Connect with us


Blu-ray Review: Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection

Arrow Video’s thoroughly awesome Blu-ray set is sure to remain among the year’s most essential releases.




Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection

Before the 2007 New York City press screening of Hostel: Part II, Eli Roth reportedly turned to the crowd and asked: “Are you ready for some fucked-up shit?” Roth presumably blurted this out less as a question than a declaration of intent. Of course you are, his question implied. And if you weren’t, then you weren’t part of his clan. Roth’s faux-irony masks, much like the films of Quentin Tarantino, a superficial desire to mine cinema’s underground for its fucked-up-ness and repackage it for the mainstream.

Roth’s taste appears to be that of a typical gorehound; his limited bag of referential tricks includes offbeat slashers like Chopping Mall, while Tarantino’s broader knowledge reaches across national cinemas and diverse studios to encompass an obscure (at least to Western audiences) film like Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and its three sequels. It’s easy to notice Tarantino’s affection for the series, as he used its theme song for Kill Bill: Vol. 2, but it’s harder to grasp what he values the films for beyond his fetishizing of Matsu (Meiko Kaji), a deadly heroine whose silent, stoic glare and all-black garb make her one of several influences for Uma Thurman’s The Bride.

After all, unlike the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, little in the Kill Bill films relates to tradition, nationhood, or gender. Tarantino operates under a simple-minded conception that a female warrior automatically equals a feminist icon, no matter how emptied of sociological specificity she becomes. And tellingly, violence is a starting point for Tarantino; whereas he opens his film with The Bride being bloodied and shot in the head, director Shunya Îto commences Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion with the Japanese flag being raised to full mast during a commendation ceremony for Warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe).

But the ritual is cut short by an alarm announcing a prison break. When Goda’s newly minted commendation certificate is lost and trampled on by his own men, who flee the ceremony to check on the ruckus, he furiously bends down to dust it off. The scene efficiently visualizes an ironic relationship between power and bodies, with the very feet of those men who’re meant to stand at attention and in reverence to a figurehead being the ones, instead of the loathed escapees, who dirty his piece of symbolic memorabilia.

The tension between the fist of the executive branch, which is here depicted as wholly male, and the female convicts’ efforts to assert bodily autonomy drives the first two films in the series with an assuredness that successfully navigates a varied spectrum of scenes that range from the severe to the absurd. That’s especially the case in Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, the best film in the series and something of a carnivalesque masterpiece in its own right. Though the first film is assuredly gonzo with its slippage from realist to kabuki styles and back again, Jailhouse 41 makes few bids for realism of any sort, instead doubling down on its surrealist, headlong immersion into the vortex of a bizarro genre premise.

Îto also transforms the second film from a proper “women in prison” film into a road movie, where Matsu is joined on the run by a gang of women, most notably the ruthless Ôba (Kayoko Shiraishi), who at one point not only brags to Matsu about murdering her children, but about having ripped one from her womb (she’s even got the scar to prove it). Rather than structure the scene around its potential for camp, Îto undermines Ôba’s histrionic tale by zooming toward her and then, in the same shot, into a darkened pool of space beside her. As the camera performs the same action in the reverse shot with Matsu, Îto cunningly suggests a bind between the two characters through the film’s visual construction, even though their behavior couldn’t be more at odds.

These formal choices are no mere tricks, as they provide strident evidence of each character’s hallucinatory relationship to both one another and their individual, existential state. If that sounds heavy, it’s less so because of Îto’s almost musical, mathematical sense of spatial composition, in which a sideward glance can instantly prompt a camera move or one character strangling another immediately becomes a 360-degree shot of the ongoing act. Most films encode their interest in female agency through character action as an end, but Jailhouse 41 insists that the medium of film itself is the only means for actualizing this; in other words, a character’s sensations are only as strong as the camera allows them to be.

Such are Roth and his equally postmodern colleagues’ mistakes: To make “fucked-up shit,” they only know how to inflict increasing levels of pain and torment upon their characters (and audiences). Îto provides an object lesson on how to reach a bonkers state of filmic mind through angles, color, and scale while retaining his fiery critique of patriarchal power. The final scene of Matsu’s vengeance, which is too euphoric to remotely spoil, utilizes Tokyo’s skyscrapers with a fury that matches Michelangelo Antonioni or Jia Zhang-ke’s best usages of architecture within the mise-en-scène.

Unfortunately, the series’s final two films, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable and Female Prisoner Scorpion: 701’s Grudge Song, are a significant downgrade from the previous pair, primarily because they settle for male-centric urban settings that seem more fitting for other Toei or Nikkatsu series from the time, like Outlaw Gangster: VIP or Battles Without Honor and Humanity. They also make the odd choice to minimize Matsu’s role within the narrative and make her more of a savior figure, whose attempt to go straight is thwarted by the unceasing corruption that surrounds her.

Though the films feature ample slow motion and stylized fight choreography, they also boast a more conventional shot structure and relatively stock action sequences in terms of camera work. Neither comes close to matching Jailhouse 41’s weirdly sensitive interest in seeing a band of fugitive women reckon with a succession of odd foes and increasingly violent altercations. By using such diverse textures, like lighting schemes that resemble those from the films of Mario Bava coupled with the folkloric revisionism of Onibaba and Kuroneko, Îto surely sought in his second entry, and with outright abandon, to collapse any cheap labeling of his film as pure exploitation.


Although Blu-ray presentations can’t quite do justice to the radical 2.35:1 cinematography of this series, Arrow Video has done their damndest to remain faithful to the 35mm negatives. Per the liner notes in the booklet, a set low-contrast 35mm prints were struck from the original 35mm film elements and then scanned in 2K resolution for this release. Moreover, the notes also specify that the films “favor a noticeably cyan/blue look throughout,” which Arrow has attempted to maintain across each film.

Their efforts are most evident in Jailhouse 41, where a wild color palette of blue-heavy neon consistently informs the frame, whether across faces or in the entire mise-en-scène. Color rarely looks faded or dimmed, with pools of black often providing a contrast to the brighter shades. Certainly, there are issues at times with filmic artifacts such as debris or small marks. These usually occur just before and after a reel change, though Arrow looks to have done all they can to eliminate this without compromising the look of the films. Grain remains present throughout, sometimes pervasively so.

The soundtracks for each film are clear and strong, with high decibel levels making up for the limitations of the monaural presentation, especially whenever Meiko Kaji’s theme song, “Urami Bushi,” plays (roughly at the beginning and end of each film). The care and effort in these transfers are among some of Arrow’s best work, and this release continues to cement them as one of the most capable and serious labels on the global Blu-ray market.


When Arrow Video releases a box set, they cover every potential corner of the film’s historical landscape, whether through archive materials, contemporary interviews with cast and crew, or newly filmed appreciations from directors and critics. Such is certainly the case here with a package that’s practically bursting at the seams with material. Spanning four Blu-rays with one film on each disc (DVD discs for each are also included), the set also includes a 53-page hardback booklet and a double-sided fold-out poster. Moreover, a separate filmed appreciation for the entire series appears on each disc.

The best, and most informative, appreciation comes from film critic Kier-La Janisse, who first saw the Female Prisoner Scorpion series at the Fantasia Film Festival in the late ’90s. Janisse contextualizes the films in relation to other works within the “female revenge” subgenre and explains how many viewers incorrectly affiliate such films with rape-revenge. In fact, Janisse demonstrates, the rape-revenge tale is but a small portion of such films produced across multiple countries throughout the 1970s. Other appreciations (all of them insightful) come from director Gareth Evans, film critic Kat Ellinger, who focuses on Meiko Kaji’s role in the series, and filmmaker Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, who admits the films initially appealed to him because he enjoys watching “beautiful women behaving badly.”

The remaining extras are topped by a pair of video essays by Tom Mes, who thoroughly examines each film in the series along narrative and visual lines, while also looking at the entire career of Kaji in relation to Pinky Violence films and beyond. Also top-notch are a pair of interviews with Japanese cinema critic Jasper Sharp, who provides a career overview for directors Shunya Îto and Yasuharu Hasebe. There are also two archival interviews with Îto and one with Hasebe, while assistant director Yutaka Kohira and production designer Tadayuki Kuwana each give fresh takes on their roles during production. Finally, each disc includes the film’s theatrical trailer.


The series’s theme song states that “the reddest rose has many thorns,” but there’s nothing prickly about the transfers, extras, and packaging for Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection, Arrow Video’s thoroughly awesome Blu-ray set, one of the year’s most essential releases.

Cast: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Rie Yokoyama, Yayoi Watanabe, Akemi Negishi, Keiko Kuni, Yumiko Katayama Director: Shunya Îto, Yasuharu Hasebe, Screenwriter: Shunya Îto, Fumio Kônami, Hirô Matsuda, Tooru Shinohara Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 356 min Rating: NR Year: 1972-73 Release Date: August 9, 2016 Buy: Video



Review: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? on Twilight Time Blu-ray

One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source.




Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Frank Tashlin never could harmonize his celebratory/critical impulses toward American pop culture, so it comes as no surprise that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is both his funniest and most despairing picture. It’s also fitting that, after surveying a culture’s many popular obsessions (comic books, movies, rock ‘n roll), the director saves the sharpest knives for the institution whose job it is to package them for mass consumption: advertising.

Following a trademark bit of Tashlinesque wall-breaking (star Tony Randall plays the Fox fanfare on a small orchestra of instruments, then forgets the title during his introduction), the opening credits roll as a series of tableaux-like sketches, each skewering the inanities of ludicrous products pitched frontally to audiences (“Pour yourself a full glass of that heavily-brewed, clear swamp water, Shelton’s Beer”; “Wow Soap contains fallout, the exclusive patented ingredient”). The sequence hints at a trenchant critique under the rollicking humor; the phony ads, ridiculous but hardly too far removed from authentic commercials, posit the notion of consumers serving their products instead of the other way around, culminating with a spokesperson pulled into the hungry maw of a washing machine.

The characters are being similarly devoured by the system they breathlessly scramble to support, chief among them Rock Hunter (Randall), a Madison Avenue ad executive sinking in the quicksand of slogans, jingles, and campaigns. His spot in the company’s totem is low, and he may lose his position if he can’t come up with an idea to sell his newest product, Stay-Put Lipstick. Fortunately for him, flying into town is Hollywood glamour superstar Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield), whose “oh-so-kissable lips” make her the perfect lipstick spokesperson, and Rock’s movie-mad niece (Lili Gentle) just happens to know where she’s staying.

In an attempt to make her latest beau jealous, and reap publicity for her studio, Rita snatches the first man to walk into her room as her new squeeze—a case of “being in the right place at the right time” for Rock, and the popcorn in his pocket erupts into fireworks as he smooches a towel-wrapped Rita. This comic serendipity isn’t a plot contrivance, but an illustration of Tashlin’s slashing view of how, in a capitalist society, everything and everyone can be packaged and sold, regardless of their abilities: Just as Edmond O’Brien’s gravel-voiced gangster was turned into a teen sensation at the end of The Girl Can’t Help It, so here is Rock, who has trouble keeping his long-stemmed smoking pipe lit, knighted “Lover Doll” and promptly mobbed by scores of screaming young fans.

Though several characters are aware of the ad world’s machinations, none of them are above its sway, and, in one of the film’s most merciless gags, the hero comes home one night to find both his niece and his fiancée (Betsy Drake) paralyzed from overdosing in bust-expanding exercises. Because Tashlin, like Billy Wilder, often equated success in “the nonsense of what we call our civilization” with prostitution (or, at least, hucksterism), the title’s query becomes not so much a matter of whether than of when: Rock’s ascension in his firm’s importance ladder may seem divine, but to Tashlin it’s all just a Faustian deal sealed with the coveted key to the executive bathroom, a corrupt Holy Grail complete with a heavenly chorus.

People in Tashlin’s films often become extensions of their material possessions, and the irony of the merchandising cuts both ways: Just as Rita is a hilarious pop construct—a Marilyn Monroe spoof that’s also transparently Mansfield’s own dig at her image—she also molds Rock into a replica of her long-lost true love. Throughout Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, characters contort themselves to fit the fetishization of image rampant through society, always causing pain to their own souls; Drake hopes to lure Rock back to her by turning herself into a buxom fembot, but as she pliantly puts it, “Those tight sweaters are too heavy.”

Savage as it is, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? remains, paradoxically, among Tashlin’s most joyous works. Continuously vibrating with comic energy, the Cinemascope screen is a playpen of jubilant brassiness, compounded by superb performances. The director may loathe that the characters sell their souls, yet he can’t help but admire the brio and creativity with which they do it, like the ravenous force with which Rock embraces his new stud persona or the slippery glibness his associate (Henry Jones) employs in navigating Madison Avenue’s polluted waters. Tashlin knew that he was inescapably a part of the culture he was satirizing, and the picture’s head-on immersion in proto-New Wave homage (everything from Tarzan and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing to Louella Parsons and Groucho Marx) amounts to the auteur’s confession of his complicity. After all, when a young fan announces that she’s going to see The Girl Can’t Help It again, “courageous youth” is all caustic sidekick Joan Blondell can snap.

Indeed, the film’s mid-narrative break could be seen as a reversal of the famous opening of The Girl Can’t Help It: Where Tom Ewell stretched the image into the widescreen rectangle, here Randall shrinks it down to the television square, made grainy and monochromatic “for all you TV fans.” Tashlin’s most radical rupture, however, lies in Blondell’s monologue about her days helping silent-film actresses and vainly attempting to forget a long-lost love, a moment of unexpectedly naked emotion where the character’s wisecracking façade is cracked and the pain underneath is captured in a harsh single-take.

Lured and trapped by the gilded cages of consumerism, the characters yearn for a Rousseau-like return to nature; Rock dreams of a chicken farm, while the company president (John Williams) would rather be tending to roses than clients. The film’s subversive tragedy is that the cartoon surfaces of Tashlin are closer to the entrapping gloss of Douglas Sirk than it is first apparent. The happy ending is nominally enforced, yet the characters remain frozen in their rigid roles, becoming, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, “abstract Brechtian commentators on their own dilemmas.” Our laughter explodes only to dissipate grimly.


Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is one of the most chromatically inventive, deliberately cartoonish live-action films ever made, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray makes it obvious that it’s aged considerably and has yet to receive any kind of significant restoration. Colors are fuller here than they were on older DVD releases but still look rather faded. In terms of disc artifacts, there are few issues, most notably the instances of black crush that occur when the softer colors of a composition are also marked by thick grain. The sound presentation is significantly more stable: Both the surround and original 2.0 track are pristine, with the dialogue and the boisterous swells of Cyril Mockridge’s score balanced evenly throughout.


An audio commentary with film historian Dana Polan delves into the film’s satirical richness and how its mixture of broad comedy and subtler character acting elucidates its themes. Polan particularly highlights how all the product placement on display gleefully implicates the film in its own critique of increasing commercialization. Also included is an essay in which Julie Kirgo provides a thoughtful overview of the film and its themes.


One of the greatest of American satires finally hits high-definition video with an okay transfer of an inferior source, highlighting the need for future restoration.

Cast: Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, John Williams, Henry Jones, Lili Gentle, Mickey Hargitay Director: Frank Tashlin Screenwriter: Frank Tashlin Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Buy: Video

Continue Reading


Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on Sony Blu-ray

Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.




Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may be definitive proof that the full potential of comic book movies can only be attained through animation. Unburdened of live-action superhero cinema’s tethers to reality, the film embraces the elastic properties of comics. Throughout Into the Spider-Verse, characters are rendered in expressionistic fashion. Take Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who looks like a massive ink blot with a pale face located halfway down his torso, as if his body were so colossal that his spine lacks the tensile strength to support it.

Recent live-action Marvel movies have tended toward phantasmagoric colors and trippy effects at their climaxes, but they cannot hold a candle to the kaleidoscopic imagery of Into the Spider-Verse’s animation. Drawing inspiration from the rich palettes of most comics, the film compounds its chromatic intensity by mimicking the strobe effects of rotoscoping, creating color separations that add to the feeling of constant motion. So many superhero movies get bogged down in longueurs of exposition and somber reflection, but this one is purely kinetic. Into the Spider-Verse is a film that vibrates with youthful anxiety and energy, even when its narrative slows down.

Crucially, Into the Spider-Verse avoids rehashing Peter Parker’s story for the umpteenth time. The film’s protagonist is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager introduced nearly a decade ago by Marvel as an alternate-universe Spider-Man. A gifted, sardonic kid, Miles shares traces of Peter’s wit and intelligence but differs from his precursor in ways that are relevant to his context. Accepted into a local private school for his academic achievements, Miles understandably feels self-conscious about losing his sense of authenticity and his connection to his neighborhood. Miles’s avoidance of his father, by-the-book police officer Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), isn’t your typical display of teenage alienation from a parent, as the boy’s anxiety stems from being seen by his friends and neighbors as a policeman’s son. That Miles prefers to spend his free time tagging graffiti with his ne’er-do-well uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali), exacerbates his desire to act out from being seen as clean-cut. Though the film deals with Miles’s origin story, he emerges almost immediately as a fully formed character, someone clearly defined well before he gains his superpowers.

Soon after Miles is bitten by a genetically altered spider and begins to experience all of the classic Spidey abilities, he comes into contact with Peter Parker, who tenderly recognizes that he’s found a kindred spirit and promises to train Miles but perishes while preventing Kingpin from tearing a hole in space-time using an enormous dimension portal. Before he dies, however, Peter gets to save the day one last time, though some slippage between dimensions occurs, effectively flooding Miles’s world with alternate spider-powered figures.

Into the Spider-Verse takes immense pleasure in assembling some of the more obscure what-if characters from Marvel lore, from a superpowered version of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), to a Japanese girl, Peni (Kimiko Glenn), who pilots a robot, to Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a porcine figure who is, quite hilariously, actually a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig. The meatiest of these dimensional trespassers is another version of Peter (Jake Johnson), this one a divorced, depressed, out-of-shape cynic approaching middle age who takes to mentoring Miles exclusively out of a sense of lingering moral obligation. This Peter illustrates just how easily Spider-Man’s wit and juvenile spirit and curdle into sardonic bitterness.

These characters, in addition to having their own backstories, are distinctly animated. Spider-Ham has flattened, two-dimensional edges befitting his cartoonish nature, while Peni is, of course, rendered in an anime style, with sleeker lines and wider facial expressions than her compatriots. Comics have always relied on panel sequencing and the kinetic impression of individual compositions to convey a logical sense of movement, and Into the Spider-Verse translates that through staccato editing. Recalling the lower frame rate of silent film projection, motion in the film is rendered in jittery displays of an action.

And every character’s unique attributes, from Gwen’s lithe, acrobatic leaps to the chubby Peter’s languid swings, is folded into this approach. The unique body languages and movements of the characters does much to define their personalities, in much the same way that Spider-Man was arguably first established far more by Steve Ditko’s subtle anatomical proportions of the character and logically drawn action than Stan Lee’s purple prose.

With its fine-tuned comic timing and feeling of constant action, Into the Spider-Verse is downright invigorating, and that’s evident even before it gets to its dazzling, dimensional-colliding climax. Most impressive, though, is the way that the film also uses various permutations of Spider-Man to pinpoint the core of the hero that remains no matter who’s under the mask. Only Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man ever approached this level of empathy.

By juxtaposing an older, beaten-down Peter with a young, insecure Miles, the film reveals several stages of Spider-Man’s emotional journey at once, from his juvenile self-doubt and brashness to his later struggles with personal loss and the impact of sacrificing his happiness and peace for the greater good. There are moments of delicate tenderness throughout the film, such as a one-sided conversation that Jefferson has with his son where the policeman briefly drops his guard, or Peter occasionally letting his lifelong doubts and traumas slip out from behind the mask of his cynicism. Spider-Man remains the most memorable and relatable of Marvel’s creations, and Into the Spider-Verse is the best tribute to date to the seemingly bottomless depths and pleasures of Lee and Ditko’s iconic comic book character.


Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray wondrously represents Into the Spider-Verse’s vibrant and expansive color palette, really showing off the animation’s glowing neon streaks of purple and yellow-green amid all those old-school, 3D-aping blues and reds. Color contrast is strong throughout, while black levels are rich and deep. The sound is no less impressive, with Daniel Pemberton’s score nimbly and excitingly recalibrating in the side speakers in perfect sync with the aesthetic wrinkles of a given scene. Both the electronic-heavy soundtrack and boisterous action make great use of the subwoofer, with the wide range of bass noise throughout never muffling the crystal-clear dialogue.


The chummy and funny commentary track featuring directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman alongside producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is rich in details about the film’s plot and animation. It will also be a treat for those who think they’ve found all of the film’s Easter eggs. “Alternate Universe Mode” offers a sort of recut version of film, now with alternate scenes—some finished and some still in storyboard phase—that flesh out the secondary characters and, in some cases, offer up some significant plot diversions, such as Miles’s roommate learning his secret almost right away. The recut is significantly longer and paced more like a lugubrious, plot-heavy live-action blockbuster than the kinetic kaleidoscope of the release cut. “Caught in a Ham,” a short film centered on Spider-Ham, is a fun, Looney Tunes-inspired barrage of antic shtick, puns, and self-reflexive visual humor. Rounding out the extras is a series of short but informative themed featurettes on subjects ranging from the film’s innovative animation to tributes to the late Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a watershed of contemporary animation and superhero cinema. Sony’s Blu-ray does right by the film’s aesthetic wonders and includes a plethora of kid- and adult-friendly extras that dig into the complexity of the animation.

Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kimiko Glenn Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman Screenwriter: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG Year: 2018 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Continue Reading


Review: Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady on Arrow Academy Blu-ray

Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.




Phantom Lady

Gaslighting was the subject of numerous American films in 1944. Of course, George Cukor’s Gaslight immediately takes center stage in any conventional appraisal of this narrative device, as a woman is deliberately driven to madness by her conniving husband, but Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady, with its ingeniously structured screenplay and whiz-bang direction, is the more devilish concoction, designed to keep the viewer in a perpetual state of unrest.

From the start, as Scott (Alan Curtis) talks an unnamed woman (Fay Helm) into a night on the town, her demanding of anonymity strikes to the heart of post-WWII American life, where bars were no longer the raucous blowouts of the Jazz Age, but often sparsely populated spots for loners looking to drink away their sorrows. That’s what both Scott and the eponymous mystery guest have in mind, at least until Scott moseys home and finds that his wife has been murdered.

Whereas Otto Preminger’s Laura uses the apparent death of a woman to prompt a flashback into her life, Phantom Lady remains confined to the present, with only the murdered wife’s portrait hanging on the couple’s living room wall as evidence of her existence. When Scott is prompted by police to name his company for the previous evening—and cannot—he’s afforded no sympathy or benefit of the doubt, except from the office secretary, Carol (Ella Raines), whose crush on Scott, and her certainty of his innocence, prompts her to become an amateur sleuth along with Scott’s pal, Jack (Franchot Tone). They’re on the trail of someone who’s paid off witnesses for their denial of ever having seen the unnamed woman.

Siodmak’s playful direction deflates our uncertainty about the phantom lady’s existence, as the camera lingers for a beat longer than necessary on witnesses who express relief once interrogators have gone, as if they have something to hide. These shots tip off the viewer that something is amiss; one may wonder why Siodmak didn’t eliminate these winks entirely and make it seem, whether because of Scott’s imagination or disinterested observers, that the woman might really have never existed at all. The answer to their presence lies in Siodmak’s ultimate disinterest in playing up the whodunit, as the murderer—and orchestrator of Scott’s gaslighting—is revealed around the halfway mark as the only logical person it could be.

Finished playing guessing games with the audience, Siodmak frees himself up to throw down the gauntlet of expressionistic lighting and canted camera angles. This frenzy reaches its nearly orgasmic apex as Carol gyrates to a wild drum riff by Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), one of the key witnesses to the mystery woman’s identity, as he marvels at her with pure lust. The film inhabits the moment so fervently and with such precise editing by Arthur Hilton, that the viewer would be excused for forgetting there’s even a mystery to be unfurled. (Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale is probably the closest any film has come since to representing the sheer power a woman’s body in motion can have over the heterosexual male psyche.)

Lest the rest of the film limp toward its resolution, Siodmak shifts gears toward depicting the killer’s inner turmoil. When the murderer appears to off Cliff for having a loose lip, he delivers a remarkable monologue about how a single pair of hands can either do “inconceivable good or unbearable evil.” A clear influence on Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Phantom Lady morphs its perspective in the film’s back half toward the killer’s own, whose sudden “dizzy spells” are clearly coded bouts of schizophrenia, as he wrestles with the psychological demons demanding his allegiance. When the killer finally admits a motive of emasculation by Scott’s wife as his impetus for murder, Phantom Lady reveals just how influential it would become, on everything from Hitchcock’s Psycho to the giallo and beyond.


The HD Blu-ray presentation brings cinematographer Elwood Bredell’s striking images to life, especially in scenes where depth of field is essential to appreciating the complexity of Russell A. Gausman and Leigh Smith’s set decoration. The film’s high-contrast lighting remains sharp, with no evidence of digital enhancement to the original film elements. However, there are numerous, if minor, signs of scratches and debris throughout, indicating that greater care could have been taken to restore this presentation to an ever richer approximation of the film’s original negative. The monaural soundtrack is full and free of distortion, allowing both the music and dialogue to unfold without distraction.


A pair of intriguing extras includes a nearly hour-long documentary made in 1994 called Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, which features numerous familiar talking heads, including Dennis Hooper, Ruby B. Rich, Robert Wise, and Edward Dmytryk, providing a deep dive into what constitutes the term “film noir.” The range of perspectives proves exciting, from Rich’s more academic gloss of the sociological aspects of noir, to Hopper’s bare-bones description of a woman hiring a dupe to kill her husband, to cinematographer John Alton’s eccentric descriptions of lighting. Bryan Singer also appears to offer his bit on how noir influenced his 1995 film The Usual Suspects. The other supplement of note is an hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady by the Lux Radio Theatre, with Alan Curtis and Ella Raines reprising their roles. The audio is excellent and the adaptation itself from screen to radio works remarkably well. The disc also includes an image gallery of about 30 stills and distribution materials from the initial theatrical release, and a booklet containing an essay by Alan K. Rode that explains the film’s conception and production.


Arrow Academy releases a fantastic Blu-ray transfer of a pioneering studio noir in Phantom Lady, which is also a major work in the filmography of director Robert Siodmak.

Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez, Aurora, Elisha Cook Jr., Fay Helm, Regis Toomey, Joseph Crehan, Andrew Tombes Director: Robert Siodmak Screenwriter: Bernard C. Schoenfeld Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 1944 Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Video

Continue Reading


Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:


You can also make a donation via PayPal.