Phantom Lady/ Ella Raines

This is one of the first noir movies (along with Black Angel) that I spent my very own hard earned money on when I started building my little classic movie collection.  They were released on VHS in the mid-to-late 90s, under the Universal noir collection series. The packaging was so inviting and irresistible that they seemed less like relics from the past and much more promising entertainment than whatever new release had come out that week (other videos I remember picking up from that series were The Big Clock, The Blue Dahlia, The Ministry of Fear, and the Killers).

Those relatively lesser known noirs, Phantom Lady and Black Angel, and not the better known “essentials,” were the films that really got me started exploring the genre, and remain special favorites. At the time, I had no clue what a nwar even was, I just knew the people and the photo and the clothes looked cool, liked the story they all were promising to tell me and wanted to own it. I learned in the years since that its director Robert Siodmak was important to the genre, and that Phantom Lady was his big break in noir, and that the movie was based on the work of someone equally instrumental in the field, namely Cornell Woolrich (who wrote this book as William Irish).

The Phantom Lady of the title is a mysterious woman in a very memorable hat with whom Alan Curtis (seen below) spends the very same evening that his wife ends up murdered. Naturally, Curtis is the prime suspect, and when he offers the behatted woman as his alibi, she seems to have vanished, and what’s more, a strange amnesia afflicts the handful of people who seemed certain to remember seeing them together that evening.

When Curtis is sentenced to death and the countdown to his execution begins, it’s loyal and admiring secretary Ella Raines, who sets out to unravel the mystery. Raines really works hard and manages to track down the witnesses; unfortunately, they have an annoying habit of winding up dead just after admitting that something hinky is afoot, but before they can provide the whole story. Thomas Gomez, usually so good at playing nasty types, here plays a nicer detective who thinks Curtis is innocent and helps Raines. The arrival of Curtis’ artist friend Franchot Tone only adds more puzzlement, and not just the kind you get from looking at his wacky sculptures. And yes, Raines is able to finally track down the phantom lady and that’s just about where I stop spoiling the plot.

I will say, though, that you should brace yourself for one of the most talked about scenes in noir, one that will have you wondering how it got past the censors. Elisha Cook Jr. plays a Gene Krupa-like drummer who ranks second only to the Muppets’ Animal for sheer ferocity and insanity behind the skins. Then again, Cook’s approach to drumming suggests something no Muppet should ever know. Another interesting note about the music in the film is that the nightclub singer Aurora, is the younger sister of Carmen Miranda (speaking of women with memorable headwear). Aurora (pictured below) was overshadowed by Carmen in the States, but was a big deal back in her native Brazil, recording over 160 songs and racking up hits from the age of 18 until her retirement in 1951. Carmen died in 1955, but Aurora outlived her by another 50 years.

As for Ella Raines, she was an almost instant success from her first two films in 1943, Corvette K-225, and Cry Havoc. Phantom Lady was only her third movie, and she was only 23, but did a great job playing determined, clever and calculating. She was on the cover of Time magazine after the film’s release and things seemed promising for a while, but didn’t take off as expected, and despite a number of good films, among them the noirs Brute Force and Impact, Raines’ fame declined as the decade closed.  She did a lot of TV, but perhaps most unique in her credits was the groundbreaking 1953 series Janet Dean, Registered Nurse, which she was involved in from concept through production. Raines also wrote articles, taught acting, and true to her outdoorsy rural Washington state upbringing, made news when she fired after a prowler with her shotgun (maybe the witnesses in Phantom Lady would have been more forthcoming if she tried that approach in the movie).  She had two daughters by her marriage of 28 years to a war hero, and two Hollywood walk of fame stars, one for TV and one for movies (it’s a shame they don’t award any for marksmanship).

More than once during my research I encountered the comment that Raines was a “poor man’s Gene Tierney” which could be taken as a slight or simply an statement of fact that Raines just didn’t achieve Tierney’s level of fame, but if you had to compare the two, I would say Raines has something more earthy and approachable, a touch warmer than the often icy and imperious Tierney. In fact Raines is probably more compassionate than the guarded, low-key, and a little oblivious Alan Curtis seems to deserve. Phantom Lady is an effectively claustrophobic thriller, scary at times, and best of all shows you what strikingly clever visuals Siodmak was capable of, and was to bring to his subsequent noirs, most notably The Killers, The Spiral Staircase and Criss Cross. Phantom Lady was a great discovery and money well spent—even for VHS.

a version of this article appeared in Dark Pages Magazine


8 thoughts on “Phantom Lady/ Ella Raines”

  1. Kristina, PHANTOM LADY is one of those film noirs I keep meaning to own (I’ve seen and enjoyed it on TCM a number of times), but like the titular lady, it’s always out of my reach. I’m the first to agree it’s a great thriller, and that Ella Raines deserved more roles! I agree with you that Raines’ warmth and approachability are very endearing, making us root for her right away. I love it when a film noir heroine has a heart of gold and inner strength! I see what you mean about Gene Tierney often coming across as icy and unapproachable, though I can’t help cutting her some slack, considering Tierney’s tragic real life ordeals. In any case, Elisha Cook Jr.’s drumming scenes and Franchot Tone’s performance are unforgettable. Great post, Kristina, as always!

    1. hi Dorian, thanks as always for the visit and comments! Agreed on Tierney, wouldn’t presume to judge her personally, just that her talent for chill in RAZOR’S EDGE and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN always seems to outweigh for me however sweet she could be in other roles! (and she could be). Just goes to prove how noir had so many juicy roles for women– some ladies who never made it big anywhere else still had a fantastic noir performance (or more) to their name.
      As for getting something out of your reach you could always try the patented Ella “shotgun” approach”!
      Cheers and thanks as always for brightening up the joint! 🙂

  2. Kristina, Sadly, I haven’t seen this one, though I will certainly look for it now.

    Thanks for your kind words early and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you! I love your blog (though I’ve been bad about commenting, sorry about that). Best wishes for the new year

    1. Andrew, thanks for the warm wishes, kind words & for just dropping by as always, no apologies necessary, just say hi whenever 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed this piece, Kristina! Especially reading about you collecting those beautiful VHS tapes.

    I really enjoyed PHANTOM LADY and also liked Raines in the noir IMPACT, where she’s great as the woman who helps Brian Donlevy piece his life back together. Also like her in a lesser but very fun John Wayne film, TALL IN THE SADDLE.

    Happy New Year,

  4. Phantom Lady is a highly enjoyable movie with both Raines and Siodmak doing excellent work. I posted a piece on this one myself some time ago- – and found that I liked it a lot more when I revisited it.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, but The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry is another good Raines/Siodmak noir. I can’t imagine why it’s never been given a decent DVD release somewhere.

  5. Colin
    Thanks for visiting, reading and commenting! I read your blog regularly and that PHANTOM LADY post is really well done. No I haven’t seen ‘Uncle Harry yet, sounds good and will put it on my list. So many great films that need a release, now with MOD maybe we will get more obscure titles.
    drop in anytime! 🙂

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