It is a stifling summer night in the city, and Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) walks into a bar in a foul mood after being stood up. He orders a drink and a packet of cigarettes then tries to strike up a conversation with a smartly dressed woman (Fay Helm) there, but she seems preoccupied until he offers her the chance to accompany him to the show he was planning to see. She decides she could do with cheering up, and agrees to go along, although nearly stops the taxi on the way after struggling with second thoughts. As it is, the show is fine except that the star (Aurora Miranda) is wearing the same hat as Henderson's date. Funny how details like that become important when murder rears its ugly head...
It's 1944 and Robert Siodmak is beginning his run of films noir with this little item that picked up a cult following over the years from those who caught its eccentric plotting and rich atmosphere, probably on television - if there's ever a kind of film that deserves to be seen on late night TV, this is a prime example of it. Although the plot, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, musters up a happy ending, as with much of this type of movie it's the darkness and despair you take away from it. This is because once Henderson returns home to his apartment after his night out with the mystery lady (he never caught her name), he finds a group of strangers sitting there waiting for him to come back.
They would be the police, then, and they have a bit of bad news for him: his wife has been strangled to death, and he is the chief suspect. Oh, but he has an alibi, and once he gathers his thoughts he tells the cops that he couldn't have killed her because he was out at a show, and there are witnesses to prove it. Alas, here is where the texture of nightmare enters into the drama, as although he can get a couple of people - the bartender, the taxi driver - to admit that they saw him last night, they say they don't recall any lady with him, not even one wearing that notable hat. Even the star of the musical show (Carmen Miranda's sister, incidentally) who was so put out at the sight of someone wearing her headgear refuses to acknowledge him.
In one of a host of oddly but effectively handled scenes, Henderson goes to trial and all we see of it is the public gallery as those attending for whatever reason (and the reason could be that they're simply ghouls) listen to the evidence and the verdict: guilty. However, there is one woman there with a genuine concern about the accused, and she is his secretary Carol Richman, who he nicknames Kansas. She is played by the lovely and clear-eyed Ella Raines in possibly her best performance, with her dogged determination to clear the name of her boss as she is secretly in love with him, though she has never told him so. So the focus switches from Henderson to Carol, a transition which is pulled off with ease.
But don't go thinking this is a whodunnit, for in the course of her investigations Carol meets the killer, and Siodmak ensures that we know he is the culprit as if he lost interest in the mystery aspect halfway through. This does have the effect of making us more concerned about the heroine's safety knowing she is in such close proximity to the murderer and unaware of the fact, but we're already concerned by the scrapes she gets into in her search for the lady of the title. When she goes undercover to pose as a trashy jazz music fan to wheedle information out of Elisha Cook Jr's drummer, the director increases the tension when the drummer takes Carol to a backroom where a full on jam session is underway complete with blaring tunes to jangle her nerves, and it just gets worse for her from there as the killer visits the drummer to be certain he doesn't blab (being played by Cook, you can guess how he ends up). Tapping into fears that ordinary, decent folks simply won't help you when you're back's up against the wall, Phantom Lady is resonant, if episodic, entertainment.