Do you like jive? Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady
Few film genres would appear to be so readily associated with a particular style of music as film noir with jazz, the former’s smoky chiaroscuro and louche, simmering sexuality apparently the perfect complement to the bruised sax tones of Private Hell 36 (1954), arranged by Shorty Rogers from Leith Stevens’s score, or the swung high hats of Elmer Bernstein’s theme from The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). One film in which this normally cool complement heats up into a whirling fury of burning sexual energy is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944).
Though there is not a great deal of music in Phantom Lady, Siodmak preferring to build up his tension through atmospheric use of foley effects and extensive silences, such music as remains is consistently worthy of note. The blustery opening theme by Hans Salter, a former student of Alban Berg, whistles along breezily, lulling us into a false sense of security, before neatly segueing into an arrangement of the song the unknown ‘phantom lady’ herself (played by Fay Helms) will soon select on a jukebox in a lowdown dive bar, ‘I’ll Remember April’. This is Siodmak’s first use of what will become a signature leitmotif in his films for star-crossed encounters, recurring later in Christmas Holiday (1944), The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949), always with much the same connotation. But all this pent-up tension is finally released in one explosive, quasi-orgasmic scene roughly half-way through the picture.
Amateur detective ‘Kansas’ Carol Richman (played by Ella Raines) has dolled herself up as a loose, gum-chewing dame in order to seduce Elisha Cook Jr.’s sleazy drummer. He invites her down to a late night jam session in a basement club, and as the door swings open, the camera zooms in on the horn of Dole Nicolls’s trombone as he blasts out a dolorous bluesy solo. The camera dollies deeper into the room, introducing each leering face of the musicians one by one: former Jimmy Dorsey Band charter member Jimmy Slack, hammering out a delirious boogie-woogie on the piano, Barney Bigard, one-time member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Louis Armstrong’s All-Star Concert Group, shoving his squealing clarinet in Richman’s face, Howard Ramsey (possibly a misspelling of Howard Rumsey, bassist for Stan Kenton) slapping at the high end of the neck of his stand-up bass, and finally Roger Hanson on trumpet. The tight framing, Dutch angles and deep shadows constantly emphasise Richman’s discomfort as the session heats up into a wild hard bop. In the novel on which the film is based, Cornell Woolrich describes the scene as a ‘sort of Dante-esque inferno’.
Then Cook takes the drum stool and with wild, possessed eyes starts hammering out a furious solo, building into a tumult of snare fills and flying cymbals as Richman goads him, her hands grasping towards him as though squeezing the energy out of him. The solo builds with such intensity – and with such thinly disguised sexual innuendo – that the local censor board of Pennsylvania insisted on all its close-ups being cut from screenings in the state.
As David Butler remarks in his study of the film’s music, ‘jazz would seldom be featured so graphically this way again’. IMDB credits the drum solo to the little-known David Coleman. But according to Leonard Maltin – and an unknown poster on YouTube who claims to have discussed the matter with Cook himself – it was really Buddy Rich hammering away on the sticks behind the scenes.