How do people feel about me writing film reviews? Is that something people would be in to? I tend just to post about the things I want to (witness: Song for a Sunday) and sometimes that turns into something unexpectedly popular (I never imagined anybody would want to read the Bake Off recaps, and now strangers – strangers plural, mind – come up to me at parties – party singular, actually – and tell me they like that.) But I guess the worlds of film and book review aren’t miles apart, only I would consider myself something of an expert about books (if anything at all) and wouldn’t about film.
Enough preamble. I’m going to write about My Name is Julia Ross, and we’ll take it from there. By the by, a nice man called John writes a very book blog called Pretty Sinister Books which has regular film reviews, and he has written about My Name is Julia Ross here. But I actually came across the film when scrolling through the IMDB page for Dame May Whitty, seeing what else she had made.
My Name is Julia Ross is from 1945, and I watched it with my friend Andrea as part of the aptly-named Simon and Andrea’s Film Club. The whole thing is available on YouTube (at the bottom of this post), although a DVD might still be available for all I know. It’s based on a novel called The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert, whom I’ve never heard of (have you?) and is about Julia Ross (Nina Foch) who takes on an appointment as a secretary, and is drugged and kidnapped. When she awakes, she is in a clifftop house, and people are calling her Marion Hughes, claiming she is the wife of Ralph Hughes. They have recently moved to the village, and all the villagers know that Ralph’s wife has suffered a breakdown, and doesn’t know what she’s saying…
The rest of the film documents Julia Ross’s attempts to escape from the house – attempts that are repeatedly foiled, of course – and the viewer slowly learns why Ralph and his mother (the mother being played by Dame May) have brought Julia there. In the background, back where Julia was living in penury, are the rather lacklustre romantic hero Dennis and the rather wonderfully snipey housemaid.
To the modern viewer – perhaps even to the 1940s viewer – the actual plot is something of a cliché. It is interesting to see a drama where nothing grimmer or more inventive is needed than repeated unsuccessful escape plans (notes thrown through gates, sneaking into the back of cars, etc.). I don’t know enough about film history to know how unusual this scenario would have been at the time, but it really isn’t all that important. Of course she isn’t going to escape half an hour into the film. What does matter is how it’s shot – and it’s really striking.
There are quite a few things in My Name is Julia Ross that make me think of Hitchcock – not least the looming out over the clifftop; the bedroom window is right on the edge. The setting is so stunning, and dramatic, and the film-maker (dir. Joseph H. Lewis) puts this to the best possible use.
Nina Foch is a very likeable heroine, if a little over the top at times, but it is the eerie calmness of Dame May Whitty that makes the mystery at the heart of the film so tense – not so much ‘what will happen?’ but ‘why has it happened?’ It might have been a more psychologically complex film if we hadn’t seen the drugging – if we hadn’t known whether or not Julia was right; if she could, in fact, be Marion – but even without this element, it’s rather gripping.
I love watching films from this period – unsurprisingly, really – and it’s interesting to find a thriller to watch alongside the Brief Encounters and Mrs Minivers with which we’re already familiar.