Jumat, 29 April 2011

Robert Siodmak - Phantom Lady (1944)

Plot :
Unhappily married Scott Henderson spends the evening on a no-name basis with a hat-wearing woman he picked up in a bar.
Returning home, he finds his wife strangled and becomes the prime suspect in her murder.
Every effort to establish his alibi fails, the lady has disappeared...

Perhaps what is most interesting about Phantom Lady is its relationship to a strain of '40s cinema in which traditional narrative logic is subservient to a primarily poetic or lyrical approach. In this regard, the film is not simply of its moment but also anticipates certain aspects of post-war modernist cinema, in particular narratives revolving around the search for an elusive figure who may be alive or dead and who may have existed in reality or be a figment of someone's imagination. Here we find narratives built less around traditional cause-and-effect, character driven investigations than narratives dominated by an obsessive form of stalking and trailing (see, for example the work of Antonioni, Resnais, Duras and Robbe-Grillet). Two creative figures behind Phantom Lady are central here: its director, Robert Siodmak, and the author of the novel upon which the film was based, Cornell Woolrich.

Woolrich's crime novels consistently challenge the fetish for plausibility and pull us into a nightmarish world which follows its own internal drives, with the protagonists at the mercy of irrational forces. The construction of a Woolrich novel constitutes a ruin of classical detective fiction in which traditional explanations and resolutions are offered but almost invariably seem insufficient in relation to what has preceded it. Furthermore, the appeal of the novels has to do not simply with their intoxicating illogic but also their phenomenological detail and descriptions of urban spaces in a state of sweltering decay. Siodmak is an ideal candidate for this kind of story material and Phantom Lady is the film that established his Hollywood reputation. His origins in Weimar cinema (and the six years after this spent in France) allowed him to develop his superb and sensuously textured attention to details in mise en scène. But it also allowed him to absorb certain lessons from Expressionist and Surrealist cinema.

Woolrich's work often revolves around the problematic nature of memory, most often in relation to a crime which the protagonist may have committed but which their faulty memories (often aggravated by extreme trauma) cause them to either forget or be uncertain about. However, Henderson's memory lapse is brought on by simple distraction – his anger at his wife precipitating his difficulty in fastening onto details about the 'phantom lady.' This is counterpointed with the unshakable certainty of the witnesses who claim never to have seen her. What, then, does Carol hope to achieve through this stare of hers except to force a memory out of a man who otherwise claims to have no memory for faces, a failure which he attributes solely to the distractions of his profession and which he finally dies for – running in front of a car – rather than confess? The all-powerful male gaze of such archetypal Weimar figures as Nosferatu and Mabuse is here passed on to a protagonist whose concerns could not be more different. In a brilliant reversal of the gender conventions of material of this nature, it is the woman who does the stalking and it is the woman who possesses the most powerful gaze of them all. But this gaze is not one that she possesses in monstrous terms but in order to uncover the truth and bring a memory into the light of day, as though Poe's Ligeia and Lang's Mabuse had been crossed with Hildy in Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940).

While the film retains the novel's lackluster pickup between Henderson and the 'phantom lady,' it adds details strengthening the theme of memory. The 'phantom lady' is more melancholic than in the novel and when we first see her in the bar she is playing an instrumental version of “I'll Remember April” on the jukebox, a song whose lyrics (which we don't ever hear in the film) testify to the gentle appeal of remembrance: “The fire will dwindle into glowing ashes/For flames of love will live such a little while/I won't forget but I won't be lonely/I'll remember April and I'll smile.” Throughout the opening, Terry perpetually stares off into space, scarcely making eye contact with Henderson.
Henderson attempts to focus that stare onto something specific, drawing her attention to the “typical New York face” of the cab driver and asking Terry if she ever walks down New York streets and looks into people's faces. Not until they attend the Brazilian revue, where the singer onstage is wearing the same hat as Terry and the two women lock malevolent glances at one another, is this vagueness of Terry's look temporarily broken. The significance of “I'll Remember April” and of the 'phantom lady's' behavior is not clarified until near the end of the film.

no pass

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