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...


Aubyn Eli said...

I really loved this one; I could see why it brought Joseph H. Lewis so much attention. I read a review that took issue with how coolly sane and unshakable Julia was, instead of doubting her own sanity (a la Ingrid Bergman or Joan Fontaine) but I enjoyed it. And I've had a soft spot for Nina Foch since Gene Kelly ditched her in An American in Paris.

Greg F. said...

That's, uh, quite a dress you almost have on. What holds it up?


Best line in An American in Paris and Foch delivers it perfectly.

I would have liked to have seen her unshakable or not, deal with it without me knowing it was a setup just a little bit longer but I still think it works very well.

Stacia said...

It's possible it was more of an answer to Gaslight than a hasty change of plans. I think some of these near knock-offs from the 1940s and 1950s were deliberately trying to be less fantastic than the bigger film they resembled. Julia Ross feels very much like someone involved said they were tired of films trying to keep audiences guessing when everyone knew at the half-hour mark that Not Everything Is As It Seems (tm).

It's a fantastic movie. I first saw it on a double bill on TCM with So Dark The Night, both amazing films.

Greg F. said...

So we're both saying they were deliberately avoiding the look and feel of Gaslight, just for different reasons. And like I said, it works.

I've never read the source book but from what I understand, it plays out roughly the same way as the movie, i.e., all is revealed up front, making it more of a thriller than a mystery. So I might have it completely backwards. After the success of Gaslight they may have opted to adapt The Woman in Red as a way of showing it without the misdirection.

Just curious what others thought of the way the plot works itself out.

And I've never seen So Dark the Night but I'll look for it now. Thanks.

Tony Dayoub said...

I saw that same double bill, Stacia. And while SO DARK THE NIGHT is the lesser of the two, it is worth seeking out, Greg.

Anyway, I haven't seen GASLIGHT, but I agree with the general consensus being formed here. Maybe it was felt audiences would prefer a film where their intelligence is respected, and there's none of that is-she-crazy-or-isn't-she shit that audiences figure out for themselves so early in the film. I think the fact that there is no suspense works in JULIA ROSS for only one reason (which I think you suggested on Facebook, Greg). That's the running time. JULIA ROSS is only a little over an hour, so it can afford to skip the stringing along. I'm not sure it'd work otherwise.

Greg F. said...

Tony, Gaslight is quite good and Boyer and Bergman are excellent. Cotten's good too but Boyer and Bergman, especially in their final scene, are great.

I'll definitely look for So Dark the Night, thanks.

Stacia said...

I would gently disagree that So Dark the Night is the lesser of the two, but I also have a probably unhealthy adoration for Steven Geray.

I haven't read the Woman in Red novel that My Name is Julia Ross is based on, but it seems like it was part of a detective series, so it makes sense that the is-she-or-isn't-she was solved relatively quickly.