The Gaze

We had our friend Marvelous Mary round last night for the first time in an age. She’d just been reading about producer Joan Harrison, and I offered to screen PHANTOM LADY, a favourite film of mine. I hadn’t seen it for years, but remembered most of the iconic images. But I had forgotten the above.

Ella Raines may not be the strongest actress in history, but she had a great LOOK, in the sense both of her physiognomy and style, and in the intentness she can bring to her gaze. This is a male/female gaze movie. At one point, she seems set to stalk a man to his death by her stare alone, like Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD. And she’s the heroine!

The movie gives us a sound-stage/back-lot/process shot New York, and combines Cornell Woolrich’s fervid pulp fiction style with the noir look and the dollar-book Freud beloved of Hollywood scenarists (in this case, Bernard C. Schoenfeld, of THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW and THE SPACE CHILDREN, of all things).

The low budget seems to show only in the B-list casting (but Raines, Thomas Gomez and Franchot Tone are all perfect and Elisha Cook raises the tone, temperature and stakes) and in the curiously thin soundtrack. There’s basically no score, which allows the jazz number and song (from Carmen Miranda’s sister Aurora) to pop out, but leaves a lot of dead air on the soundtrack, which detailed atmos and effects tracks might have effectively filled… but nobody took the trouble to make this happen.

Elisha Cook Jr. gets the shaft again

However, the suspenseful climax really turns this to its advantage, the long silences pregnant with terror, the white walls of the killer’s studio complimenting the blankness of the audio. The whiteness of the white whale.

THE KILLERS and other later Siodmak noirs are far more convincingly set in a version of the real world: this movie has a comic-book simplicity to every character and every line, though details like the two mean cops discussing ice-cream flavours impart a surprisingly Tarantinoesque quality (though without any of the concomitant vulgarity).

Really nice to revisit this: may be time to delve into UNCLE HARRY, CRISS-CROSS, THE SUSPECT, again too…

6 Responses to “The Gaze”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, a superb film and one out of many that demolishes Laura Mulvey’s original definition of the dominant “male gaze” in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), a text that has unfortunately been regarded as “holy writ” in most film departments. To be fair to Mulvey, she did reviser “Mulvey’s Law” in her later articles on DUEL IN THE SUN and “Changes.”

  2. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Never forget the same year he made “Phantom Lady” Siodmak also helmed “Christmas Holiday” and “Cobra Woman”

  3. AND The Suspect — which could even be called the best of the bunch, if you’re into ranking. What an annus mirabilis.

  4. I think that its the exception that proves the rule. Its SO unsusual for the woman to have the gaze. Really enjoyed it. Thanks for the screening!

  5. Ooh what a great write up on a great film. That reverse stlaking scene is brilliant, and it seems to point forward to some of John Carpenter’s later work. My favourite scene has to be that jazz scene, where the whole tempo and visual style changes and it turns into something by Grosz – it feels like a horrific cartoon dropped into a noir, with his giallo like snuffing out of Cooke at the end.

    Regarding that still you show at the top: If I remember correctly, there’s a montage of several weeks of her changing outfits and staring at the same man, as she changes from hapless soul to avenging angel. Thought that was great. And since we mentioned Grosz, there’s also an Edward Hopper feeling to the denizens of the road where she stalks the man.

  6. I think the montage covers just three nights, but it gets the job done.

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