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.
I watched this recently in preparation for an event on film noir and enjoyed it very much. It’s a significant film in many ways, though its short running time (82 minutes) seems to indicate a ‘B’ picture. The cast and crew and the sheer artistry of the film do, however, point to an ‘A’ picture from RKO. Researching the film, I came across a fascinating website, The Film Noir File: A Dossier of Challenges to the Film Noir Hardboiled Paradigm written and compiled by Dan Hodges. I should have been aware of this site because it explores the arguments against the conventional academic film histories of film noir and also the supposed American uniqueness of the genre/style. I would tend to support both of the main aims of the website.
The Spiral Staircase challenges the ‘paradigm’ of film noir in one sense and ‘fits’ it in another. It is not based on the kind of ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction of the 1930s/40s, but it is directed by an émigré German director, Robert Siodmak and photographed by another, the Italian Nicholas Musaraca (who had worked in Hollywood since the 1920s). In fact, Siodmak and Musuraca were two of the principal ‘creators’ of film noir as later described by Hollywood film scholars. Musaraca worked under Val Lewton in RKO’s ‘B’ unit in the early 1940s on films such as Cat People (1942) and would later shoot the film noir classic Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947). Siodmak came to RKO after early noirs such as The Phantom Lady (1944) and The Suspect (1944). He would go on to make another recognised noir classic, The Killers, also in 1946.
So, how does The Spiral Staircase challenge the paradigm? The first films noirs to be studied extensively in retrospect were based on hard-boiled crime stories, often featured a ‘doomed man’ and a femme fatale and were contemporary in setting (though they might update 1930s stories to the 1940s). The Spiral Staircase is based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, a British writer who turned to crime fiction in the 1930s. Three of her novels were adapted for cinema, beginning with The Lady Vanishes in 1938 (UK, Alfred Hitchcock). She died in 1944 and didn’t see either The Spiral Staircase or Unseen (1945). The Spiral Staircase was adapted by a radio drama writer Mel Dinelli.
Ethel Lina White was born in 1876 in Abergavenny so it isn’t surprising that she set her 1933 novel Some Must Watch in the Welsh borders. It was adapted as The Spiral Staircase and transposed to early 20th century New England, but still featuring an isolated country house. Though the adaptation sees a few characters altered, the important point here is that the central character is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a young woman who has lost her voice after a childhood trauma and is now the ‘ladies companion’ of the bed-ridden Mrs Warren (the formidable figure of Ethel Barrymore). The local town is experiencing the terror of a serial killer and the film opens with the murder of a young woman in a hotel while below an audience (including Helen) watches an early film screening. When Helen returns to the isolated country house (in a rainstorm), Siodmak reveals the shoes and single voyeuristic eye of the murderer hiding in the shadows on the stairs of the great old Victorian gothic mansion. The film’s title refers to the staircase down to the extensive basement/cellar. If you want more background on the book and film (with possible SPOILERS) there is an interesting post on ‘Le curieux Monsieur Cocosse | Journal’.)
We can guess what will happen, but the film is highly engaging with its narrative twists and turns and the superlative camerawork, lighting and set design make it always watchable. Helen is both ‘damsel in distress’ and investigator (and arguably the ‘final girl’ as identified in the horror films of the 1990s). As well as Helen and Mrs Warren, the film also features two other significant female roles played by Rhonda Fleming (who went on to lead roles in the 1950s) and Elsa Lanchester (wife of Charles Laughton and dogged by her early Hollywood success in The Bride of Frankenstein). The narrative draws primarily on the suspense thriller repertoire. The visual style suggests the horror film as much as the film noir and it is supported by a strong soundtrack mix of effects referring to the terrible storm outside, the banging of windows and shutters and the sound of the wind and rain. Horror and film noir arguably have roots in common in German expressionism of the 1920s and the same roots also apply to the particular cycle of female-centred melodramas that became popular in the 1940s. Many of these reveal a certain kind of paranoia about being in the ‘old dark house’. In Gaslight (UK 1940 and US 1944), both films adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, a woman in London becomes fearful that her house is subject to strange events. Her relative was murdered in the house some time ago but is her present husband trying to frighten her? Ingrid Bergman is the frightened woman in the Hollywood version with clear film noir links. The Spiral Staircase also links to the Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in distress’ film Sorry Wrong Number (1948) in which she plays a woman who is bed-ridden, like the Ethel Barrymore character in the Siodmak film and similarly fearful of an attack. These melodramas are also films noirs.
Melodrama implies other familiar conventions. Helen is affected by her trauma so that she can’t speak – and therefore can’t ask for help or convey what she knows quickly. In the scene above she looks at herself in the mirror, a common image from melodrama that might suggest that there are two Helens or that she has something to hide that might not be revealed to the other characters. The mirror also allows the composition of images which are ‘disrupted’ in their presentation of narrative space. Here the deep focus which operates throughout the film shows the dining room below. In this case, the mirror image helps conjure up Helen’s fears that being unable to speak will be dangerous in the febrile atmosphere of her gothic surroundings. This image also gives an indication of the detailed set design and ‘set dressing’ which adds greatly to the power of the images. The art direction duties are credited to Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. D’Agostino worked on 27 films released in 1946. The Spiral Staircase certainly benefits from the experience and expertise of personnel working within the studio system. Helen’s ‘lack’ of a voice is also a feature of certain melodramas where such ‘lacks’ are often seen as symbolic. In this film, the lack is also imagined by Helen in a sequence representing her internal thoughts and in another where a visual effect obscures her mouth.
I think that Dan Hodges is right to challenge the ‘paradigm’ of American film noir. So many different kinds of films have benefited from the application of themes and style features associated with noir. I think I’d describe The Spiral Staircase as a noir melodrama melded with the suspense thriller/horror film.