Noir Side Street — “My Name Is Julia Ross”

Nouvelle Vague (the residues of alphaville). Photo by Emiliano Grusovin.

Today’s film is 1945’s “My Name Is Julia Ross,” starring Nina Foch (Julia Ross), Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Hughes), George Macready (Ralph Hughes), Roland Varno (Dennis Bruce), Anita Sharp-Bolster (Sparkes), Joy Harington (Bertha), and Queenie Leonard (Alice). The film’s directed by Joseph H. Lewis; with cinematography by Burnett Guffey. Produced and distributed by Columbia Pictures. Screenplay by Muriel Roy Bolton; based on the novel “The Woman in Red,” written in 1941 by Anthony Gilbert (pseudonym of Lucy Beatrice Malleson).

“My Name Is Julia Ross” is a tightly plotted film, coming in with a run-time of a mere 65 minutes. There’s nothing extraneous in it; every moment propels the plot forward. It’s usually listed in the film noir subcategory of gothic noir–which is a blending of noir with plots reminiscent of gothic literature. Gothic noir usually features a female protagonist and is heavy on suspense and even horror, as well as having a romantic element. Other film noir titles that fall into this subcategory include Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” “Gaslight,” “Laura,” and the film we discussed a couple of weeks ago, “No Man of Her Own,” among many others.

The film opens in rainy London, with American Julia Ross returning to the boarding house where she lives. She’s been out looking for work, with little luck. But as she speaks with Bertha, the cleaning woman in her building, she notices a new employment agency advertising in the paper, offering secretarial jobs. Julia heads back out immediately, eager to get herself a job.

Once there she’s asked by Mrs. Sparkes, not about her secretarial skills, but rather about whether she has any family or a young man. Sparkes explains that the woman Julia would be working for, Mrs. Hughes, has hired several girls for this position, all who’ve left to look after a sick mother or sister, or leave to marry a boyfriend. She’d like the new girl to commit to being with her at least a full year. Julia has no family, and her boyfriend (if you could call him that) recently left for Scotland to marry someone else. So, she hasn’t anyone to give her reason to leave Mrs. Hughes’ employ. Julia is hired that day and told to report to the Hughes home by 9 PM that night. She just has time to pack her things and do a little shopping, thanks to the advance Mrs. Hughes offers her, before reporting for work.

Once back at the boarding house, she runs into Dennis Bruce, the man she’d been seeing who was supposed to be married by now. It turns out, though, that he and his fiancée canceled the wedding, when he kept calling her “Julia.”

Sounds like he’s got a bad case of it…

He asks her out to dinner that night, but Julia explains about the new job and how she’s got to be there by nine but asks him to meet her at 7:30 tomorrow evening and they’ll go out then.

Once she arrives at the Hughes home, Julia settles in, only to wake up two days later in a richly appointed bedroom in a mansion somewhere on the English coast. She’s soon joined by Alice the maid, along with Mrs. Hughes and her creepy son Ralph, who are all calling her “Marion.” Holy something ain’t right here, Batman! (Which is a more on-the-nose reference than you might think, since Stately Wayne Manor is playing the part of the Cornwall mansion.)

Meanwhile, Julia’s missed her date with Dennis. When he calls at the Hughes home, he’s told by the local bobby that the family left suddenly. He asks around and is told Julia moved out of the boarding house without a word, which has made the landlady quite cross. And when he goes to the employment agency, even they’ve closed their operation.

Julia spends the rest of the movie trying to convince everyone around her she isn’t Marion and isn’t crazy while searching for some way to escape. It soon becomes clear she’s a pawn in a plot which will end with her death, so she’s desperate to find some way to get word back to Dennis. But she doesn’t just sit back like some damsel awaiting rescue; Julia actively seeks her own means of escape. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hughes has anticipated her every move. Can Julia somehow free herself from this situation, or is she doomed to fail?

I really enjoyed the film, except for Nina Fochs’ performance; this was one of her earliest credits, which is a big part of the problem. The trouble is, she’s the central character around whom the plot revolves; her terror and confusion drive the story. Unfortunately, Fochs never rises to the challenge. You never lose sight of the fact she’s acting out what she imagines these emotions look like, but never seems to feel them very deeply. This is the only flaw in an otherwise excellent film. I give it 4 out of 5 unfiltered cigarette puffs.

As for the novel, the film script leaves out the last half of the book, which includes a secondary plot about WWII espionage. Poor Arthur Crook, Gilbert’s investigator in several novels, is left out of the film completely. It would be interesting to see a movie adaptation which restores this portion of the book.

Next week’s film is “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

As always, this is an open thread, so feel free to discuss anything you like down in the comments section below. And remember: when interviewing for a job, steer clear of any positions which depend on you being without family and friends.

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