Beyond the Classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. This installment looks at what makes the film noir My Name is Julia Ross stand out within the genre.
Joseph H. Lewis directed some of the most entertaining and stylistic examples of film noir. We continue to return to Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955) for their mesmerizing criminal characters and beautiful camerawork. Lewis worked best in the tough streets of LA, as seen in those classic noirs, but his lesser-known precursor My Name is Julia Ross (1945) shows his ability to bring the aesthetic to aristocratic society as well.
The terse thriller holds up for its newfound appreciation as a work of camp and for its hints at the lack of agency that women felt in America during the 20th century. Watching My Name is Julia Ross today helps to give us perspective on history and to see how Lewis’ talent evolved later in his career.
Lewis was working with the higher-end Poverty Row studio Columbia Pictures when he made the film. We now cherish their crime thrillers for their innovative film noir style. When Lewis was navigating the studio, however, style and artistry were not the priority. Columbia had more leeway than the larger studios. But the cookie-cutter crime plots were used to make the most money possible on the smallest budgets imaginable.
My Name is Julia Ross is based on the book The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert (a pseudonym for English crime writer Lucy Beatrice Malleson). The novel centers on the sleuth who saves Julia Ross from her captors, but screenwriter Muriel Roy Bolton changes the focus to the female victim. The adaptation follows the titular character (Nina Foch), a working-class American living in a London rental house.
She’s out of a job, recently dumped, and about to be evicted. Desperate for money, she answers a want ad for a live-in personal secretary position. The employment agency screening for the job asks unusual questions for a job interview. Does Julia have any family? No. Does Julia have a boyfriend? No. Does she have any obligations or any people interested in what happens to her? No.
Somehow, her anonymity makes her just perfect for the job as a secretary for the wealthy Hughes family. And she’s hired on the spot. However, as she leaves to pack her things, the matriarch (May Whitty) and son Ralph (George Macready) hint at a sinister motive behind the hire — and Julia’s resemblance to some unknown person.
Before Julia starts her job, she sees that her former beau has returned to the rental house. She has no time to see him that night but invites him to take her to lunch the next day. But the address he’s given is vacant, and he becomes the only person interested in where Julia went.
Julia then wakes up from a drug-induced sleep in a giant seaside mansion, far from London. Mrs. Hughes, Ralph, and the maid address her as Ralph’s longtime wife, Marion. She claims they’re mistaken and have the wrong woman. But the family explains that her confusion is an effect of her mental illness. They say she has had a breakdown and no longer knows who she is. Julia must then convince someone she’s not delusional and is in danger at the hands of this emotionless family.
In focusing on Julia rather than on the men trying to find her, the film is more frightening and relatable. The character’s powerlessness was not a far-fetched concept but was instead a heightened reality that women dealt with every day back when My Name is Julia Ross was released. The film’s protagonist has to be willing to put aside her pride, and by extension her identity, in order to survive as a working-class woman.
She receives no sympathy from any of her social peers either — not her rental house’s maid or the Hughes’ maid. Everyone has got it tough, and Julia’s not special in her struggles. She’s dropped into a beautiful house, no longer needing to work, and accompanied by a wealthy husband. What else could she want? She has everything women like her dream about getting while they’re working hard to get by. Who cares if she’s got a different name?
Julia’s struggle in My Name is Julia Ross seems to align with what second-wave feminism took on in the decades that followed. The cultural practices that allow Mrs. Hughes to keep Julia locked away and in control were the focus of liberal feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. A marriage and a beautiful home did not mean a woman was safe from harm and had agency in her own life. Mental illness was a by-product of the isolation and dissatisfaction women felt when confined in the home. But it gave even more reason for these women not to have control of their own lives.
All that Julia’s captors needed to say to excuse Julia’s cries for help was that “Marion” is just being hysterical. Women were ostracized from society for qualifying as “hysterical” for much of America’s early history. It’s remarkable to see these issues play out in a film made at the time. Before the social consciousness regarding women’s issues became commonplace for everyday audiences. But that perspective is something that can only come with time. This is why watching old films like My Name is Julia Ross years later can redefine their worth as art.
The modern viewer also sees what was then a typical acting style as a little campy by today’s standards. This doesn’t necessarily take away from the seriousness of the film, but it adds a humorous aspect that makes My Name is Julia Ross even more fun to watch now. The relationship between Mrs. Hughes and her son is not unfamiliar to a modern audience. The helpless spoiled son and his controlling mother show up in many films before and after this one. However, the melodramatic delivery and tantrum-like outbursts from the actors are too over-the-top not to elicit laughs.
As Mrs. Hughes conspires a plan to kill Julia in order to cover up the real Marion’s murder, Ralph sits stroking a small knife and acting more like a twelve-year-old boy waiting for his mommy to fix things for him rather than the grown man that he is. This family thinks of themselves as geniuses, but the campiness of their behavior comes across as Lewis’ way of poking fun at the dynamics of the rich and their ability to get away with murder. The camp sensibility doesn’t just provide an added level of amusement today, it also better aligns with the cultural commentary happening in the story as well.
My Name is Julia Ross did well for a B-movie in 1945, receiving lukewarm to mixed reviews from critics. It wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t a masterpiece in the eyes of Hollywood either. It became another second-rate studio film lost to time. That is until lesser-known noirs became valued in the eyes of film historians and classic movie fans alike.
Today, fans of Joseph H. Lewis can see the wit and artistry recognized in his later work bubbling under the surface. Shadowy corridors and moody moonlight give the noir look to more gothic scenery in this film, not unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca before it. It’s fascinating to see the quick pace that we love in Gun Crazy in this film, which is a breezy sixty-five minutes.
My Name is Julia Ross doesn’t follow the brooding gangster or femme fatale tropes that are conventional to film noir. On the other hand, few noirs have the brevity, suspense, and tongue-in-cheek camp that this one does. Its uniqueness within the category of film noir hasn’t faded a bit as a result, allowing it to continue to stand out more than seventy-five years later.