My Name Is Julia Ross
The director’s name was Joseph H. Lewis. Sniff around film noir long enough and you’ll soon find reference to him. Lewis is often written about with reverence and admiration for elevating the material he was given into something far more interesting, more cinematic. Behind the camera, which he tended to place in such unique locations as to earn the nickname “Wagon-Wheel Joe,” Lewis had the gift of making his less than modest budgets seem like no hindrance to stylish filmmaking. His cinematographers probably helped, with John Alton’s work on The Big Combo deserving of some kind of beautifully dark and shadowed trophy ceremony all on its own, but perhaps it was Lewis who equally inspired talented men like Burnett Guffey and Russell Harlan to match his own flair for composition. Certainly the merits of the much-loved Gun Crazy, with its extended, point of view sequence from a getaway car and overall Nouvelle Vague feel (about a decade before the fact), are deservedly associated with Lewis first and foremost.
He learned how to make pictures on the cheap from the very beginning of his directing career. He did a series of westerns for Universal which one feels generous even in declaring them as B-movies. They remain almost entirely unknown even today. The odd Bela Lugosi horror picture, Bowery Boys flick or entry in the Falcon series followed. In short, though, Lewis was toiling away in near-obscurity. The turning point, by most all accounts, was his 1945 film My Name Is Julia Ross, made for Columbia and deemed impressive by no less than studio boss Harry Cohn. Lewis had only been given ten days and less than $150,000 to make the picture. He went over on both, but Cohn was apparently so taken with his work that Lewis was given even more freedom on subsequent Columbia projects. My Name Is Julia Ross was also a hit at the box office, surely helping the director’s cause.
Based on a novel (entitled The Woman in Red and written by Anthony Gilbert, a pen name for Lucy Malleson), the film concerns the highly unusual circumstances in which a woman looking for work in London finds herself. Julia Ross has lived in London for two months and, as we see, thinks she’s finally found a job as secretary to a fussy older woman. She’d answered a newspaper posting, gone to the employment agency and, after confirming that she had no familial or other ties which might distract from her duties, met with her potential employer. It all went well enough until she suddenly found herself no longer at the London residence where she was supposedly to work and instead at a large estate in Cornwall, with Friday having completely vanished in favor of Saturday. And why does everyone insist on calling her Marian Hughes?
As the title character, Nina Foch is impressive in the strength she gives Julia. What’s essentially happening, and not to give away too much for those who’ve not yet seen the movie, is that she’s been kidnapped and made to seem like the mentally unstable wife/daughter-in-law of her captors, played by George Macready and Dame May Whitty. Their intentions are revealed gradually but we know right away that they most likely are not honorable. A pair of other accomplices complete the conspiracy against Julia. Only potential beau Dennis (Roland Varno) provides hope of somehow alerting officials as to Julia’s disappearance or whereabouts. The frequent, dangling near-misses for escape, even in the film’s brisk 64 minutes of running time, are utilized skillfully in both giving the viewer hope that she might get away and then upping the suspense when she does not.
The thrill of My Name Is Julia Ross might hinge as much on its keen awareness as a taut Gothic thriller as it does the directorial flourishes from Lewis. Both are essential. Lewis had, finally, a strong plot to work with but he also made it better through his formal gifts. Seeing Julia literally behind bars of this massive country estate overlooking the water is an indelible image which perfectly shows her dilemma. The viewer can get a feel for her state of mind through Foch’s performance and the circumstances, but having that shot of her looking out while encaged makes for a striking and essential summation.
Though the film feels believably British (at least from this non-Brit), it’s intriguing to realize that none of it was shot outside of the United States. (This could be chalked up to Lewis’ impressive ability to spin straw into gold since nothing on screen really indicates just how cheaply it was made.) Furthermore, Foch, of course, was Dutch-born and grew up in New York while Macready was an American. The presence of a Dame, in this instance May Whitty, perhaps goes quite a long way toward establishing an overall British feel. Though it can sometimes feel like a merging between Gothic thriller, because of the setting, and film noir, owing mostly to the heightened atmosphere of suspense present nearly throughout, My Name Is Julia Ross also resists strict categorization. Credit Lewis for this, as he tended to make his best pictures very much his own and largely unlike what expectations might suggest.
(My Name Is Julia Ross is the first disc in the TCM Vault Collection release of Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III set. The digipak consists of five pressed discs and comes highly recommended.)