Smarting after the latest fight with his wife, Scott Henderson picks up a woman in a bar. When Scott returns home, he finds the cops waiting for him and his wife strangled to death. When his anonymous date remains a mystery, Scott is tried and sentenced to death. His only hope is his loyal assistant Kansas, who will stop at nothing to find Scott's "phantom lady," even if it means slipping into a tight dress and fishnet stockings in order to get a witness to talk.
Philip Marlowe never had to flash some leg to work a case. But in this case, the detective is Carol "Kansas" Richmond, whose secret love for Scott compels her quest for the truth. The shake-up in sex roles is the most intriguing--and rewarding--twist in Phantom Lady. Despite some more improbable, contrived twists in the storyline and a second half that slowly sinks into melodrama, Phantom Lady is worth sighting.
Director Robert Siodmak creates a paranoid, genuinely suspenseful atmosphere right from the start when Scott returns home to find the cops waiting for him in the dark. That they silently observe him as he questions them and then finds his wife's body makes them menacing. It's illogical, but this allows Siodmak to create a Kafkaesque atmosphere of paranoia and confusion, intensified by the contrast between the impassive, cynical cops and Scott the grieving husband. A conspiracy emerges when witnesses who saw Scott with the mystery woman lie about seeing her, thus turning her into a phantom.
Too bad Siodmak's atmosphere can't cover up the weakness in the script. Since the witnesses admit seeing Scott, wouldn't that provide him with alibis during his murder trial? There is a bright side to Scott being sentenced to death, however. At least Carol gets to transform herself from no-nonsense businesswoman to detective.
And she's good, too. She's cool and steely as she tries to get a witness who's been paid to lie to talk, even after he menaces her at a subway stop in a brilliantly suspenseful sequence. Carol plays the part of a whore to seduce another witness, Cliff, into talking. She successfully masks her disgust, if just barely, by urging Cliff to a climax as he plays the drums in a thinly-veiled metaphor for sex. Just in case you don't get it, Siodmak helpfully includes a crotch shot in Cliff's drumming sequence. Let's see Philip Marlowe bring such dedication to solving a case!
Having entered the underworld of sex and crime and death for Scott, Carol signifies a reversal of noir sex stereotypes. She's a woman who leaves a respectable middle-class life for a corrupt world, thus making him a homme fatale.
Unfortunately, Phantom Lady doesn't sustain such creativity in the second half. Carol is gradually restored to a stereotyped sex role after Scott's best friend Jack pops up to lend a hand in her investigation. Given Franchot Tone's unintentionally hilarious over-acting as Jack, Phantom Lady could have just as easily been renamed The Big Cheese. Despite its flaws, Phantom Lady is innovative and atmospheric enough to deserve more than a ghost of a chance with the viewer.(Revised January 28, 2001)