Is this any way to treat a lady? Lovely Nina Foch just wanted a job, but she instead becomes the fall-gal in a psychologically perverse plan to deny her very identity. Cult director Joseph H. Lewis makes deft use of cinematic suspense techniques to compel our involvement in a bizarre conspiracy: not just convincing a woman that she’s insane, but that she’s literally not herself.
My Name is Julia Ross
1945 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 65 min. / Street Date February 19, 2019 / Available from Arrow Films (UK) / 39.95
Starring: Nina Foch, Dame May Whitty, George Macready, Roland Varno, Leonard Mudie, Anita Bolster, Doris Lloyd, Queenie Leonard.
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Film Editor: Henry Batista
Visual Effects: Lawrence Butler, Donald Glouner
Musical director: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Written by Muriel Roy Bolton, from the novel by Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Malleson)
Produced by Wallace MacDonald
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
2019 is shaping up just fine for Blu-ray releases of small-scale, big-reputation Films Noir. Criterion’s much-awaited restoration of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour is due on March 19. With this release Arrow Academy gives us an equally overachieving noir sleeper from the same year, with an equally brief running time. Cult director Joseph H. Lewis packs a lot of cinematic power into just one hour and five minutes.
World War 2 brought unexpected opportunities to actors adjudged 4F at the draft board but A+ on the scale of good looks. It also opened doors for new directors, who came from the theater or were emigrés like Douglas Sirk. Journeymen laboring in odd corners of the industry got a leg up: Budd Boetticher, Jules Dassin, André De Toth, Gordon Douglas, Phil Carlson, Cy Endfield… the list goes on. When Pearl Harbor came along, director Joseph H. Lewis had already been making westerns for five years, plus the occasional Dead End Kids movie. He helmed a couple of B horror items for Universal, but even as the war ended was still doing studio films at the ‘series’ level, like The Falcon in San Francisco.
Then Lewis’s ship came in — a hoped-for project with standout potential. Ironically adapted from a book by a woman writing under a male pen name, My Name is Julia Ross became that happiest of career-boosting phenomena, the Sleeper: a movie that nobody expects to shine yet performs at a level the industry can’t ignore. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur were obscure until Cat People, and then were suddenly given quality space in newspaper and magazine articles. The same happened in a less public way for director William Castle and writer Philip Yordan, when their marginal productions attracted approving audiences and emphatic critical approval. Some movies boosted careers even before they were released. Howard Hughes shelved They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray) and The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer) for a year each, but quiet industry screenings generated buzz that transformed both men into desirable directing hires.
The canny thriller My Name is Julia Ross combines women’s magazine concerns with a classic gothic theme, topped by a modern psychological question: how firmly do we know who we are? Would we feel as certain if everything in our daily lives suddenly refused to confirm our self-identity?
Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is an attractive English secretary in London, badly in need of a job. Responding to a want ad, she reports to her new position as a lady’s companion — but when she wakes up the next morning, she’s in a lavish old mansion overlooking a beach in faraway Cornwall. Julia is told that she’s Marian Hughes, the wife of Ralph Hughes (George Macready) and that she’s just been released from an asylum. Unable to escape from the Hughes’ ‘protective care,’ Julia finds herself in a conspiracy so complete that she begins to question her sanity — what proof does she have that all these concerned people, including Ralph’s solicitous mother (Dame Mae Whitty) are not looking out for her best interests? Both by plan and by accident, Julia’s boyfriend Dennis (Roland Varno) finds her whereabouts impossible to trace. Julia/Marian realizes only slowly that she’s the patsy for a fantastic, diabolical plot to secure a family inheritance; her only hope is sneak a message out, or to make someone believe her — or to find a psychological weakness in her ‘husband’ Ralph.
The Julia Ross story idea has been revisited many times, notably in Silvio Narrizano’s Hammer film Die! Die! My Darling!: nobody forgets the frantic Stephanie Powers trying to get Donald Sutherland’s mentally impaired handyman to carry her message for help. Julia Ross was also remade with Mary Steenburgen in 1987, as Dead of Winter. Combining combined beauty with intelligence, the Dutch-born Nina Foch carries Julia Ross with ease. She may have been eager to play the interesting Julia Ross after working in the horror entries The Return of the Vampire and Cry of the Werewolf. Foch had just come from two previous murder mystery stories, I Love a Mystery and Escape in the Fog (by Budd Boetticher).
Unlike many older thrillers My Name is Julia Ross still carries a major suspense kick. The first-person nightmare immediately pulls viewers in — the Hughes’ mount a full-on charade to convince the locals that ‘Marian’ is a semi-suicidal mental case. Most of the movie is spent spelling out the appalling means by which Julia is kept in the dark, and her resourceful attempts to restore her true identity. She tries various ruses to communicate with her boyfriend in London. Ralph and his evil mother counter her movies with even more elaborate games-playing, and an assist from a servant-accomplice (Leonard Mudie). Our identification with Julia never flags.
With a little medical help, I’m sure my wife would have no trouble telling the neighbors that I’d flipped my lid and needed to be kept drugged and locked up. (I’d better not give her ideas.) Even in 1945 such conspiracies were possible, but it takes a while for poor Julia to realize just how powerless she is. But she does intuit a weakness between her captors: even the diabolical Mrs. Hughes has little control over her fundamentally disturbed son, who plays with knives and broken glass.
Director Joseph Lewis was previously known as a creative studio team player who enlivened cookie-cutter westerns with artful compositions. He often added interest (and visual depth) by shooting scenes through foreground objects. That earned him the nickname ‘Wagon Wheel Joe.’ But looking at the director’s Universal thriller The Mad Doctor of Market Street, we can see how little opportunity was to be found in most B-film assignments. Nobody could get a leg up in Hollywood by directing Mad Doctor potboilers.
Lewis drew the lucky script that a clever director could spin into thriller gold, on a tiny budget. His direction pulls double-duty, convincing us of the normalcy of Julia’s London boarding house as well as the intimidating, dreamlike Hughes household. Lewis makes his limited resources count in key establishing scenes. A complex opening on a rainy day in London sees Julia keeping an employment appointment that seems completely normal, at first. An impressive matte painting helps establish the lonely mansion on the remote sea bluff.
Julia is magically transported from gloomy London to a gothic prison, beautiful but sinister. When she first wakes up in the Hughes mansion, Lewis pulls off a notable visual coup — an inquisitive, hesitant 180-degree pan around her room. (Note: critics always say ‘360’ but the camera only sweeps around half of the room.) The show also abounds in shots featuring creative uses of shadows for dramatic effect — not as acute as Nosferatu- maybe, but strong enough to imbue ordinary shots with a second level of mystery. On the evidence of this film, it would seem that Lewis paid close attention to high-class thrillers, especially the Hitchcock films with their creative subjective camera effects.
The year before, William Castle had attracted critical plaudits by consciously imitating Hitchcock with his noir suspense tale When Strangers Marry. But Hitchcock would likely be more inclined to admire Joseph H. Lewis’s visual flexibility, as Julia Ross’s use of subjective point-of-view is more refined and organic to the material. Lewis conveys Julia’s panic, claustrophobia and eventual determination to survive what shapes up to be a cold-blooded murder conspiracy. The movie is almost halfway over before Julia fully realizes the fix she’s in. When the show opened in late 1945, the frantic events of the last reel were considered a nail-biting experience.
Nina Foch never became a star, but she was highly respected in pictures like
Johnny O’Clock and Executive Suite; fifteen years later, she’s particularly good as a nasty patrician housewife in Kubrick’s Spartacus. Ever the sinister smoothie, George Macready’s fortunes improved as well, especially a year later after Gilda. Dame May Whitty was born just about when Lee and Grant were ending our Civil War (!); she’s best known as the adorable Miss Froy in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Just three years later Whitty would be gone, but she remained active almost to the end.
Joseph H. Lewis immediately won bigger assignments at Columbia. He stuck with cameraman Burnett Guffey and was rewarded with a key Columbia star, Glenn Ford. For the next ten years he worked almost exclusively in film noir, and hit his career high with the classic Gun Crazy. Lewis’s directorial innovations and excellence with modest budgets won him the respect of the industry, even if his status as a ‘cult auteur’ took twenty years to arrive.
Enough years have gone by to overshadow the novelty of My Name is Julia Ross’s ‘gaslight-conspiracy’ story idea. Hundreds of films and TV shows have mined the same territory, but this original still plays well and has retained its reputation. I remember very well when UCLA graduate student / Teaching Assistant Janey Place ‘discovered’ Julia as a feminist film. I believe she had convinced some Los Angeles revival theater (the Beverly Canon?) to dig up a print of the then- obscure picture, and promoted the screening to the film school students and faculty with a hand-written flyer.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of My Name is Julia Ross gives us a flawless, glowing transfer of this gem shot by Columbia’s noir ace Burnett Guffey. The show looks simply great — when the filmmakers carefully concentrate on certain visuals the effect is stunning, as with the opening rain scene.
First up is a 22-minute featurette analysis of Julia Ross by Nora Fiore, who begins with a quick statement about female identity in postwar Hollywood before offering a bio of director Joseph H. Lewis. Fiore has read the original novel, but doesn’t do a full comparison. An insert pamphlet contains an informative essay by Adrian Martin. An original trailer is pretty dire — its hyped text declarations make the movie’s excellent plot twists seem ordinary.
The extras finish with a polished, assured Alan K. Rode commentary. He opens by saying he’s going to talk a lot about the actors, and his incisive comments go much farther than the usual list of credits. While praising Joseph H. Lewis, Rode offers a reality check on the director’s boasts in late-career interviews, in which he took credit for most everything in his films. He claimed to have written the script for Gun Crazy, and to have discovered its leading actress Peggy Cummins (who had been busy in Hollywood for several years). He said that Julia Ross bloomed from a double bill item to first-run basis due to a strong audience response, but Rode shoots down that assertion as well — although most critics loved Julia it did spend most of its time as a second feature item. The director’s real reward was an enhanced reputation in the industry. Why did he not become a bigger player, and jump to ‘A’ productions? Rode says that Lewis perhaps wasn’t aggressive in selling himself, and that he may have alienated the studio brass by imposing himself in post-production, which at that time was mostly the domain of producers.
Lewis’s attention to post-production detail makes all the difference in My Name is Julia Ross. The matte shots of the imposing Hughes mansion are excellent; they’re far better than the phony miniatures in Hitchcock’s big hit Rebecca of the similar mystery-house Manderley.
The commentary jaw-dropper for genre fans is Rode’s connecting an actor in this movie to Roger Corman’s teenage writer Martin Varno. I heard the name ‘Varno’ but wouldn’t have dreamed a relationship. I should have learned sooner that everything in the small town of Hollywood was once a web of personal connections — that elderly neighbor next door might well have terrific industry stories to tell.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
My Name is Julia Ross
Supplements: Audio commentary by Alan K. Rode; analysis featurette Identity Crisis: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia by Nora Fiore, ‘The Nitrate Diva,’ original trailer; illustrated booklet with an essay by Adrian Martin.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 5, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson