Phantom Lady is the story of a good girl who pretends to be a femme fatale. She does it all for a noble cause, to save the life of an innocent man, but she scares herself by just how well she pretends.
The underrated Ella Raines stars as Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman, a dogged secretary who launches her own criminal investigation when the boss she secretly loves is convicted of murder. Although the film’s title, Phantom Lady, ostensibly refers to the condemned man’s elusive alibi—a strange, sad woman who vanished without a trace—it could equally apply to Kansas, a lucid and luminous avenging angel.
Cameraman Elwood Bredell (of The Killers and The Unsuspected) frequently bathes Kanas in an eerie, ethereal glow, a beam that seems to have chosen her and left those around her in darkness. For instance, as Kansas waits for hours at the end of a bar (in order to scare a lying witness into telling the truth), we see her as a tiny Edward Hopper-esque figure wrapped in an aura that separates her from the somber interior. She is the ghost at the banquet.
However, not to be locked into a single mode, Bredell’s lighting explores and caresses the curves of Raines’s face and neck the way a philosopher lovingly appreciates a moral dilemma from all sides.
During the film’s visual climax, a delirious, disorienting sequence in a seedy jazz club, Bredell dazzles us with a fever pitch of chiaroscuro, sometimes blackening Kansas into a silhouette, sometimes illuminating only part of her, sometimes turning her face into a grinning grotesque. As Kansas goes undercover, her fragmented identity shows in the arresting quicksilver shifts of lighting that play over her face.
Consider this exquisite shot, in which the stark top-lighting transforms Kansas’s appearance in a matter of seconds, as she comes out of the “eclipse” created by the brim of her hat, then partially back into it. She acquires the tantalizing mutability of the moon, waxing and waning.
In this underworld setting, the shadows add to Kansas’s camouflage, sculpting her into a different person: the daring ‘hep kitten’ who hangs out in a hole-in-the-wall club to seduce a manic drummer. As Kansas looks at herself in a mirror, overlaid by a lattice of shadings from her veil, you get the feeling that, for a moment, she forgot who she was. She thought she was looking at somebody else—only that somebody else was her.
Siodmak’s dreamlike thriller suggest that the good girl and the bad girl, those cherished noir tropes, are not binaries, but parallel universes. Hellbent on saving her man, Kansas causes at least two men’s deaths, narrowly escapes death under the wheels of an elevated train, almost spends the night with a scuzzy drummer, and grows rather fond of a charming killer.
Perhaps Phantom Lady‘s focus on the fluidity of a woman’s identity—and on the difficult choices she has to make while pursuing her goal with fierce determination—was intensified by the film’s producer: Joan Harrison, a lady who navigated the danger-fraught boy’s club of Hollywood with panache and brilliance.
Alas, Phantom Lady brushes the darkness of its heroine under the rug before the last act. The movie wraps up prettily and conveniently, as if afraid to ponder the implications of Carol’s journey into night.
Yet, thanks to Bredell’s haunting low-key cinematography and Rains’s performance, maybe we feel the precariousness of any good girl’s goodness all the same. Maybe we realize that the women who keep the universe in balance must walk a tightrope of light over a chasm of nightmares.