I think I must have first seen Phantom Lady on TV in the 1970s. In those days my TV screen was small and all I remember from that first viewing was a bar, high heels clacking on the dark streets and Elisha Cook. Everyone knew poor Elisha would never make it to the last reel in any of the dozens of films in which he appeared and he certainly didn’t in this one – he’s also playing a drummer in a jazz group! Other than that and that the film was directed by Robert Siodmak, the director of that remarkable German film Menschen am Sonntag (1930), I could remember nothing. My recent viewing via MUBI proved to be a revelation on a larger TV screen in HD it sets up a whole range of interesting questions as well as providing much visual pleasure.
Phantom Lady is an adaptation of a ‘breakthrough’ novel by Cornell Woolrich published under his cover name ‘William Irish’. Woolrich was immensely prolific and IMDb lists 42 film titles based on his stories and novels. He’s best known as the writer of the short story that became Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and for the stories adapted for Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). He’s also known as one of the key sources for Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s alongside Hammett, Chandler and James M. Cain. After watching the film I looked up two detailed studies of the film, one by Michael Walker in an essay simply titled ‘Robert Siodmak’ in the MovieBook of Film Noir (ed. Ian Cameron, 1981) and the other, ‘Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the abandoned city of the Forties’ by David Reid and Jayne L. Walker in Shades of Noir edited by Joan Copjec (Verso 1993). One of the most important revelations of these two pieces is that Woolrich wrote in such detail about scenes that Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell with art directors Robert Clatworthy and John B. Goodman were able to form very clear ideas about how to put them on screen. The narrative is set in New York City but filmed on Universal Studio lots in Los Angeles which are used to conjure up streets very effectively. There is definitely a feel of German Expressionist Cinema about them.
As Walker points out, the narrative structure is clearly defined in three sections. In the first a professional engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) visits a bar feeling depressed and buys a drink for a woman who seems similarly down. He persuades her to join him at a variety show as he has two tickets. At the end of the evening they part and she leaves him without revealing her name. When Scott returns home expecting to find his wife with whom he quarrelled earlier, he finds her dead and a trio of police detectives waiting for him. He believes the ‘phantom lady’ will provide him with an alibi, but although she was wearing a very distinctive hat, none of the obvious witnesses remembers her with Scott. He is arrested and later convicted. In the second section one of Scott’s employees (her role in his office is not clear), Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman (Ella Raines), is convinced that he is innocent and sets out to find the ‘phantom lady’. But the witnesses she questions tend to disappear. At the end of this section she meets Scott’s close friend Marlow (Franchot Tone) back from South America and in the third section she and Marlow seek the final witness, the ‘phantom lady’ herself. They are supported by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) who by this stage believes that Scott Henderson may have been framed. In between each section, a bridging scene sees Kansas visiting Scott in prison awaiting execution. It’s apparent that she is in love with him. There is a clear resolution to the narrative with a ‘happy ending’ – something which many viewers find banal after the mystery/suspense twists and the look and feel of the film overall.
Kansas, as played by the wonderful Ella Raines, is an unusual female lead. She acts something like a femme fatale at one point in order to get information off a witness. Towards the end of the film she needs to be rescued, but for much of the film she is an intelligent and resourceful investigator. Although her role in Henderson’s business is never clearly defined, she is a professional office worker and independent woman – unfortunately rare in Hollywood narratives of the 1940s. Ella Raines had a film career which was probably not that unusual for talented and attractive young women in the mid 1940s. She was ‘discovered’ in a drama school stage production by Howard Hawks and put into The Nelson Touch (Corvette K-225 in the US) in 1943. Over the next few years, she appeared in several films, usually in the lead film role and opposite major male stars such as Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Charles Laughton and directed by name directors. She made three films in all for Robert Siodmak, two for Preston Sturges and Brute Force (1947) for Jules Dassin. But after 1950 her film career petered out and she moved into television. She virtually retired from film and TV aged just 36. I had always thought of her as a B picture player, but her films were, I now discover, A features. Robert Siodmak didn’t suffer the same fate and I’m going to dig out some more of his work.
It seems scarcely credible that Kiss Me Deadly is over 60 years old. It still carries a punch with its brilliant camerawork and editing and its story about a brutish man in pursuit of what turns about to be a disturbing pre-echo of a contemporary scare, referred to in the film as “the great whatsit”.
Mickey Spillane, author of the original novel, died in 2005. His obituaries faithfully recorded his enormous popularity in the 1950s with millions of paperbacks sold and the establishment of the aptly named Mike Hammer as a certain kind of American hero. Misogynistic and fascistic, Hammer is a private eye who blunders his way to a ‘solution’ of each case with excessive violence – about as far from Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe as you can get. Spillane had a strange relationship with Hollywood, appearing both as himself and as Hammer in a couple of films and also seeing his stories and his hero taken on by an unlikely group of filmmakers.
Victor Saville was a well-known British director who began making films in the 1920s, was successful in the UK in the 1930s and went to Hollywood in the 1940s as a producer-director for MGM. In 1953 Saville formed Parklane Pictures and bought the rights to four Mickey Spillane novels, simply on the basis of their popularity. He directed two of the films himself (The Long Wait, 1954 and My Gun is Quick, 1957) and produced the other two (I, the Jury 1951 and Kiss Me Deadly). The films made very good profits and Saville next identified Ian Fleming novels as similarly lucrative properties, but was too early into the market and couldn’t make an appropriate deal with United Artists.
Kiss Me Deadly was less commercially successful than the other Parklane films, but it has gained a high critical reputation as one of the two great ‘late period’ films noirs (sharing the honour with Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1957)) and credited as a major influence on the directors of La nouvelle vague in France at the end of the 1950s.
Robert Aldrich (1918-83)
Parklane hired producer-director Robert Aldrich to make Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich was from a wealthy Eastern family of bankers, but he turned out to be one of the most radical filmmakers in post-war Hollywood. University-educated, he got a job at RKO through a relative’s influence and learned his trade as an assistant to directors such as Jean Renoir, William Wellman, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Lewis Milestone, Charles Chaplin and Joseph Losey. He made several programmes for television in 1952-3 and directed four features before 1955, including two Westerns for the Burt Lancaster-Harold Hecht company, Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954). These early films helped introduce a new kind of ‘tough’ and more ‘realistic’ Western with a focus on the Apache and American incursions into Mexico. Aldrich and Lancaster returned to similar territory with Ulzana’s Raid (1972) an unsettling film with clear references to Vietnam. Aldrich was a radical who enjoyed turning Hollywood expectations upside down. He must have been intrigued with the possibility of Hammer as hero/anti-hero on a quest in a world with no clear moral order. Ralph Meeker turned out to be perfect casting for Hammer and Aldrich went on to become the leading ‘tough guy’ action director of the next thirty years.
The script with its witty one liners and ironic references to high culture is by A. I. Bezzerides, writer on pictures for Bogart, Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum and another leftist to dismay Spillane. The wonderful cinematography is by Ernest Laszlo, a regular with Aldrich and later Stanley Kramer, who had previously lensed the film noir D.O.A. (1950) and Jo Losey’s remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1951). With art director William Glasgow, also an Aldrich regular, he created the first ‘modern’ noir.
This title from the Japan Foundation Film Tour proved to be a startling and, I think, rewarding experience. In one respect it bears a resemblance to Hollywood films such as those by David Fincher and Martin Scorsese. I’m thinking of something like Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island (2010). Like that film, Yurigokoro is based on a novel, Nan-Core by the horror/crime writer Numata Mahokaru. It’s common for Japanese features to be based on novels or manga, but there has recently been discussion about a new genre in Japanese popular literature known as iyamisu (eww mystery). This is the kind of mystery novel where the reader involuntarily gasps ‘Eeuw!’ or ‘Ugh’ at a description of something grisly. I try to read examples of contemporary Japanese crime fiction and I would argue that a writer like Kirino Natsuo is linked to this current cycle with her novels Out (1997) and Grotesque (2003). The most notable film based on an iyamisu novel by Minato Kanae was Confessions (Kokuhaku, Japan 2010) – a popular title in the UK. Watching Yurigokoro I was also reminded of the films of Nomura Yoshitaro from the 1950s-1970s which we saw in Bradford a few years back. Finally on the background, I’ll note that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (which became the David Fincher film) was categorised on its publication in Japan as part of the new cycle.
But ‘Enough!’ you are shouting. What is Yurigokoro about? You’ll note that there is no English title and that’s because ‘Yurigokoro’ is a made-up word, a child’s mis-hearing of the technical term for her problem. Little Misako is frightened of the world around her and needs something to give her confidence. Tragically it appears to be only death or pain that can give her confidence and as she grows up she becomes involved in a couple of deaths that could be construed as accidents. The film’s narrative moves backwards and forwards in time in a nonlinear fashion and as well as Misako we are introduced to a young man, Ryosuke (Matsuzaka Tôri) driving his fiancée to the summer café he has opened in a tourist spot in the forest. Suddenly he accelerates and frightens his partner before slowing down again when he sees her distress. At the café he introduces her to his father Yosuke (Matsuyama Ken’ichi), but a little later she disappears in a mysterious way. Ryosuke is also shocked to discover that his father has terminal cancer. A little later when he visits his father he finds a diary in his father’s room and starts to read it. The first line of the diary includes the statement that “I have never had a problem with killing people” (I don’t remember the exact words). Unlike a shocked but intrigued Ryosuke, we have some inkling who might have written such a line and soon we are back with a now adult Misako (Yoshitaka Yuriko).
I won’t spoil the narrative any further but I will say that the violence escalates such that one scene featured so much blood that I think someone in the row behind me fainted (and I, and the woman next to me, watched the scene through our fingers). Sheffield Showroom warned punters at the box office that there were violent scenes (because festival films aren’t certificated). This would be an 18 in the UK – but it is listed as PG-12 in Japan!
I noted in the opening credits that the film was distributed by one of the original ‘major studios’ in Japan, Nikkatsu in conjunction with another memorable studio brand Toei. Toei-Nikkatsu appear to have focused on releasing major genre pictures in the last few years. Yurigokoro was released in September 2017 in Japan, making an entry at No. 8 in the chart but only lasting two weeks before disappearing from the Top 20. I suspect that the film earned more from video and streaming services. This seems about right for an adventurous genre movie with an experienced cast and crew. I think director Kumazawa Naoto manages to hold together the different elements in this very complex film very well. He co-wrote the screenplay with the novel’s author. The cinematography by Imamura Keisuke also works well to distinguish the noirish world of Misako with the clean and airy world of Ryosuke. I guess both the make-up artists and Matsuyama Ken’ichi the actor deserve credit for ageing Yosuke so well from flashbacks to the present.
Despite the gruesome scenes this was a surprising and rewarding night out at the pictures and shows once again the diversity of films from Japan. I’m always grateful for a chance to see these films from the Japan Foundation.
Original Japanese trailer (no English subs):
Willis Hall adapted his own play for J Lee Thompson to direct and it has a top of the range cast including Sylvia Sims, Herbert Lom and Stanley Holloway. Juvenile delinquency was a hot topic in the ‘fifties but this film is set, after a contemporary framing device featuring a very young David Hemmings, in the 1930s. The bird’s eye view shot of the Isle of Dogs (prefiguring the UK TV soap opera Eastenders title graphic) during the credit sequence firmly places the film in the East End slums and the film does a good job of representing the degrading environment in both the set design and the scratty clothes of the crowded streets.
Part of the difficulty ’50s cinema had to contend with was the narrow representations afforded women: basically the virgin-mother-whore types. However No Trees in the Street deals with this well for, after ensuring we understood Sims’ Hetty to be ‘sweet and virginal’, it allows Lom’s small time racketeer, WIlkie, to seduce her. I guess this was a ‘cutting-edge’ scene at the time in British cinema. Characterisation is a strength of the film as Lom fills the role with conflicted desperation; he’s a migrant who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps and the film makes clear that crime was one of the few options available out of poverty. It is his decency that wins over Hetty but his insecurity is never far away. Stanley Holloway is, as ever, his excellent self as a has-been who finds solace in a bottle.
Thompson’s direction is excellent too with many shots obviously inspired by film noir; for example the low angle as the good detective thumps Wilkie makes him loom over the hoodlum. Thompson was on a roll at the time with Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Ice Cold in Alex (1959). Melvin Hayes, in his debut, has the right scrawny build for the pathetic teenager brother of Hetty whose desperate attempts to get money drives the conflict.
The film betrays its theatrical origins with its restricted settings but this does add to the claustrophobia of the characters’ world. Ronald Howard’s portrayal of the good guy copper is a little dated now though the exchange he has with his boss, who oozes contempt for the poor, brings a dash of modernity. As the title suggests the film is falling on the side of social circumstance (rather than innate badness) as responsible for crime and at the climactic moment Hetty assures her brother no one is born evil. It’s ironic that, in the framing scenes, we are shown the street now happily renovated with… high rise flats.