We come to this one by way of Lux Radio Theatre. For the unfamiliar, Lux Radio Theatre was a long-running radio program that initially adapted Broadway shows and then came to adapt movies. Often, the original stars were involved, though sometimes, stars of a similar caliber took their place—and sometimes, completely random people who were unfamiliar even to audiences of the time. On March 27, 1944, Lux Radio Theatre did an adaptation of Phantom Lady, with two of the original stars reprising their roles and Brian Aherne in the Franchot Tone role, which is quite a switch.
A man of about thirty is having a bad evening. He goes into a bar, where he meets a woman. He invites her to go out with him, to have the dinner and see the show he’d been planning to see with someone else. They agree not to name names, not to tell each other anything about themselves. And so they have the dinner and see the show and then part ways. And then when he gets home, he finds his wife murdered. As Scott Henderson, as we now know him to be, discovers this, he also learns that he is the prime suspect—not just because he’s the husband and therefore the obvious prime suspect but because she was murdered with his own tie, strangled so viciously it will have to be cut from her neck.
Oh, also, he’s been having an affair and she wouldn’t give him a divorce, and now he can’t remember any details about the woman he went out with that night. And somehow no one else can remember her, either, despite her making herself conspicuous when they went to the show by wearing the exact same hat as its star did and literally stealing some of the spotlight from her. So he’s convicted, and sentenced to death, and he actually manages to summon an old friend back from a five-year stint in South America to investigate the whole thing for him.
Obviously, the movie loses the affair. We still have Scott (Alan Curtis) and the mystery woman (Fay Helm), but we have acquired a Plucky Young Secretary (Ella Raines) as Carol Richman instead of a woman with whom he’s in love and for whom he was hoping to divorce his wife. Because, you know, Code. But Jack Marlowe (Tone) is still there and still summoned from South America and still goes about in the full knowledge that his best friend will die if the mystery woman is not proven to exist and proven to have been with Scott at the time the murder took place.
The detective tells Scott in the book that one of the reasons he comes to believe that he’s telling the truth is that any liar would bother making up some sort of description for the mystery woman, and Scott does not. Honestly he kind of comes across as having mild face-blindness, which is a thing, because he literally cannot remember any detail of the mystery woman. He doesn’t ever make anything up about her, just describe the hat and keep insisting that he gets like that, where he can’t remember faces.
Which leads to the second thought I have—there is simply not enough evidence to convict Scott of murder. I have reasonable doubt even not knowing that he didn’t do it. To believe the prosecution, you’d have to believe that he murdered his wife, then went off and had a full dinner and went to a fun show. What’s more, it’s not entirely believable that literally no one who was at the show would remember the incident with the hat as described in the book. Sure, you’d have a better chance if you could prove that the woman was with him at 6:10 (the movie moves everything back two hours for some reason), but proving she exists would go a long way to proving Scott’s story.
Things move very fast in the book. Each chapter, and I quite like this conceit, starts with how long there is until the execution. Even the first one, before the murder has happened—or at least before we know it’s happened, for most of the chapter—starts that way. Cornell Woolrich, who wrote it under the name William Irish, did a fine job of writing even if some of the book’s plot does not entirely make sense. It’s got some beautiful description in it, and it manages to be hardboiled without being cliché about it. The movie’s fine, and the Lux Radio Theatre captured out interest almost despite ourselves, but if you’re going to pick one, go for the book.
Next month, we’re going back to Disney for The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit. The movie stars Dean Jones and a very young Kurt Russell; I’ve never read the book before. Is it any good? We’ll all find out together! And to help me acquire a copy, you can support my Patreon or Ko-fi!