Sunday 2 November 2008

My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

For some reason this seems to be regarded as an early example of British film noir, which is fallacious in every respect: neither being British nor film noir. It's set in England, but is an American film shot on the Columbia lot in Hollywood with a Dutch lead actress, Nina Foch. In fact only one member of the main cast is British, that being Dame May Whitty, as George Macready is American, Ronald Varno Dutch and Anita Bolster Irish. Rather than film noir it has far more in common with the classic English gothic genre, especially The Woman in White, this one being based on Anthony Gilbert's novel The Woman in Red, the title bearing its influences openly. There's no dark urban setting here, no hardboiled detectives or femmes fatale, but there is an old dark house on the the Cornish coast, along with polite villains and a deliberate attempt to force insanity. British film noir it isn't, fascinating it certainly is.

As you can imagine from the title, it's all about Julia Ross. She's a beautiful young lady trying to bounce back in life after a few unfortunate setbacks. She's in love but the object of that love has apparently just married someone else. She has a room in London but owes back rent to the landlady and isn't having any luck finding a job to furnish the money. She finally lands one through the Allison Employment Agency as a secretary to Mrs Hughes, so settles her debts and moves on to begin her new working life. However she goes to sleep in Henrique Square, London but wakes up a couple of days later in Cornwall, where the mystery begins.

She's told that she isn't Julia Ross at all, this being merely a character in her head. She's really Mrs Hughes's daughter-in-law Marian, wife to Ralph Hughes who loves her dearly and wishes she could only recover, though none of the best doctors in London have been able to help her thus far. Of course, as we first meet her as Julia Ross, we're one up on most of the characters in the story: we know there are shenanigans going on and our questions tie to the details of the charade and the nature of its inevitably sinister purpose. Why are Ralph Hughes and his mother trying to persuade Julia that she's someone else and how do they hope to get away with it?

They've done their work carefully, so Julia's protestations naturally go unheeded: the servants have been prepped ahead of time and all of her personal belongings have been burnt. Links to her past are also tenuous, because Mrs Hughes was careful to hire someone without family or attachments and because Julia left her back rent not with Mrs Mackie but with the maid who promptly stole it and tore up her forwarding address. Luckily Dennis Bruce, the man she loves, didn't get married after all and is looking for her.

Much better than its bigger budget Hollywood remake, Arthur Penn's 1987 film Dead of Winter with Roddy McDowall and Mary Steenburgen, this film is a notable success. It's only 65 minutes long, which ensures that it zips along with an economy of motion, being lean and mean and without any unneeded baggage. While it prompts many questions and much interest from us, fundamentally it's not particularly complicated and none of it seems forced. Any film with Dame May Whitty in it is going to be worth watching and the rest of the main cast don't let the side down, though perhaps a couple of the smaller parts are handled a little clumsily.

There's also Nina Foch, who plays Julia. Foch is a highly underrated actress who never got the breaks she deserved in Hollywood, and she does a great job here in a film that very possibly got her more notice than any other part she played. I've seen quite a bit of her work, from most of the periods of her career, and found that she's always well worth watching, not just because she looks like a softer Marlene Dietrich with inviting pools for eyes, but because of her sheer talent as an actress.

Her earliest roles were in films notably beneath her such as Cry of the Werewolf, Boston Blackie's Rendezvous and the execrable The Return of the Vampire, gradually moved up to better fare with I Love a Mystery and A Song to Remember which was her route into major pictures. For some reason she was continually cast in supporting roles in films like Johnny Allegro, An American in Paris and even The Ten Commandments which saw her playing on screen mother to Charlton Heston though he was a year older than her. She continued acting though, and I last saw her in a memorable couple of performances as Ducky's mother in NCIS. She's the main reason to watch My Name is Julia Ross, but she's far from the only one.

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