This is a man’s job!
By Phuong Le
The essence of Ella Raines can be gleaned from a series of black-and-white portraits taken by Man Ray in 1942. In one of these photos, the actress is shot from the neck up as she stares straight at the lens while half of her face is completely obscured by a shadow. The same sharp lighting is present in another photograph, captured from a slight overhead angle. With a cigarette dangling on her lips, only her eyes are illuminated, presumably by the lighter held tight in her grip. Once again looking directly at the camera, she sports a defiant gaze. While the chimeric compositions of these portraits seemingly evoke the archetype of the femme fatale, it is the shadow that best encapsulates Raines’s enigmatic star persona—resisting easy categorization while commanding the screen with spectacular force.
As the elusive Raines now lurks in the shadow of film history, the title of her 1943 Screenland profile written in bold, defiant letters “She Breaks All the Rules!” feels like a nostalgic artifact. Nevertheless, for the moviegoing public at the time, her charisma must have been electrifying. Her beginning has all the marks of a Hollywood fairy tale. Plucked straight from the small town of Snoqualmie Falls, with a population of 250, she was recruited by B-H Productions, Charles Boyer and Howard Hawks’s production company, and “became the sole asset of a million-dollar corporation.” Between the years of 1944 and 1945, Raines enjoyed considerable box office success, exemplifying the image of the sexually and financially independent working woman. She even shared top billing with John Wayne in Tall in the Saddle (1944) where she plays a free-wheeling, gun-wielding no-nonsense cowgirl.
Raines’s star quality found its first memorable expression in the character of “Kansas” in Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944). Critical writing on the film has acknowledged the feminist implications of Raines’s female detective, but the possible queer readings that can be gleaned from her Kansas remain untapped. In short, Phantom Lady is a queer noir. Even though the film features a mystery at its center, it is not a straightforward thriller. It begins with a chance encounter at a bar between Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), an unhappily married, middle-aged architect, and a mysterious woman who refuses to give out her name. Still, the lady is by no means forgettable: she wears a ridiculously extravagant hat. Enveloped in feathers and fur, the outlandish thing perches on the woman’s elaborate updo like a nest, its wide brim curving upward in the style of a vaginal cocoon; the avian theme is completed by a bird applique sewn onto the side. After spending a platonic evening with the hatted woman, Scott comes home and, to his horror, discovers that his wife has been brutally murdered. To prove his innocence, he searches for the unnamed “phantom lady,” yet strangely enough, every single person who saw them together professes total ignorance of her existence. When Scott is put on death row, Raines’s Carol Richman, his devoted secretary who also goes by the nickname “Kansas,” sets out to find the mysterious woman—effectively becoming a detective, with the help of a police inspector and Scott’s sculptor friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone).
'Phantom Lady' is, in effect, a gender-swapped noir: Kansas operates as the hero of the story while Scott, in turn, is the damsel in distress.
Phantom Lady is, in effect, a gender-swapped noir: Kansas operates as the hero of the story while Scott, in turn, is the "damsel in distress." Indeed, other characters in the film recognize her peculiar position; at one point, Jack exasperatedly exclaims, “This is a man’s job!” as Kansas refuses to cease her pursuit of the nameless lady. Thrilling to watch, Kansas’s queerness slyly comes through in her ability to perform one feminine trope after another. Her primary persona is as Scott’s secretary, his “girl Friday”; shown listening to Scott’s message on the dictation recorder while leafing through his mail, she is provided with all the necessary tools to play the part.
Her secretarial moment here is so perfectly typical, so ordinary, that it borders on cliché. This performative “ordinariness” is underlined when, later in the film, Kansas just as easily masquerades as “Jeannie,” a bad girl seducing a sleazy jazz drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) into admitting that, despite what he told the police, he actually did see Scott on the night of the murder. The introduction of her “bad girl” alter ego begins with the camera lecherously climbing from her black stilettos up to her legs cladded in fishnet tights, before landing, finally, on her crudely made-up face. This camera movement, recalling similar scenes in The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Double Indemnity (1944) that objectify and fetishize a femme fatale’s legs, appears to accentuate the noir motif. While the purpose of such scenes is essentially to titillate, in the case of Phantom Lady, viewers are already aware that Kansas is “playing” a role, so this moment comes off, rather, as a kind of campy parody of feminine seduction.
Kansas’s queerness is also signaled through her outfits—for example, her raincoat. An undeniable motif in noir films, the “meaning” of a raincoat differs depending on the gender of the wearer. The raincoat of a male character in a noir film is often opaque, or of a dark color, surely to signify his inaccessible emotional core. On the other hand, female characters often wear transparent or patent raincoats—an invitation to ogle. Kansas’s raincoat, however, is neither opaque nor transparent. Its milky color, hovering between these realms of masculine and feminine, speaks to her contradictory tendencies; she wears it while playing gumshoe and following a lead, movements which are male-coded, but her motivation, as she confirms later with the inspector, is pure female intuition. Even when Kansas stands at the subway platform during her sleuthing wearing the coat, it is powerless to protect her, a moment later, from a violent tug.
Just as Kansas’s shapeshifting personas reflect the uneasy categorical structures of Phantom Lady, the film, too, masquerades in multiple genres, refusing to be contained by anything much resembling binary hierarchies. The night-time sequences riff off traditional noir motifs, complete with wet cobblestones, darkly lit corners, and a lonely figure wandering through the cityscape, but later scenes, such as when Kansas tracks down the mysterious lady, see the film embrace the conventions of melodrama. As she recalls the story of her husband’s tragic, sudden death—a scene that unfolds inside a woman’s bedroom stuffed with fluffy big pillows, a conspicuous number of flowers, and soft pleated drapes—her antics become overly theatrical, and she covers her face with both hands and emits a scream. This playful genre metamorphosis continues when Kansas confronts Jack and Phantom Lady becomes a horror film; as Jack inches towards Kansas, the lighting is especially stark, his figure appearing as monstrous as the bizarre sculptures scattered around his studio. Contemporary critics were understandably overwhelmed by this genre-hopping—one review, for example, begins with a comment on the horror-sounding title, and then proceeds to use numerous qualifiers to describe the film as a “top-notch psychological murder mystery melodrama packed with 87 minutes of action and suspense.”
Looking beyond the film’s elusive, chameleon-like text, Kansas’s process of circumventing different gendered personas can also be read as a metaphor for New York City as a boiling pot of diverse sexual identities; by the ’40s, the city had long been considered a haven for alternative sexualities. Drag shows, in which female performers put on tuxedos and crooned love songs, making the women in the audience swoon with pleasure, were particularly popular at this time. Kansas’s outfits, which flip between daytime workwear garb and a seductive night-time wardrobe, further denote the city’s schizophrenic identity. Kansas’s wanderings become a form of geographical mapping that documents its underground seediness—dingy bars, dirty subways, secret jazz clubs—as well as its socially respectable side, consisting of court rooms and brightly lit offices, a world associated with Scott. At she exclaims at one point, all he dreams of accomplishing is to “build model cities, sunlight in every room and children’s play yards everywhere for everyone”—an inherently heteronormative vision that clashes up against a world lived largely in the shadows. If Phantom Lady’s noir elements speak to the crisis of masculinity found in the 1940s, then its woman’s film components respond to the growing demographic of single working women, intruding upon the male-coded financial districts.
Curiously, the marketing for Phantom Lady differed from that of other murder mystery thrillers, aggressively targeting female moviegoers. One ad, for example, beckons its female readers to “hold up your Easter shopping until you see ‘Phantom Lady.’” The accompanying images are excessively feminine—instead of the male characters, the focus instead is placed on the kooky hat that haunts the film. The strategy, though unusual, is not so surprising considering that the film was helmed under a woman’s guide, namely producer Joan Harrison, one of the few female producers during the classical Hollywood era. Phantom Lady was Harrison’s first film as a producer, though she had gained much notoriety for being Hitchcock’s screenwriter on films such as Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941) and more. In her comprehensive book on Harrison, Christina Lane argues that, though not a director, Harrison should be allowed to stake an authorial claim—especially on the films she produced. Lane suggests that Kansas was possibly the closest cinematic reflection of Harrison’s own life and personality. Indeed, like Kansas, Harrison started out as Hitchcock’s secretary before graduating to a more equal partnership with her boss. Harrison was also largely responsible for the expansion of Kansas’s character, who was only a minor figure in Cornell Woolrich’s source novel.
Following Phantom Lady, Raines would go on to star in Siodmak’s The Suspect (1944), The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), and Time Out of Mind (1947), the first two being excellent noir-tinted films where she also plays professional working women whose presence throws the men in her lives into a state of crisis. If femme fatales typically operate as a mirror to the psychological neurosis endured by their male counterparts, the significance of Raines’s working women in these films extends far beyond the perception that they are “good girls,” and thus differentiated from the fallen women. Her fierce, independent presence accentuates the emasculation of the male characters, contributing to the heady brew of disorienting sexual politics inherent to Siodmak’s noirs. Like birds of a feather, Raines and Siodmak’s idiosyncratic genre experimentations have a spellbinding allure that does, indeed, succeed in breaking all the rules.
A Vietnamese film critic based in Paris, Phuong Le is a regular contributor to The Guardian, Sight & Sound, and other publications.