Joseph H. Lewis
Dame May Whitty
1 Hr., 4 Mins.
My Name is Julia Ross May 1, 2020
y Name is Julia Ross (1945) is a multidimensional movie title. On the one hand it’s a basic introduction to its heroine — a young everywoman in her 20s, played by a wide-eyed Nina Foch, who is looking for employment. On the other, the title, when said aloud, functions as a kind of survival mechanism. The movie mostly involves the eponymous character becoming ensnared in
a gaslighting plot in which she, the victim, is led to question the validity of her identity. If she doesn’t say “My name is Julia Ross” to herself every moment someone tries to convince her otherwise, what could become of her?
The conceit of My Name is Julia Ross is nightmarish. The protagonist applies for a secretarial job, interviews for it and then gets it the same day, and is then asked to move into the home of her new employer, the wealthy, enigmatic widow Mrs. Hughes (May Whitty), within 24 hours. All this Julia obliges to happily, albeit a bit nervously. A couple of mornings later she wakes up in a bed she certainly didn’t fall asleep in — she’s likely been drugged — and Hughes, along with other people in her family, are now acting like Julia is actually the delusional wife of Mrs. Hughes’ son, Ralph (George Macready). Julia knows immediately — and never lapses in her conclusion — that she is not actually to be a secretary but a pawn. It seems to her that she is being enmeshed in some sort of shady plot in which she is meant to be disposed of in some way. (When she was interviewed, it was red-flaggishly stressed that she have no close relatives.)
Joseph H. Lewis’ crisp, better-than-it-has-to-be film noir was the first of several entreés for him into the genre; others include the great lovers-on-the-run urtext Gun Crazy (1949) and the atmospheric The Big Combo (1955). The popular categorization of it as a film noir, though, probably has more to do with Lewis’ bonafides and record than with what it actually is and does. My Name is Julia Ross, I think, is more Gothic melodrama-adjacent, recalling shadowy, manor-set chillers like Gaslight (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1946). Still, if the classification gets film-noir devotées to check it out (I found an in-good-shape copy on YouTube), that’s a good thing.
The movie’s terrors have what feel like a feminist undertow. Especially emphasized are the basal horrors of the scenario, in which this sound woman is not to be believed even when she is speaking with perfect clarity. (Almost as scary as the antagonistic schemers are the oblivious housekeepers and guests who would rather believe the Hughes's descriptions of Julia than what is coming directly from Julia’s mouth.) The film’s screenwriter, Muriel Roy Bolton, zeroes in on this fear and sandpapers it until it’s raw — though never does she make her heroine suffer the indignity of questioning her sanity when she needn’t. Although it’s a brisk 64 minutes, My Name is Julia Ross leaves too much of an imprint to feel like a quick B-movie exercise. It’s the rare gaslighting-centered thriller where its woman lead refuses to even temporarily bend to the whims of those trying to convince her that she’s hysterical. She stands by what she knows. Then, in a straightforward development that feels unusual for 1945 and even now, she conquers. A-