Thursday, February 8, 2024

Classic Films in Focus: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945)

Director Joseph H. Lewis is best remembered today for his influential noir classic, Gun Crazy (1950), but he also brings great tension to My Name is Julia Ross (1945), an atmospheric thriller from Columbia Pictures that stars Nina Foch as the titular heroine. Despite its modern day setting, Julia's story revels in Gothic trappings, with an imprisoned and imperiled protagonist who endures extreme gaslighting at the hands of her kidnappers. Fans of Gaslight (either the 1940 or the 1944 version) and more traditional Gothic fare will find a lot to appreciate in this tight, well-acted production, including especially sinister performances from Dame May Whitty and a barely restrained George Macready.

Foch plays the penniless but determined Julia Ross, who lands a seemingly perfect job as the live-in secretary of wealthy Mrs. Hughes (May Whitty). Julia is too relieved to worry at questions about her being absolutely without friends or family, but she realizes the awful truth when she awakens from a drugged slumber to find herself transported to Cornwall and declared to be the mentally ill wife of Ralph Hughes (George Macready). Luckily, Julia's aspiring love interest, Dennis (Roland Varno), is searching for her while Julia repeatedly tries to escape before Ralph and his mother can carry out their nefarious plans.

The success of the whole picture depends on its heroine, and Nina Foch makes Julia active and appealing in spite of her damsel in distress situation. Foch's long career included a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Executive Suite (1954), but she never became a top star, which seems a shame considering her energetic performance here. Foch is beautiful in a wide-eyed but spirited way, definitely not the kind of girl to surrender meekly to villainous schemes, no matter how many times the Hughes family tries to convince Julia that she's Marion Hughes. Our heroine might be naive enough to jump at the sudden job offer, but she's never passive or resigned to her fate. Ironically, Julia's constant efforts to escape and tell someone about her situation only support the Hughes' claim that she's insane, but Julia manages to outsmart them enough to get a letter out to Dennis. Part of the fun of the movie lies in waiting to see what Julia will try next, whether she's hiding in cars, looking for secret passages, or pretending that she really believes she might be Marion Hughes.

Most of the other important characters present threats to Julia's well-being, and each is interesting in his or her own fashion. Julia's chief antagonist is the unflappable Mrs. Hughes, played with sly menace by Dame May Whitty. Whitty is a fun choice for the role because she doesn't seem like a villain even when she's blatantly plotting Julia's demise. The mother provides a stark contrast to the psychopath son, Ralph, who has already murdered the original Marion and clearly yearns to kill again. Only Mrs. Hughes can control him, and one wonders how long that can last, given the number of sharp objects she has to confiscate from Ralph over the course of the picture. The criminal pair have ample assistance from their most trusted servants, especially Sparkes (Anita Bolster), who poses as the employment agent and ensures that the newer servants spread gossip about "Marion Hughes" being insane. She's a great example of the sinister housekeeper so quintessential in the Gothic genre, and Bolster has a perfect face for the role.

My only real complaint about My Name is Julia Ross relates to the abrupt and overly tidy ending, which turns a blind eye to the extremity of Julia's ordeal. Compare that with the endings of Gaslight or Notorious (1946), in which the heroines are clearly going to need to work through some heavy post-traumatic stress. For more of the lovely Nina Foch, see The Return of the Vampire (1943), in which Roland Varno also plays her love interest, An American in Paris (1951), or Illegal (1955). She also appears in both The Ten Commandments (1956) and Spartacus (1960). Dame May Whitty earned Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for Night Must Fall (1937) and Mrs. Miniver (1942), but she has memorable roles in The Lady Vanishes (1938), Suspicion (1941), and Gaslight (1944). Don't miss George Macready in Gilda (1946), which is probably his most important film.

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