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Saturday Night Cinema: My Name Is Julia Ross

3

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema, My Name Is Julia Ross, is the first film noir made by Joseph H. Lewis. Though made on a low budget, the film contains a nice brooding atmosphere and some innovative camera work to tell the tightly woven story of Julia Ross, an unemployed woman who in desperation takes a job as the personal secretary to a socially prominent matron.

“A sterling example of noir thriller efficiency.”

My Name Is Julia Ross (1945)

In many ways, My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) was the breakthrough film for Joseph H. Lewis. The veteran director had worked his way up from the editing room at MGM to designing and shooting title sequences for Republic Pictures to directing B-movies, mostly westerns, for Universal, Columbia, RKO, Monogram and PRC, cranking out these low-budget productions at a breakneck pace on starvation budgets. While none of the films attracted much attention, Lewis used the productions as a kind of cinematic laboratory, trying out stylistic devices, experimenting with lighting, mastering camerawork and framing and in general trying to forge a style within the restrictions of his material.

He had more than 20 features to his credit when he was handed the script that would give him the opportunity to bring his experiments together in a single, stand-out film: My Name Is Julia Ross, a modest little thriller made for Columbia’s B-movie unit. The story is a gothic thriller about an unemployed London secretary hired as a live-in assistant to a seemingly sweet old lady. In fact, she’s hired because she is a dead ringer for the dead wife of the old lady’s psychotic son. Lewis was handed a solid script (“I didn’t rewrite the script,” he told interviewer Peter Bogdanovich, “the script came to me, and I would say it was a damn near perfect script”) and cast that was a cut above the second-rate stars he usually worked with: cool, elegant starlet Nina Foch as Julia, Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes [1938]) as the old lady with a cold, conniving mind under her charming front and George Macready (Gilda [1946]) as the mad son Ralph, creepily malevolent as he puts on a show of affection in her presence (and obsessively plays with knives in almost every other scene). The script, based on a novel by Anthony Gilbert, has a Gaslight quality to it. Julie goes to sleep in her employer’s London home and wakes up in a mansion overlooking the Cornwall coast, where she’s called Marion and told that she’s the wife of Ralph. “You haven’t forgotten us again, have you?” She’s all but locked up in the house while mother and son convince the town that she has gone mad, and then plot her “accidental” demise.

Lewis’ first film for the studio since 1939, My Name Is Julia Ross was part of the “fewer and better” B-movie initiative, with a bigger budget usually accorded such productions and a 12-day shooting schedule, twice as long as he was given for the westerns he used to crank out for the studio. Lewis made the most of his limited resources, with judicious use of stock footage and back projection to establish the London and Cornwall settings and careful backlot shooting to put the characters on English streets and country roads, or high upon a seaside cliff looking dramatically down at a rocky, lonely beach. He lavished his attention on the mansion sets, giving the interiors a distinctive sense of old-money history and aristocratic elegance; he also photographed many of the scenes framed by foreground objects or through doorways and windows (looking at Julia through the bars of her upstairs window brings the feeling of imprisonment home simply and evocatively). While the characters work to establish a surface of normalcy, Lewis injects a sense of unease into the situation with oblique angles and webs of shadows.

To get greater depth of focus (which would become a hallmark of Lewis’ best work) he had cinematographer Burnett Guffey (then just another cameraman churning out low-budget features but later responsible for shooting In a Lonely Place [1950], From Here to Eternity [1953] and Bonnie and Clyde [1967]) flood the studio with extra lights and then close down the aperture, which darkened the image while still providing a sharp focus. It’s especially effective in night scenes, as Ralph lurks in the shadows and waits for Julia, who wanders the dark halls while keeping an eye out for her captors. Lewis choreographs the scenes smoothly and builds suspense with graceful camerawork, measured editing and dramatic compositions criss-crossed with threatening shadows.

The results were striking, but also time consuming. Lewis went over budget and over schedule-the final shoot ran 18 days-and (according to Lewis) the unit producer was pressuring him to speed things up. But the footage impressed the front office and he was given the time and money to complete the film in the same manner. The investment paid off for the studio and for Lewis. Though it runs a brief 65 minutes, it looks like a studio feature, not a cheap B-movie, and what was envisioned as a better-than-average B-movie was subsequently released at the top of the bill in many markets and made over $4 million on a budget under $200,000. Compared to Lewis’ best work, notably his thrilling masterpiece Gun Crazy [1950] and the film noir classic The Big Combo [1955], My Name Is Julia Ross is a minor but impressive showpiece: crisply directed, smartly shot, handsomely mounted. It showed producers that Lewis had talent and ambition and, if he never quite broke out of the low-budget end of studio filmmaking, it at least moved him out of the B-movie units.

Producer: Wallace MacDonald
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: Muriel Roy Bolton (writer); Anthony Gilbert (novel)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Jerome Pycha, Jr.
Film Editing: Henry Batista
Cast: Nina Foch (Julia Ross), Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Hughes), George Macready (Ralph Hughes), Roland Varno (Dennis Bruce), Anita Sharp-Bolster (Sparkes), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Mackie).
BW-65m.

by Sean Axmaker

The Truth Must be Told

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