Monday, January 14, 2013

My Name is Julia Ross, a Different Approach

My Name is Julia Ross is a great noir from Columbia Pictures, the studio whose noirs always took a backseat to Warner Brothers', not because Columbia didn't do a good job, merely because Warner Brothers did such an exemplary job.  That said, at 64 minutes, there's not much to screw up and a lot of chances to get things right while making the screenplay taut and focused.  And they do, except...

Actually, there is no except, just an observation.

My Name is Julia Ross was made just one year after Gaslight found its greatest success from all its versions with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer playing the roles of the tormented/insane wife and the suffering husband beautifully.  And I can't help but think they changed their approach so as not to seem like a ripoff of the 1944 movie, not in plot but in tone.

In Julia Ross, the titular character, played by Nina Foch, interviews for a job as a live-in house manager/secretary for an old widow and her son, Mrs. Hughes and Ralph Hughes, played by Dame May Whitty and George Macready, respectively.  She is hired when they discover she has no family and no friends in the area that might miss her.  She arrives at their home that night, settles in and goes up to bed.  When she awakens, she's in another bed, in a mansion by the ocean and everyone calls her Marion Hughes.  They tell her she is Ralph's wife and everything she thought she knew, about the secretary job, her prior life and even name, Julia Ross, are the manifestations of a crazy mind.  She is here to recover and, hopefully, get her sanity back.

Sounds like an incredible twist, right?  What's real and what isn't?  Is she really Marion Hughes or Julia Ross?  Was her life before really just a hallucination?  Is it all a plot to drive her crazy?  Why?

But it doesn't actually go the way I just described it.  Instead, she goes to the house on the first night and goes to sleep and then we immediately see Mrs. Hughes and Ralph plot to make her think she is the wife he murdered so they can convince the town that never saw his first wife that she is his wife and then make her appear to commit suicide.  And done.  No suspense.  No wondering what's real and what isn't. Instead of playing off of that for an hour and then revealing the true nature of the scheme at the end, we're told everything up front.  Kind of like if Shutter Island opened with the doctors talking over their plans for DiCaprio and saying, "Remember, he can't suspect he's a patient here."

I believe that would be the obvious way to go to build up tension but I suspect due to the success of Gaslight, they revealed everything up front and went with Julia plotting to escape instead.  And it works, completely.  But it could have gone a whole other way.  If only...