison room, waiting to talk with Scott.

The composition of this shot is stunning. We've got sharp leading lines - sweeping in from from the left hand edge of the frame, the prison warder leading Scott, in the darkness, in silhouette, as he journeys into the centre of the shot. The light shows us where to rest our gaze: on Carol who is framed above and below by the barred window and its extended, stretched reflection on the concrete floor.

Here she's investigating a star's dressing room, backstage at a theatre. We can see a similar compositional style going on, but this time she's in the left hand side of the frame. We tend to read landscape orientation images left to right, particularly in wide angle or long shot. So, this image is about Carol to start with, and then, where she's going to go next.

In both images, Carol is always active, always investigating. No matter where she is, she chooses to step out of the safety of the light and into the darkness.

And if we go back to the train station shots, included in the stalking video extract, we can see how not only the light, but all sightlines, all reflections, all framing, revolves around her.

This is Carol's show.

I'm not going to go in blow by blow on the whole plot, or every magnificent sequence, because I want you to have the pleasure of watching it and finding it all for yourself.

But here are a few more of the moments that I loved the most.

She finds her mysterious character, swaddled in a granny square blanket. In this film, crochet = invalid.

Do watch out for the invalid's beautiful house coat, with its swoony lapels and padded, angular shoulders (having grown up on Bladerunner, the invalid's outfit gives me Sean Young's Rachel, which I know is the wrong way round when the fashions of the 1940s influenced the 1980s but such is life).

But! The invalid makes no claims for hats. What can Carol do?

When Carol is at her most despondent, she semi-collapses into a display of trailing ferns. Her back to the camera, her turning away from the audience, head bowed towards the window.

For some reason, Carol's desolation in the ferns made me think of Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, in which the narrator Elizabeth writes about her plants (when of course she's actually writing about how she learned to live alone in New York City):

"My plants are brought in from their southern kitchen window to rest in pots in the living room. The stationary scheflera in its heavy tub stands in its permanent corner, like a cat that never goes out, year after year, living its entire life in a few rooms... The weeping greens of the city shine in the dark and survive in a great will to accommodate. There they are, everywhere, determined, hopeful, like the coolness of evenings in the desert"

Like Elizabeth's plants, Carol has a great will to go on, to endure. Her determination and hope will see her through her quest, even as she pauses among the foliage, in momentary abeyance.

Towards the end of the film, even though it's all gone to shit, Carol still chooses to make a Nice Cup of Tea. Good work woman.

You know how I feel about these moments in horror films. I like to catalogue them all. I am starting to develop a thesis that a woman character makes a Nice Cup of Tea in horror film just before something dreadful happens. If only there had been a cat (preferably black) in this film as well, Phantom Lady would've been my most perfect, most heavenly film.

At a certain point, Carol also adorns a disembodied head sculpture with - the eventually located - Very Important Hat

And pisses herself laughing about it, even though by this point, she is in Extreme Danger

Finally, in ascertaining the danger, she gets to a telephone. But, as we learned with Sorry, Wrong Number and Black Christmas, that landline is only ever going to bring you more trouble.

Oh, Carol.

Christina Lane has penned Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock, the only book you need on Joan Harrison, and which will undoubtedly finally put this producer into our film histories. One point she makes about Phantom Lady particularly tickled me. Universal doubled down on the hat motif for promoting the film, recognising that 'as a gimmick it offered endless marketing opportunities, such as the "hat of horror"', which Universal recommended for sale in display windows of local shops.

What's probably more important though is Lane's archival research, where she reveals the success of Phantom Lady meant that 'Harrison was widely celebrated for moving the horror genre out of the B-class'; Lane then quotes a local paper noting approvingly that she turned 'a womanly experiment into a box-office bonanza'.

I feel like Joan is going to need a prominent place in my next book.

And maybe I should buy a hat.



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