Robert Siodmak’s film noir Phantom Lady (1944) shares an interest in art with another 1944 film, Jacques Tourneur’s gothic Experiment Perilous. Both films feature a portrait painting, but then lots of Hollywood films of the ’40s do — not just in films such as The Picture of Dorian Grey (1945) or Portrait of Jenny (1948) where a painting can be said to be the central subject or metaphor, but also in other thrillers such as Laura (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Locket (1946) where the painting is a clue, or a sign, or a warning. As Thomas Elsaesser points out in Mirror, Muse, Medusa: Experiment Perilous there is something uncanny about the portraits in these films, often because they represent someone dead or they represent an invisible aspect of someone living. Perhaps they stand in for film itself: an image of the real that is an illusion. In Experiment Perilous the portrait presents an illusion of happiness for Allida Bederaux, trapped in a loveless marriage. In Phantom Lady the portrait of Scott Henderson’s murdered wife is all we ever see of her. In that sense, the portrait itself is the phantom lady of the title — the ghostly doppelganger of the deceased that haunts the story.
Elsaesser also points out that the portrait paintings in these films are usually banal. They are bad art. In Scarlet Street the bad portrait of the ex-husband of Christopher Cross’s wife is a contrast to Cross’s own naive paintings, which are vivid and strange predecessors of what we would now call outsider art. There’s something similar in both Experiment Perilous and Phantom Lady, but in this case the more eccentric artwork comes in the form of sculpture. Experiment Perilous presents sculpture as both direct visual commentary on the story in the form an enormous, looming bust of Medusa glaring at the hesitant hero and perhaps even more menacingly in fragments of sculptures and a half-formed bust that create ambiguous signifiers of incompleteness, inchoateness, dismemberment, deformity, and mute silence.
In Phantom Lady the murderer is a sculptor, which by itself sets up a metaphor of art as death. Our first view of his sculpture comes in a shot that emphases order and elegance and beauty. Within this world of aesthetic sophistication, the busts have their own kind of uncanny presence, hinting at invisible impulses, silent witnesses to the crimes the audience has already seen the artist commit.
More fancifully one of the busts also comes to represent the other phantom lady of the story — the anonymous woman whom Scott Henderson invites to a show on a whim after he’s had an angry fight with his wife. The hat the woman wore becomes the only clue to her identity, and when it’s rediscovered and placed by the heroine on one of Marlow’s enigmatic busts, it becomes a clue to his own phantom self. (The disappearance of the hat is one of the most chilling moments in the movie.)
Marlow suffers from mysterious seizures that are linked to his murderous impulses. Another powerful image in the film comes at the climax, as a seizure causes him to cover one eye, while a tormented, distorted, monklike head looms in the foreground, again seeming to connect art to the death instinct.