The film stars Franchot Tone, who I've always enjoyed, and Alan Curtis, who always seems to leave me underwhelmed, but it is a vehicle first and foremost for the talents of Ella Raines—
—one of the sexiest and most beautiful actresses of her time (the 40's, which makes her one of the sexiest and most beautiful actresses ever). She made fewer than 20 films, though, in that most golden of decades for cinema. In the 50's, she moved into television (she was Janet Dean, Registered Nurse), before retiring in 1956. Fortunately, most of the films she left behind— Impact, The Web, Hail the Conquering Hero, Tall in the Saddle, The Senator Was Indiscreet, The Run Around, Enter Arsene Lupin, The Walking Hills, Brute Force, The Suspect, The Swindlers, and especially Phantom Lady—were first rate. And everything she made was worth seeing, if only for the chance to see her. It's not so much her looks—well, check that, it's not only her looks—which make her so special; Raines had an every-girl quality, a wholesome, all-american thing, and a great earnestness, all combined with a sensuality that could make Betty Page blush. She's a treasure, and I encourage you to see everything she's in, especially this one.
Originating from the pen of Cornell Woolrich—as have more than 30 films, including Rear Window, Dark Angel, Deadline at Dawn, The Bride Wore Black, The Window, The Leopard Man, and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes—the basic plot of Phantom Lady revolves around a man (Alan Curtis) accused by circumstantial evidence of murdering his wife, and his inability to find witnesses proving his innocence. On the night in question, Curtis was actually out with another woman, a stranger, whom he cannot find and who does not come forward, even after he's convicted and moved to Death Row (they do not even exchange names—hence, she is the phantom lady). A number of additional possible witnesses fail to remember him, and it looks like Curtis's goose is cooked; his secretary, though (Ella Raines), is convinced of his innocence, and sets out to prove it.
In this famous scene, Raines is deceiving Elisha Cook, Jr. (the psychotic gunsel from The Maltese Falcon, poor doomed Harry from The Big Sleep) into believing she's wild for him. He's a drummer at a club Curtis and his phantom lady-friend visited the night of the murder, and although Cook should be able to identify him, he won't. Raines is trying to figure out why, as well as discovering how far she'll go to find out.
At the beginning of the scene, the two of them descend a small stair into a dimly-lit corridor. Muted jazz music can be heard, coming from somewhere, and Cook begins to strut, dancing lightly in front of her, suggesting seduction and foreplay. Once they reach their destination, he opens the door, and the music swells—within this small drab room, 7 or 8 musicians are having at it—trumpets, piano, clarinets, a stand-up bass, each rapturously playing a tune which seems like it's mutating, rapidly, from sensuous to profane. The musicians regard her wolfishly (and she them!), attacking—no, attending, violently—their instruments, as if she has transubstantiated into each. Cook takes his place on drums, and when he begins, this astonishing sequence descends further into overt sexuality. Raines's facial expressions during Cook's drum solo—his little man's thrusting overreach—are savagely honest, and mesmerizing in their cruelty. Her final snarl, and the coarse, mocking nod of the head which follow it at the—pardon the expression—climax of this scene, are gestures for the ages.
See what you think: