I’ve seen a lot of movies by now but I’m still young enough to have cinematic epiphanies like discovering the beautiful and enigmatic Ella Raines for the first time. This was surprising not least of which because I’m a film noir nut but that once I laid eyes on her amazing face I wondered aloud where she’d been my whole film life. The revelation came in a small, underappreciated though thoroughly engaging noir called “IMPACT” (1949).
Ella is cast as a gorgeous garage owner in a fairly preposterous scenario involving a love triangle with a man left for dead by his conniving wife. He strays into a small town garage where Ella is doing her best to destroy an auto she is trying to fix. She needs a car mechanic and looking for love at the same time. The first time I saw her stunning face on screen I did a double take. I was discovering her in that garage right along with wronged leading man, Brian Donlevy. Only I forgot completely about his two-timing, back-stabbing, murderous wife and immediately fell head over heals for the insanely gorgeous Ella.
Ella Raines was born in 1920 and came to Hollywood prominence fairly early in her career. She starred opposite John Wayne in “Tall In The Saddle” (1944) and hit with several other movies like “Brute Force” (1947) where she starred opposite Burt Lancaster. But her signature-noir-roles were in the curious, all-female noir “Cry Havoc” (1943) and, of course, “Phantom Lady” (1944).
Phantom Lady had a similarly preposterous plot of a conniving woman who has sent a man to death row over a heated row with another woman who had the audacity to wear the same hat at her nightclub show. There’s a murder naturally and it is up to Ella to find out the identity of the Phantom Lady in order to exonerate her boss – whom she has fallen head over heals for. However, the plot doesn’t matter when you have a woman this gorgeous in a noir so stylistic and well-shot that the atmospherics alone create the mood and forward momentum.
Ella is simply, darkly gorgeous in Phantom Lady. She inhabits the shadows and imbues the cigarette smoke-filled environment with a white-hot drive to save the man she loves. She’s formidable in her gallant effort to stop a would-be femme fatale and that’s enough for this moody, brooding and over the top noir. At a tight 88 minutes of running time, Phantom Lady does what it sets out to do: introduce the world to one of the greatest beauties unleashed on the silver screen in glorious black & white.
Ella continued to act both in film and television after her amazing start to her career. But the roles were mostly in B-movies, turkeys that no matter how she shined and was shot – were still turkeys. She even had her own television show where she starred as a registered nurse (back when that career alone could be the basis of an entire show). And like so many actresses before her – she worked well into her late 50’s and 60’s with her last screen credit in 1984 – four years before her death by throat cancer in 1988.
Ella was a classic beauty who had brains and talent more than luck with movie roles. I’m glad that Impact was my first introduction to her because it was a good noir with an interesting role for Ella. Plus, she was an absolute knockout with her hair pulled back and engine grease on her face in tailored white coveralls. If there were only women like her in garages in small towns throughout the country today. America would be a much better, much sexier place.
My favorite glamor shot of Ella because she’s almost smiling.
There. She finally did it. She smiled!
And now a bit of cheesecake for the boys…
Before going back to smoldering sensuality.