Forgotten Film: Phantom Lady (1944)

Cornell Woolrich's Phantom Lady is an engaging mystery film, just not a great one.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 155th in my series of Forgotten, Obscure or Neglected Films

I really love the novels of Cornell Woolrich, whether writing under that name or William Irish or George Hopley. For a while, I had a very nice collection of first editions of his work including a beautiful copy of Phantom Lady. But I took the money and ran a long time ago.

Woolrich was a master of suspense and tension, particularly in his novels, though some also comes through in his films. Check out my review of Jacques Tourneau’s The Leopard Man which was based on Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi. It features one of the most terrifying scenes ever put on screen and that scene is straight out of the novel.

But, let’s talk about Phantom Lady. Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is a successful engineer in a bad marriage. On his anniversary he and his wife have a fight and he storms out of the apartment. He goes to a local bar where he meets a lonely woman with a gaudy hat. They make small talk and he invites her to go to a show. When he asks her name, she demurs, saying that they should enjoy the night with no names and no history. They take a cab to the show where a drummer tries to get her attention and the headliner Monteiro (Aurora) is seen wearing the same hat. Monteiro is obviously furious.

Henderson returns home to find police Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) waiting. Henderson’s wife has been strangled with one of his neckties. Henderson isn’t worried about being arrested for the crime because he didn’t do it. But when the police question the bartender (Andrew Tombes) he says Henderson was alone. So does the cab driver. And when Monteiro is questioned, she remembers nothing about the Henderson’s companion and the hat the argued about isn’t even among her costumes.

Henderson finds himself on trial for murder and, with no alibi, he is quickly convicted and sentenced to die. The only one convinced he’s innocent is his secretary, Carol “Kansas” Richmond (Ella Raines), who is in love with him. She cannot find any other way to help him, so she shadows the bartender. When he makes a casual slip about being paid, he tries to attack her and ends up getting killed in traffic. At that point, Carol suspects she is on the right trail.

She begins to track down the drummer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who admits that he was paid $500 to forget what he saw. Carol calls Burgess, but by the time he gets there the drummer is dead. At this point, the film gives away the identity of the real killer, something which was not disclosed in the book until the very end.

Scott’s friend, Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) has been in South America and when he returns he agrees to help Carol solve Scott’s problem. Together they find the Phantom Lady and the hat, but the murderer is still about and Carol is in deep trouble.

This was a good film, just not the great film which might have been made from the book. In glorious black and white, it has many of the features of a good noir film but somehow falls flat. The tense moments just don’t quite come across that way, until the point at which Carol confronts the killer. Part of the problem is the source material. Woolrich novels sometimes rely on coincidence and, as in this case, you have to buy that people are willing to let a man die after being paid to forget something. Somehow I tend to have a better opinion of people than that. Of the four, one should have broken down.

When reading the books, the breakneck pacing gets you through. With the film, that pacing isn’t there and the flaws emerge.

I still like this film, though, and I still love the work of Woolrich. I’m hoping you do to. TCM runs this film fairly regularly and you should check it out when you can. It’s not Out of the Past or Double Indemnity, but it’s still worthwhile.

Series organizer Todd Mason hosts more Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.


Forgotten Films: Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

The cast of Seven Footprints to Satan: They don't make flicks this weird anymore.

Review by Scott A. Cupp

There is not a new Forgotten Film this week because I started a new job and had to run out immediately to Las Vegas for the National Finals of the Trivia network that I play in. At this point I don’t know how we are going to do, but I have high hopes (as the song says). So enjoy this classic goodie from 2011.

This is a rerun of the 2nd in my series of Forgotten Obscure or Neglected Films.

The poster for Seven Footprints to Satan. Also plenty weird.

This week’s film has a history. In 1997, I attended the World Science Fiction convention here in San Antonio. My partner Willie Siros and I had a booth in the dealer’s room as Adventures in Crime and Space, which was the name of our bookstore in Austin. As usual, we shopped around the room looking for things to buy and re-sell or things for our own personal collections. Someone — I believe it was Greg Ketter of Dreamhaven Books — showed me a VHS copy of a film I was unfamiliar with.

SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN was a lost silent film which had recently been rediscovered in Italy. The only known copy had Italian titlecards and this was a copy of it. I had read the source novel of the same title probably 30 years earlier and did not remember much of it, except that it was by A. Merritt (author of THE SHIP OF ISHTAR, reviewed in my Forgotten Books column a few weeks ago) and that I had enjoyed it. I was also informed that one of my favorite writers, Cornel Woolrich, had worked on the screenplay for the film. I had to have it, so I bought it as well as other films at the time.  I attempted to watch SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, but with no idea what the title cards were saying, I was lost and just shelved the title as a good try.

Fast forward 13 years, and I acquired a new VHS player, the old one having died. I remembered the film and wondered if anyone had ever bothered to translate the titlecards so I could understand the proceedings. They had, and I printed  out the translation. This week, I was feeling poorly and I knew I wanted to watch and review this film, so I dug out the tape, fired up the player and traveled to Silent Film Land.

The basic story deals with Jim (Creighton Hale), a successful and very rich chemist who wants to go o Africa and explore lost civilizations. His uncle Joe (DeWitt Jennings)  is trying to talk him out of it but fails. His fiancée, Eve (the always delightful Thelma Todd), shows up with a strange request. She knows he is getting ready to leave but her father is having a party where he plans to show a fabulous emerald, and she is suspicious of one guest, a professor that Jim knows. Jim agrees to go to the party and validate or repudiate the guest.

They arrive at the party, and while the professor looks the part, he does not respond accurately to Jim’s question and the police are summoned. Suddenly, mayhem breaks out, guns are brandished, shots are fired and people flee. Jim and Eve flee to a limousine owned by his uncle and ask to be taken away. Things are quite for a while, when the pair realize they are being taken somewhere other than where they desire.

They find themselves at the house of “Satan,” who may or may not be a criminal mastermind a supernatural fiend, the devil himself, or some combination of the above. Here they encounter many unusual characters including an imp, a dwarf, an ape-like man, a gorilla, Satan’s Mistress and “the Spider.” They are led through odd rooms, questioned, imprisoned, helped to escape, disguised, trapped and finally tested with the title Seven Footprints, which could lead to fabulous wealth and freedom or servitude to Satan — or even Death.

The film also features a brief, unbilled cameo of a 16-year-old Loretta Young.

It’s not a long film. I think my copy clocked in at 77 minutes, and mine contains scenes not covered by the translation where I just had to sort of guess what was happening. The copy is not pristine, but when only one exists, you take what you could get.

I was a little disappointed in the criminal aspects of the story, particularly with Woolrich involved. His PHANTOM LADY and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK are two great novels that made excellent films. But then I checked the date – 1929.  At this point, Woolrich had not turned exclusively to mystery. He was still writing novels of the Jazz Age like Fitzgerald, and on the basis of them, had secured a job in Hollywood, so this made more sense since Jim and Eve are certainly privileged members of the Jazz Age society. He was still ten years from producing his first mystery novels, though the short stories would come soon enough. Apparently, the director Benjamin Christensen is well thought of, though most of his films are now lost or sorely incomplete. I was not aware of his work before this.

One on-line site mentioned that A. Merritt cried when he saw what was done to his fabulous story. I can understand that. Gone is much of the fantasy that made him who he was, and apparently this chops off much of the last third of the novel.

I was glad to get to see this film but I cannot recommend it to everyone.  If this sounds like your cup of tea, take a look at the absolutely brilliant analysis and extended information over at AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!.

Series organizer Todd Mason hosts more Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.