Ella Raines was a lovely young actress of the 40s and 50s. She started her career with five “A” movies in a row, one of them “Phantom Lady”, and continued to make quality films along with the occasional “B” picture such as “The Second Face”. Born in August 1920, she had been a drama student at the University of Washington, and after a stint in New York made her first film “Corvette K-225” in 1943. She moved into television with her series “Janet Dean, Registered Nurse” and then with guest star roles on various programs. She retired in 1957, at only 37 years of age, and raised two daughters. She made films with John Wayne (“Tall in the Saddle”), Eddie Bracken (Preston Sturges’s “Hail the Conquering Hero”), Randolph Scott (“Corvette K-225” and “The Walking Hills”), William Powell (“The Senator Was Indiscreet”), and Burt Lancaster (“Brute Force”). She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for movies and one for television, and four message boards on imdb.com. So, while not generally well-known, she still has a loyal following today.
In “Phantom Lady” Franchot Tone gets top billing, followed by Ella and Alan Curtis, which is kind of a gyp for her (and Alan), because Tone does not appear in a one-hour twenty-six-minute movie until the 47 minute mark.
The plot: Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is depressed over marital problems, and is doing the rounds of some neighborhood bars when he meets an interesting looking woman who seems out of place. She is well-dressed and has on a very memorable hat, covered in fur and with one side of the brim swept up close to the face. It also features a wisp of scarf and some feathers. They chat and he tries to give her a pair of theater tickets. She turns them down until he offers to go with her. They see a musical revue and in one number the leading lady, Estela Monteiro (Aurora), is wearing exactly the same hat. She sees Scott’s companion, and sends her hateful looks for the rest of the number, then storms off-stage. When Scott and the lady part, he still doesn’t know her name. Then he goes home and finds his wife murdered. The police are polite but disbelieving of his story. Nevertheless they follow up. At the bar the bartender (Andrew Tombes) swears Scott was alone, as do others who should remember the lady with the strange hat. Even Estela Monteiro says that her hats are exclusive and no one last night was wearing anything like her personal design. Scott’s faithful secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) never stops trusting that Scott’s story is true and continues to try to shake the witnesses’ stories, but eventually execution is only days away. Now Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) returns from South America, is shocked at Carol’s tale and starts to aid her in her detective work. Will they find the mysterious hat-wearer in time? If you doubt it – why?
The screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld, based on the novel by William Irish, is tightly written and doesn’t waste any time in barreling through the mystery, additional murders, and the resolution. Robert Siodmak directed with a real flair for noir. And two other performers deserve mention: Fay Helm as impossible-to-find Ann Terry, and Thomas Gomez as the sympathetic Inspector Burgess.
Ella is strong and determined, only yielding to frustration toward the end. She does a fine job as the real star of the picture.
Oddity: “I’ll Remember April” is played (but not sung) behind the opening credits, and in early scenes, such as on the jukebox at the bar where Scott first encounters Ann, but is uncredited both as to title and writers. The music is by Gene de Paul and the lyrics are by Patricia Johnston and Don Raye. Other than the big musical number the film’s score is stock music by Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner.
“The Second Face” is a plastic surgery picture. Phyllis (Ella) is kind and talented, but as one of the characters says, she is Plain. Not an easy job, making Ella Raines look plain, but the effect is achieved very cleverly with make-up only. Her eyebrows are thickened, her hair is cut very short in an unbecoming way, the look given her is a no-make-up look, and she wears a lumpy false nose. Now, much of this could be corrected if someone would take Phyllis aside and help her learn some basic make-up tips, but nothing short of surgery is going to ameliorate the nose.
Phyllis works for Paul (Bruce Bennett), and has a crush on him. Paul is a kind man, obviously the right one for Phyllis, but he has been wounded before and is not willing to put himself out there again. His young daughter requires a companion, since he and Phyllis have to work, and that is Mrs. Lockridge (Jane Darwell), kind and sympathetic, but a bit impatient with Phyllis, who does not take advice. Phyllis does love Paul, but could never allow herself to hope for anything from that direction.
So, Phyllis’s clothing designs eventually win her a slot working for Jerry (John Sutton) who of course takes credit for everything, since Phyllis is too much of a rabbit to complain. Then one day she is driving too fast and runs into a truck. Now, surgeons save her life and suggest plastic surgery. Her second face transforms Phyllis from a rabbit into a tiger, and a feisty, somewhat unsympathetic tiger, who takes over her own future, both in her design career and in her attitudes toward other people.
In this type of movie true love is guaranteed, and we are happy to see Phyllis arrive at a point in her life where she can like herself, and realize that Paul actually loves her back. Ella’s performance is quite good. In fact, everyone does great work with the somewhat stereotyped material. Many “B” movies are very watchable, and The Second Face is certainly one of those. It has resonance today for many women, if you just substitute body issues such as weight control for Phyllis’s nose.
In condensing the plot I have left out three very good actors: Rita Johnson, Roy Roberts, and Patricia Knight, who all have their effect on Phyllis’s situation.
The story and screenplay are by Eugene Vale, and the picture was directed by Jack Bernhard.