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DVD Review: The Films of Rita Hayworth

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The Films of Rita Hayworth

When people think of Rita Hayworth, it’s often as a pin-up queen first and as an actress second. Her iconically vampish eponymous role in Charles Vidor’s Gilda came five years after she posed for Life magazine in a series of, ahem, rousing photos that saw her lying on a bed in a negligee with a lacy bustier and satin bodice. So, if anything, by the time she made her famous striptease in Gilda, she was already playing to her audience’s gutter-level expectations. The film’s infamous “Put the Blame on Mame” striptease is a perfect introduction to the star as sex bomb, even more so than the way her character is introduced to the audience when she flings herself into view, ornately coiffed hairdo first, and coyly laughs, “Me?,” in response to her sugar daddy (George Macready) when he asks, “Gilda, are you decent?” The sheer appearance of sex reigns supreme over Vidor’s archetypal noir. So it stands to reason that Hayworth’s notorious dance number is the most memorable thing about it. She teasingly sloughs off one elbow-length glove from her right arm, musses up her hair with both hands, and bends over every so often to show off her ample cleavage. And did I mention that her satin sheath Jean Louis dress is shoulder-less? Hubba hubba.

Gilda‘s banter defines its tangled, mostly superficial love/hate ménage a trios between Hayworth’s petulant titular plaything (“If I was a ranch, they’dve named me the Bar Nuthin’”), Macready’s distant and vindictive jilted lover Ballin (“Women are funny little creatures…odd things are important to them”), and Glenn Ford’s baby-faced protégé/other man Johnny (“Pardon me, but your husband is showing”). Ballin loves her and she loves him until Johnny steps in and she instantly hates Johnny for threatening to take Ballin away from her. So Johnny hates her right back for making him covet his neighbor’s wife. They glare at each other for the vast majority of the movie, exchanging barbed jousts now and again (“Where’s your bathing suit,” Johnny asks Gilda, to which she replies, “Under this. Want to see?”). And eventually, Johnny and Gilda consummate their mutual dislike with a kiss. Which means either Ballin or Johnny has to go (“Haven’t you ever heard of such a thing as justifiable homicide,” a detective asks Johnny rhetorically).

That image of Hayworth as sultry femme fatale is downright irresistible, but it’s also one that she was determined not to be trapped by. A major draw for Columbia Studios, she tried to establish herself as a performer of many talents in films like Vidor’s Cover Girl and Victor Saville’s Tonight and Every Night. Both are musicals set and produced during WWII that showcased Hayworth’s ability to sing, dance, and, in general, look more animated than any magazine spread could. Which is funny because while the pageantry of Tonight and Every Night‘s set pieces do manage to make Hayworth look somewhat versatile, both it and Cover Girl desperately try to soften her fictional persona as a preening, vain Jezebel.

As a vehicle for Hayworth, Cover Girl is the more perplexing of the two titles. It operates under the gung-ho work ethic and team-spirit-above-all-else attitude of co-star Gene Kelly. By film’s end, Hayworth is effectively put in her place and forced her to be a good little team player instead of the radiant star she was. At one point in the film, she’s even told point-blank by a group of modeling agents that acting isn’t her strong suit and that she should just stick to posing silently.

Tonight and Every Night is at least more elegant in its “the show must go on” ethos: As a stagehand says at the film’s end, “One [performer] steps out, another steps in. That’s the way it is, civilian or soldier”. It also doesn’t try to tame Hayworth’s image as much as Cover Girl does: “The Boy I Left Behind,” a salute to British troops away at war, is especially unabashed in the way it sells its star’s unique sex appeal. Clad in baby-pink and blue pajama one-pieces, Hayworth and co-star Janet Blair both coo about how the British military “can’t regulate a girl’s sensations,” but only Hayworth is broadcasting with her body language what that cheeky line evokes. While Blair yawns comically, Hayworth pinches her one-piece suggestively, just a couple of inches below her bust, right around the middle of her hourglass figure. The gesture is enough to make one believe that Saville, a savvy actors’ director, could accomplish what Hayworth nonsensically says to reassure Marc Platt’s strictly platonic, always nervous male dance partner: “We’re going to teach you everything you know.”

While Hayworth’s charms would hardly burn out in the years to come, her beauty did already mellow somewhat in 1950s vehicles like Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome. Ironically, her roles in both of those films ineffectually seek to heighten Hayworth’s image as a sex symbol even after her looks were no longer as smoldering or just flat-out jaw-dropping as they were in Gilda. By the early ‘50s, she had developed into a more mature kind of beauty, making filmmakers’ increased attempts to make her look like a comely Venus fly-trap with breasts that much more unflattering. Both Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome remind us that Hayworth’s greatest strength was always just looking like a gorgeous harpy.

Miss Sadie Thompson, the fourth film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s story “Miss Thompson,” is the more limp of the two failed vanity projects. Originally theatrically released in 3D, the film follows Hayworth’s Thompson, a fallen woman that bewitches an island of U.S. Marines, including a young Charles Bronson and Aldo Ray. Deranged pastor Alfred Davidson (Jose Ferrer, of course) declares, “I know the look of immorality when I see it,” and insists on chasing her off the island with her demonic tail tucked between her legs. Thompson does eventually accept that she is a sinning heathen and breaks down sobbing in a jaundiced crying jag, her hands looking like arthritic claws as they rub at her eyes awkwardly so we don’t have to see Hayworth as she mouths her boo-hoo-hoo’s. The film’s use of 3D is pretty pointless, as there are no acrobatically salacious sex acts in the film. The highlight of the film is however purely physical, specifically a close-up of a drowsy-looking Hayworth waking up to God’s good word as Ferrer recites the 23rd Psalm to her.

Salome is an equally tedious and thematically muddled work. In this version of the bibilical parable, Salome’s mother, Herodias (Judith Anderson), wearing a pair of obscenely large earrings and a dress with giant sequin rose petals covering her bust, is really the reason why John the Baptist (Alan Badel) was murdered, not her snooty but relatively chaste daughter (Hayworth, natch). Worse still, Hayworth, a lightning rod for heterosexual male viewers’ attention, is conspicuously absent for most of the film, only appearing in a handful of key scenes.

Hayworth’s version of Salome is a monumental screw-up as it mostly downplays its story’s central physicality (this is, after all, an overloaded allegory mostly remembered for its climactic belly dance and subsequent beheading). And in director William Dieterle’s hands, it’s also probably the gayest film Hayworth ever starred in. A telling exchange between an exhausted male slave and Commander Claudius (Stewart Granger), Salome’s love interest, is the film’s most corporeally fixated scene. As Claudius gives succor to the parched, half-naked man, Pontius Pilate sneaks up behind him and cattily whispers, “I wish you were as concerned with my comfort, Commander.” The film’s inept and laughably choreographed version of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils is fatally kitschy: Hayworth must be wearing at least a dozen veils, and all of them look like they were ripped out of the sleeves of a third-rate conjuror. Charles Laughton’s King Herod is equally absurd, flicking his wrist theatrically when he accuses John of heresy. And all the while Hayworth disappears more and more into the film’s background, making her big dance number, where she’s gyrating wildly like an out-of-control top for Laughton as his eyes bulge and licks his lips, a last-ditch bid for attention.

Image/Sound

The image quality of the five films in The Films of Rita Hayworth varies wildly. Gilda was restored by Martin Scorsese’s the Film Foundation and looks gorgeous in its new grain-free transfer. Other films, especially Tonight and Every Night and Miss Sadie Thompson, look terrible. A wavering, pastel-centric palette running throughout both films suggests that some slapdash attempt at color correcting was made, but both films look pretty blotchy and grainy at times. The films’ mono audio tracks aren’t dazzling but they’re all perfectly serviceable, free of noticeable pops and hisses across the board.

Extras

The few special features are only fitfully entertaining. Watching Baz Luhrmann excitedly talk about Hayworth’s charms and how it influenced his own films is mostly narcissistic, but sometimes fascinating when it revolves around personal anecdotes of his films (I especially like when he talks about how he found out the hard way about how elaborate Hayworth’s hairdos were). Patricia Clarkson’s introductions are perfectly fine but mostly dull and Martin Scorsese’s few words on Gilda are mostly just academic (his slow, deliberate delivery shows you that he’s in serious professor mode, which is weirdly not preferable to when he’s in ebullient cinephile mode). Film historian Richard Schickel’s commentary track on Gilda is pretty informative and well worth a listen if you’re looking for some context for the film, but other than that, the set’s supplementary features are negligible.

Overall

Sony’s new Hayworth-centric box set runs the gamut of the pin-up queen’s charms and is well worth a look if only to see the newly restored Gilda.

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Charles Laughton, Jose Ferrer, Aldo Ray, Charles Bronson, Glenn Ford, George Macready, Gene Kelly, Janet Blair, Lee Bowman, Leslie Brooks Director: Charles Vidor, Victor Saville, William Dieterle, Curtis Bernhardt Screenwriter: Harry Kleiner, Marion Parsonnet, Paul Gangelin, Jo Eisinger, Ben Hecht, Abem Finkel, Lesser Samuels Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 502 min Rating: NR Year: 1944 - 1953 Release Date: December 22, 2010 Buy: Video

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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.

3.5

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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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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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.

4.5

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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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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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.

4

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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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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