I’d read of the movie My Name Is Julia Ross described as the ultimate example of what a good B movie is. Only 65 minutes long and made on a small budget, the film has an excellent cast and crew and is quite a chilling little film. It was a breakthrough film for both the director, Joseph H. Lewis (who went on to more high profile film noirs like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo) and Nina Foch (best remembered from An American in Paris, as Milo Roberts).
Described as a “gothic thriller,” My Name Is Julia Ross has a relatively simple plot. Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is out of work, alone, and apparently friendless in London. She answers an advertisement and is quickly hired to be secretary to Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty – about as harmless and aristocratic as a person can appear to be). Mrs. Hughes has a son, Ralph (George Mcready), who looks quite respectable…though he likes to play with knives. Julia doesn’t know that, however.
I don’t really want to spoil the entire plot, but the movie is so short that to discuss anything is to give something away. But it’s not really a mystery. The audience has a pretty good idea what’s going on ten minutes into the film. What is excellent is the suspense and overhanging claustrophobia of Julia’s situation, beautifully, and creepily, shot by Lewis and cinematographer Burnett Guffrey.
Julia is supposed to be a live-in secretary, but when she goes to their home in London she is drugged and wakes up in a home in Cornwall, by the ocean. There is a ring on her finger, all her papers proving her previous identity have been destroyed and Mrs. Hughes and her son insist that her name is Marion, that she’s Ralph’s wife and that she’s been ill. She’s practically a prisoner in their home. Even the servants believe that she is really Marion Hughes, despite Julia’s frequent insistence on her identity.
The movie has been compared to Gaslight. It is a bit of a gaslight scenario, though different in that Julia never really doubts her sanity. She staunchly maintains her identity, never ceasing in her efforts to contrive a way out of the house, no matter how much people insist that she is Marion.
But her attempts at escape are frustrated by the fact that even the people in the village believe that she is suffering from a nervous breakdown. It is an interesting scheme that Mrs. Hughes has concocted. Very improbably, but brilliant, in a way. It hinges on the fact that people’s natural impulse is not to get involved in other people’s affairs. When Mrs. Hughes say that Marion is ill, they believe her, no matter how much Julia insists that she is really Julia Ross and begs them to remember her name and get help. They believe Mrs. Hughes because she is rich and respectable, because she told them her story before Julia had a chance to, and because she looks sane. Dame May Whitty does not project malevolent scheming.
Despite our general insistence that we have suspicious minds, most people do generally believe what they are told (what we don’t believe stands out to us, because it’s relatively uncommon). It’s an interesting idea. If someone told me that their daughter-in-law was ill and I met that daughter-in-law and she told me that she was being held against her will and that she was really another person, would I believe her? Probably not. And even if I did, would I know what to do, who to go to, or be afraid people would laugh at me? It’s a brilliant psychological calculation on the part of Mrs. Hughes, thinking that she can get away with such an extraordinary masquerade.
It’s quite well-acted, especially by Nina Foch as the desperate, though resolute, Julia, a normal working girl caught in a mind-boggling and frightening situation. And Dame May Whitty as Mrs. Hughes, never overplaying her villainy, though definitely able to project menace when she needs to. George Macready is also excellent, in contrast, as her psychotic son, Ralph. The script is the apotheosis of taut script writing, with every scene and every bit of dialogue important and weighted with meaning. Highly atmospheric, quite tense, it is definitely worth seeing.
My Name Is Julia Ross can be viewed here on youtube.