By many accounts, Joan Harrison was the first female producer in Hollywood. After a decade working under Alfred Hitchcock—first as his secretary in England, then on his writing team in Hollywood—and possibly following a brief, unsatisfying attempt at independent screenwriting, she joined Universal Studios as a producer.
The first film Harrison produced was PHANTOM LADY (1944), starring Franchot Tone, Alan Curtis, and the wonderful Ella Raines. Directed by Robert Siodmak, a well-known German filmmaker whose Expressionist background shaped the film’s lighting and style, PHANTOM LADY received generally positive reviews (though the New York Times complained it lacked plausibility), and is now seen as an early classic of Hollywood film noir.
Scott Henderson (Curtis) is a sad thirty-something New Yorker trapped in a disappointing marriage. After spending an evening with an anonymous woman, Scott returns home to find his wife has been murdered. Without the mystery woman’s testimony, he struggles to prove his alibi, and is sentenced to die for the murder of his wife. The case is closed; he spends the rest of the film moping in jail, wondering if he’d imagined his phantom companion altogether.
Meanwhile, Scott’s devoted secretary Carol (Raines), who is in love with her boss and confident of his innocence, begins her own sloppy investigation. She perseveres, despite the suspicious deaths of a few key witnesses and an uncomfortable flirting scene with a jazz drummer in an attempt to gather information, Jenna Maroney style. When Scott’s best friend Jack (Tone) returns from South America, ostensibly to help clear his friend’s name, he and Carol join forces with unconvinced police detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) and make some real progress in the case—that is, until a new development changes everything. Needless to say, Carol turns out to be a much better detective than the men around her.
In fact, as most characters passively accept the events and outcomes of Scott’s trial, Carol emerges as the driving force throughout the film, a challenger to the status quo — it’s wonderful to watch Carol embrace this role, and rare for a female character to emerge as a positive disruptive force. Carol isn’t portrayed as crazy or as an outsider, but is given respect and consideration by her colleagues and acquaintances; even at her day job, she is capable and cool-headed.
Characteristics of film noir are well-known and well-loved: rainy city streets, dramatic lighting, betrayal, crime, and femmes fatales. PHANTOM LADY deploys many of these techniques, locating it firmly within the film noir canon. But, refreshingly, this film also features a character that seems to exist entirely outside the the three primary film noir female character types (femme fatale, nurturing housewife, and the manipulative “marrying type”). Carol’s dangerously independent thinking leads to a happy resolution; she is good-hearted and sincere, but not dull, and she’s not devious or self-serving. Because of this bending of female convention, PHANTOM LADY has aged well; with a complicated, compelling professional female figure at its center, PHANTOM could easily have been produced decades after it was actually made, and so the film’s origins are particularly interesting.
With producer Harrison’s experience as one of the first female film executives, it’s no wonder she was drawn to a script like PHANTOM LADY or a character like Carol. Harrison would not be considered particularly progressive by today’s standards (for example, Harrison thought women made fine producers but not directors, observing, “Directors must at times be able to shout in a way women can’t or shouldn’t.” This only means she never witnessed me after someone eats my leftovers in the office fridge, but I digress.)
With PHANTOM LADY, though, Harrison produced an exciting, classic film noir with an original female lead. While many film noir characters of both genders are restricted by type, Carol is unbothered by tradition or expectations; when Jack suggests she’s in over her head, saying “Look, this is a man’s job,” Carol responds simply “I’m sorry, but I just can’t sit by.”