Two film noirs from Robert Siodmak, 'Phantom Lady' being his first attempt in the genre and 'The Killers', displaying his mastery of the noir aesthetic. All within two years.
PHANTOM LADY (1944)
'Phantom Lady' is a perfect noir in the sense that it takes a complicated puzzle to solve a simple case. I believe that to be the essence of every great entry into the genre of Film Noir. You are slowly given the equation a+b=c and get there in the most complicated way possible.
Ella Raines is magnificent as Carol Richman, a secretary trying desperately to prove the innocence of her boss who is accused of murdering his wife. She digs deep within herself and in one of her best scenes, staring down a bartender in an attempt to wear him down, she nails what it's like too torture someone slowly, painfully and totally. She's tough and knows what's right, whatever it takes to get to the truth. Soon enough she partners with an above-average cop who also believes that Scott Henderson(played by Alan Curtis) has been set up.
However the film is far from perfect and Robert Siodmak's direction seems unsure of itself at times. The acting on display is a mixed bag, with Ella Raines and Franchot Tone as an eccentric old friend steal the show. Warts and all it is a truly enjoyable entry into the film-noir catalogue.
THE KILLERS (1946)
'The Killers' is simply a masterpiece of the genre, part 'Citizen Kane' part 'Double Indemnity', it's the structure of the narrative that makes this film stand out. Essentially it's the great-grandfather of Memento. Told through flashbacks, we learn what lead to the death of "The Swede" played by a very young Burt Lancaster. The opening 20 minutes is tensely shot and one of the great openings of cinema. Based on a story by Ernest Hemingway(everything after the opening is wholly original), Anthony Veiller, with re-writes by Richard Brooks and an uncredited John Huston, essentially create everything that lead up to Hemingway's tale.
Lancaster's Ole 'Swede' Andreson is a washed up boxer who threw too many good right hooks, breaking all the bones in his right hand costing him a brutal last fight. Without work he's lured into the underground world of heists, set-ups and red herrings. But it's the allure of Kitty Collins(played by Ava Gardner) that seals his fate.
Ava Gardner is menacing in the standard femme fatale role, equally endearing and repulsive. Like other great noir actresses, Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, Lauren Bacall, etc., you're drawn to her even though you know that it will probably lead to your undoing. It's Mantis Syndrome and Ms. Gardner eats up the screen around her.
'The Killers' is a truly great piece of narrative film-making, masterfully written and seductively acted. I can't recommend this one enough. A true masterpiece of cinema. The rest is left to you. Enjoy.
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