Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: Muriel Roy Bolton
Based on a Novel by: Anthony Gilbert
Starring: Nina Foch, May Whitty, George Macready
Running Time: 65 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
As horrific and destructive as WWII was, it did bring about one positive change. It finally gave women some independence in those countries involved in the conflict. During the war, most of the men were sent out to fight, so the women had to go out to work to keep the country running and help make weapons and shells to support the war effort. Previously women were rarely seen in the workplace, but during the war they dominated it in many areas. When the men came back afterwards though, many weren’t happy with this change. Many women were sent back to their domestic roles, but plenty still remained in employment due to a desire to carry on working or, more often than not, due to their husbands not returning.
A number of film theorists have linked the rise of the film noir genre with this change in society. In particular, the classic ‘femme fatale’ character that featured heavily in them. Some believe their popularity was directly aimed at the fact that men felt disempowered by women ‘stealing’ their jobs and were uncomfortable with their counterparts’ new found standing in society.
My Name is Julia Ross is an interesting spin on the film noir formula then, as well as a subtle comment on the role of women after the war. It was based on a novel written by a woman (don’t let the pseudonym Anthony Gilbert fool you, her real name was Lucy Malleson) and also adapted by one (Muriel Roy Bolton) and features Nina Foch as the titular lead. Julia Ross is a lonely woman with no family and even her potential suitor, Dennis (Roland Varno), just got married. She desperately needs a job to support herself so applies for a secretarial position. At the interview she’s taken on straight away so is thrilled, but we see afterwards that it’s all part of a dark plot, the details of which aren’t revealed for a little while longer.
The scheme begins with drugging Julia and driving her down to Cornwall. When she wakes up, her employers, now pretending to be her in-laws, try to convince her she is not Julia Ross, but Marion Hughes. Julia is not convinced and tries desperately to contact Dennis, but the polite yet domineering Mrs. Hughes (May Whitty) and Julia’s sadistic ‘husband’ Ralph (George Macready) won’t drop the charade and do their best to drive her insane and convince the locals she’s disturbed so that the final steps of their plan can fall into place.
Rather than a femme fatale then, we have an innocent female protagonist whose independence and ultimately life is threatened after she merely applies for a job interview. So there’s a lot you can read into the film. Whether it was intentional or not is one thing, but with two women responsible for writing the film and the central focus being female too, it’s still a refreshingly and powerfully woman-led film from the era.
It was directed by a man though, of course. There were very few (if any) female directors in Hollywood back then. Joseph H. Lewis helmed it and it was a pivotal film for him. After churning out B-movies, largely westerns, since the late 30s, he finally found some commercial and critical success. It led him to direct a number of film noir titles, including Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, which helped cement his place in cinema history.
Lewis’ trademark visual style is here, with some atmospheric and occasionally quite unusual cinematography making good use of shadows, depth and movement. Straight from the offset in fact, you know you’re in for a visual treat as we track Julia into her rented accommodation out of the rain. A hazy vignette, moody lighting and a torrential amount of rain get you straight into the film noir mindset as well as highlight the loneliness and isolation of the lead character.
There are some decent performances too. Foch makes for a strong lead, bolstering the will of her character. This was a breakthrough for her too, finally giving her a decent role that earned her positive reviews. She never became what you might call a household name to audiences, but in L.A. she became a widely respected acting teacher, who also worked with directors. Indeed, Amy Heckerling, who helped break down barriers for female directors in Hollywood in the 80s, was one famous pupil, as well as John McTiernan and Ed Zwick.
What impressed me most about the film though was how fast-paced and economical it is. At an incredibly lean 65 minutes, it races along with rarely a wasted frame. This approach does mean there are a couple of overly convenient sequences of characters and/or the audience overhearing important and tidily delivered exposition. However, this helps keep the momentum going so it didn’t bother me too much.
So, overall it’s an incredibly taut story that ploughs forward with enough style and substance to help it rise about the rest of the B-movie crowd it originated from. It’s fairly simple in construction and cuts a few corners here and there, but is nonetheless gripping and quite exciting at times. With interesting parallels to be made with regards to the role of women at the time, it makes for a solid think-piece too, so there’s something for everyone here.
My Name is Julia Ross is out on 18th February on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. The picture and sound quality is excellent as is to be expected from the label.
There are a few special features included in the set too. Here’s the list:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
– Original uncompressed mono PCM audio
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Commentary by noir expert Alan K. Rode
– Identity Crisis: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia – The Nitrate Diva (Nora Fiore) provides the background and an analysis of the film
– Theatrical trailer
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow
– FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Adrian Martin
Both the commentary and Nitrate Diva features here are excellent, providing interesting analyses to the film as well as filling the viewer in on the production’s history and the careers of Lewis and Foch, among other things.