Connect with us


Blu-ray Review: Shame





The most important moment in Steve McQueen’s Shame is one that everybody remembers but nearly everybody misunderstands. Brandon, an impossibly good-looking New Yorker addicted to sex and brooding, is seen silently fucking two beautiful women, his face twisted in an expression of exhaustion, relief, and (perhaps) anguish. The film’s detractors see this as something of a thesis statement, a Big Reveal that doesn’t work. Their reasoning is sound: Because this is directed by Turner Prize-winning visual artist-cum-filmmaker Steve McQueen, the forlorn Harry Escott strings and golden light that bathes Brandon make the moment a tad too “momentous,” a point belabored. And because Brandon is played by Michael Fassbender, we don’t know that it isn’t; the actor embodies his characters so wholly and believably that, as with a real person, we can tell that he’s feeling something even though we can’t tell precisely what it is.

In a way, Fassbender acts too well. A good actor would have expressed something clearly to us in that moment, something that could be understood as the “point” of the scene or film as a whole—say, “Satisfying the needs of his addiction no longer affords me pleasure,” or “My need to indulge causes me to suffer greatly.” Part of what makes Shame a complicated film—and, to me, what makes it a truly great one—is that Fassbender and McQueen disrupt the process by which we normally assign signs simple meanings. Which is to say that at as he begins to climax, Brandon’s face doesn’t clearly express a wholly perceivable emotion that can be understood to be the point of the scene or the film. This hasn’t stopped people, particularly people who dislike the movie, from continuing to assign it cut-and-dry meaning anyway; to them, he’s just sad about being addicted to sex, and if that were the deepest insight the film had to offer, I may not be keen on it either. But Shame is more complicated than that.

What does it signify when Brandon, enamored by a co-worker but fearful of the intimacy pursuing her seems to promise, can’t get it up in her presence? The detractors have it figured out, naturally: Brandon can’t handle a real relationship because he’s scared of a real emotional connection. How trite. And what does it signify when, at the nadir of a desperate sex binge, Brandon wanders into an anonymous den of depravity, cruising for a gay-sex fix? Well, cue the chorus of haters, who know better: Shame thinks queer sex is a personal hell, the very bottom of the barrel. Legitimate concerns, yes, but it isn’t possible to reach those conclusions without making some basic—to me, unfounded—assumptions about the film’s ideological foundation. In fact, I don’t think we can take it for granted that Shame is even about a man suffering because he’s addicted to sex at all, lest we assume that indulging in sex too often is in and of itself ethically or morally corrupt. This is not to say that Shame is actually a celebration of sexual liberation or that Brandon isn’t suffering; his pain is often palpable and the movie isn’t shy about stressing the implications of his lifestyle. But the source of that suffering and pain isn’t necessarily the sex itself, and what constitutes an “addiction” needs to be examined more carefully.

Naysayers feel that the film carries an irredeemably puritanical agenda, advancing the position that promiscuity causes unhappiness and that monogamy is the sole source of redemption. The idea here is that because Brandon suffers as a result of his addiction to sex and his apparent inability to sustain a traditional relationship, the film is therefore arguing against that lifestyle, a cautionary tale about the inherent immorality of Brandon’s unchecked hedonism. This seems bizarre, fundamentally incompatible with the real position advanced by the film: Brandon’s compulsive indulgence in sex is only considered an “addiction” according to our socially constructed perception of normal behavior, and his unhappiness is a direct result of the shame caused by his friction with the world around him. His behavior is only abnormal according to socially prescribed parameters of normality, and in a sense society is constricting his behavior—and his attitudes about that behavior, meaning his self-perception—according to tradition, which is sort of arbitrary and not at all essential or necessary.

This isn’t a film about one man’s addiction to sex, but about the entire institution of sexuality, and it has a lot of interesting things to say about how that institution can bind and pain us unnecessarily. If monogamy comes to be posed as the “stable” alternative to which Brandon finds himself unable to cede, it’s because that’s precisely the binary society more or less forces into accepting wholesale: You either form a long, exclusive relationship with one person and be happy, or you continue to fuck around and be shamed into loneliness and depression. It’s not Brandon’s fault that he rejects the “positive” path; it’s a deeply ingrained social problem that only those two possibilities are coded as “normal” lifestyles, reducing Brandon’s chances for happiness to zero.

This isn’t to say that addiction in general is an illusion, or that alcoholism would be tolerable if only society made it easier for people to drink more often. But it seems to me that sex addiction is unique insofar as our conception of what a “healthy” or “normal” amount of sex is almost entirely dependent on cultural and historical context. Shame would be a very different sort of film had it been made in the 1950s, or if it had been today in France or South Korea or Iran. McQueen has said of Shame that it’s completely “of the moment,” and it’s not hard to see why: It’s a reflection of our unprecedented freedom to access a variety of sexual experiences at any time and with little to no effort, and it deals with the implications of that freedom in a way that’s surprisingly sophisticated and sensitive to the nuances of social change. You don’t need to be a Foucault scholar to understand that the legal freedom to indulge your sexual appetites doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re truly free to do so, and part of what’s interesting about the world Shame depicts is that even though it’s mostly free of external forms of suppression and repression (Brandon isn’t being persecuted by anybody, and he can hire prostitutes or use web chats or go into gay clubs without fear of repercussions), Brandon nevertheless internalizes the repression himself, and that’s why he can no longer totally enjoy the pleasure.

Once you realize that Shame has more to say about life than “the life of a sex addict is tough,” you begin to see how artful it is in its depiction of this reality: The miniature tragedy of an addiction forever unfulfilled is supplanted by the epic tragedy of a social system we can’t really do anything about, and suddenly the scope of this work makes sense. That it elides so much about Brandon and Sissy’s shared history—that no root cause of their pain is revealed to us in flashback or exposition—becomes entirely unimportant, because you realize that when the disease is social rather than personal, a specific cause is superfluous. Why pin the blame on abuse or neglect when the blame is on a system that’s everywhere? Sissy’s suffering is borne by the same framework, after all, and we see her both using her body and being used for it, by men who navigate the same system, bending the same rules. If Brandon’s boss, played with just the right amount of doucheyness by James Badge Dale, seems better adjusted than Brandon even when pursuing pussy at a similar clip, it’s not because he’s a high-functioning addict while Brandon’s flying off the rails. It’s because his boss’s indulgences are coded as socially acceptable, even if they’re just as morally suspect. He cheats on his wife with Brandon’s sister, but an affair is, at least to some degree, tacitly okay; it’s not a transgression in the same way Brandon’s actions are.

When you look at these characters up close, you start to see that the border separating their actions is actually pretty porous, and the division that marks Brandon as deviant and his boss as relatively normal starts to look very arbitrary. Shame wants to recognize that and sit on it for awhile. Same goes for Brandon’s foray into gay sex: Pay attention and you’ll see that it looks like Brandon has been to this particular club before, and his enjoyment of the act itself looks no more or less perfunctory than the sex he indulges in with the opposite gender. Is this the film’s concession to heteronormativity? Or is the film suggesting that Brandon’s sexuality is more vaguely defined than the rigid, clearly defined ones we’re socially scripted to accept? The premise “gay sex is still just sex”—the pleasure derived from it is the same for Brandon, even if he feels less comfortable approaching it openly—is actually quite audacious, because it effaces sexual difference rather than reifying it needlessly. This position isn’t explicated, but Shame clearly wants us to think about these things.

Shame also wants us to think about that face. Is Brandon pained? Has sex stopped being a source of pleasure for him? I don’t think so, at least not exactly. To quote Slavoj Zizek, “in the middle of the most intense sexual act, it is possible for us to all of a sudden disconnect” from ourselves, and that’s the feeling Brandon’s face represents. The source is, as the title suggests, the shame imposed on him by a social environment too rigid to brook deviance, internalized until it hurts. It’s possible to feel both pleasure and pain simultaneously; there’s a reason the French call the orgasm “la petite mort,” or the little death. It’s entirely reasonable to perceive in Shame a feeling of helplessness, and I agree that we’re observing a man who cannot continue living the way that he is even though he feels he must. I just disagree about the reason. The pain comes not from the act, but from the environment in which it’s performed; that there’s no viable alternative makes it tragic.


Steve McQueen is a master stylist, and Shame is a gorgeous film to behold. Its palette, mostly blues and grays, are rich and painterly, and this special edition Blu-ray/DVD combo pack does an admirable job capturing its beauty in high-definition. I noticed a healthy (and lovely) degree of grain that I hadn’t spotted on either of my previous theatrical viewings; the grain lends the look of the film some much-needed texture. McQueen favors long takes and deliberately composed close-ups, and the 1080p Blu-ray transfer captures enough detail to keep the eye transfixed.

Even the haters can at least admit that the film sounds outstanding, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track does a stand-up job of making the case. Harry Escott’s two moving string pieces sound full and rich, and the few (very well-selected) pop tracks sound great when they briefly appear—especially Chic’s “I Want Your Love,” which sounds nearly perfect even through Brandon’s apartment door. Dialogue comes through loud and clear, and the city’s ambient rumblings add some depth in the back channels.


Ostensibly “loaded” with special features, the Blu-ray is heavy on quantity but light on quality. There are four insubstantial featurettes comprised almost entirely of footage from the film, and only one—a Fox TV interview with Michael Fassbender—is even remotely illuminating. Something more than a few two-minute clips and a theatrical trailer would have been appreciated, especially considering how eloquent McQueen seems when he gets the chance to talk shop.


One of last year’s best but most woefully misunderstood films, Shame gets a Blu-ray exemplary enough to warrant a second look.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Hannah Ware, Amy Gargreaves, Elizabeth Masucci, Lucy Walters Director: Steve McQueen Screenwriter: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Running Time: 101 min Rating: NC-17 Year: 2011 Release Date: April 17, 2012 Buy: Video, Soundtrack



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.