Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Name Is Julia Ross (Columbia, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran My Name Is Julia Ross, a quite engaging Columbia “B” from director Joseph H. Lewis in 1945 that was one of those occasional “B”’s that stepped so far out of its class that it got “A” playing time on its own (despite a 64-minute running time and a cast of solidly talented actors who weren’t exactly stars of the day — Nina Foch, George Macready, Dame May Whitty) and helped launch Lewis’s career. Lewis had already worked his way up the Hollywood food chain from Monogram (several East Side Kids adventures and the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Invisible Ghost) to Universal (The Mad Doctor of Market Street) and now Columbia, but Bob Porfirio in The Film Noir Encyclopedia said My Name Is Julia Ross “is the film that Lewis likes to consider as the ‘real’ beginning of his career.” (The present tense is appropriate because The Film Noir Encyclopedia was first published in 1979, my edition (the third) is from 1992, and Lewis lived until August 30, 2000, when he died at the age of 97.)

When I first saw it in the 1970’s I noticed immediately its similarities to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “The Copper Beeches,” since both deal with a young woman being hired for a live-in job by a sinister family living in the boondocks because of her resemblance to a now-deceased family member. The story began as the novel The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert (and the film was apparently shot with that as a working title even though no one is described as wearing red at any time in the film) and was adapted by Muriel Ray Bolton — and as great as Lewis’s work (with Burnett Guffey as cinematographer, he fills the movie with atmospheric shots and chiaroscuro lighting, as well as far more close-ups than were typical in a low-budget film) is, Bolton’s script also has a good deal to do with the quality of this film even though it didn’t break open her career the way it did his (she’d been a writer on the Aldrich family movies in the 1930’s — they were Paramount’s attempt to mount a series to compete with the Hardy series at MGM — and after a few more “B” credits she decamped to TV in the 1950’s, returning to My Name Is Julia Ross for a 1955 TV remake on Lux Video Theatre).

The story: Julia Ross (Nina Foch — incidentally I’d always pronounced her name as “Fohsh,” with a long “o,” but in Robert Osborne’s introduction he called her “Fawsh,” and since he probably knew her I’d take that as authoritative) is a young single woman living in London. Her only living relative is an aunt in America, and she’s just broken up with her fiancé Dennis Bruce (Roland Varno) because he’s left her to marry someone else. She’s also three weeks behind in her room rent to boarding-house owner Mrs. Mackie (Doris Lloyd), and, desperate for a job, she eagerly applies to an ad from the Allyson Employment Agency for a live-in position as secretary to dowager Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty). Mrs. Hughes, her son Ralph (George Macready) and the hatchet-faced woman who’s in charge of the agency interview Julia and get her to swear that she has neither relatives nor “a young man” who would be interested in her and concerned about her fate, and on that condition Julia accepts her job and reports to work at a London address. The night before she takes the job, though, Dennis returns to her life — he didn’t marry the other woman after all and he wants to resume his relationship with Julia — but she says she’s already taken the job and so that would be impossible.

She goes to her employer’s presumed home in London, spends the day there (after using their advance to pay off her boarding-house bill — which the maid at the boarding-house attempts to steal!) and goes to sleep at the usual hour — and wakes up not in the same house, but in a seaside estate in Cornwall (“played” by Malibu, as usual in an American film about Britain). Gradually she realizes that she’s being forced to assume the identity of another woman — Ralph’s now-dead wife Marian — and her protestations that her name is Julia Ross are passed off as mental illness, the delusions of a woman who had just returned from an asylum. Eventually she (and we) learn that the real Marian is dead — killed by Ralph in a psychopathic rage and dumped in the ocean off one of the Cornwall cliffs — and Ralph and his mother have plotted to hire a girl who looked like Marian and drive her to suicide so they can pass off her body as Marian’s and escape legal responsibility for her death.

The film and its plotting clearly owe a lot to Conan Doyle (not only “The Copper Beeches” but also the gimmick of the phony business, designed solely to lure someone into a plot, which was used in “The Red-Headed League” and “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk”) and also to Alfred Hitchcock: the murder on the beach from Young and Innocent, the fish-out-of-water aspects of Rebecca (Lewis even cribs one of Hitchcock’s famous shots of the heroine confronted with the late wife’s initials on her hand mirror) and the gimmick in Suspicion (Hitchcock’s original draft of Suspicion, anyway) of having the heroine trick the husband who intends to do her in into mailing a letter that will expose his plot.

At the same time My Name Is Julia Ross anticipates gimmicks in Hitchcock films yet to come: our roommate noted the similarities to Vertigo (a rich man recruits a young woman to participate in a plot to cover up his murder of his wife) and I picked up on the Strangers on a Train-ish aspect of the psycho’s mother covering for him. My Name is Julia Ross is vividly directed — Lewis’s and Guffey’s noir atmospherics brilliantly depict the almost Kafka-esque plight the story puts its heroine through — and marvelously cast. Foch and Macready had been teamed before, including the first of Columbia’s three films based on the radio show I Love a Mystery, but here they get roles worthy of their talents: Foch starts the film looking a bit like the young Dietrich, but as the plot gets more intense she loses any sense of reserve and leaves us in suspense (as Ingrid Bergman did in George Cukor’s Gaslight) whether she’ll genuinely lose her sanity before the plot to drive her crazy can be exposed; and Macready plays the psycho husband in a low-keyed way that anticipates the performances Alfred Hitchcock got out of Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train and Anthony Perkins in Psycho and is a far cry from the scenery-chewing Macready got away with in films with more prestigious directors like Charles Vidor and Stanley Kubrick.

But I suspect the reason My Name Is Julia Ross launched Lewis’s career is that it was the first time he got to work with a genuinely strong story, a plot that for all its far-fetched aspects at least made sense and gave him and his cast members real emotions to grab onto instead of the charades of stylishly directed nonsense most of Lewis’s previous films had been. (Lewis was aware of how dreadful his earlier scripts had been; at Universal he was nicknamed “Wagon-Wheel Joe” because when he was shooting “B” Westerns and he came upon a passage of particularly lousy dialogue, he would go to his wagon-wheel collection — he had several, of different sizes — and put one on the set and aim the camera through it, thereby creating an “artistic” effect and distracting the audience from the awfulness of what the actors were saying.) On a tiny budget and with a cast of talented unknowns who were boosted to stardom from this movie (well, the two leads were, at least), My Name Is Julia Ross offers some of the same intensity as Rebecca and Gaslight and deserves its enduring reputation as a “B” that stepped up from its class and rated “A” playing time.