Joseph H. Lewis had been toiling for years in Hollywood and directed several films at several studios before his stint in B pictures at Columbia led to a breakthrough in critical awareness. Now on Blu-ray from Arrow are his first two films for that studio. Fortunately for him, they’re examples of a genre attracting particular critical salivation today: the noir film, even though its earliest purveyors had no idea they were inventing such a thing until French critics of the 1950s told them so.
In a snappy, no-nonsense, claustrophobic 65 minutes, My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) seamlessly combines noir with the women’s film and gothic suspense tropes, along the way making a fine showcase for star Nina Foch, who became a profound influence in postwar Hollywood as a teacher. As you may surmise from the title, Foch plays Julia Ross, introduced in a moody opening sequence as the camera follows her lonely drooping figure in the rain. She’s the only person in the deserted street, and the camera dogs her heels as she pushes through the door of her boarding house to be confronted by an unsympathetic maid (Joy Harington).
Their fraught, class-ridden dialogue swiftly establishes so much: it’s London, Julia’s unemployed and behind on her rent, her romantic hopes with a fellow tenant (Roland Varno) have been dashed. These points are conveyed even before she finally turns and the camera pans up to her bedraggled, winsome face for the first time. Just as swiftly, she spots a newspaper ad for an employment agency she hasn’t yet visited and dashes out the door.
One scene later, and she’s being hired as a personal secretary by kindly, bustling Mrs. Hughes (a quietly devastating Dame May Whitty) and her son with a facial scar, Ralph (George Macready). Julia’s luck is certainly changing, and as she dashes off to pay her landlady and pack her bags, we get the first scene without her point of view. Everyone in the room, from the Hugheses to the beaky agency lady (Anita Sharp-Bolster) and a hidden hanger-on (Leonard Mudie), are collaborating on some sinister scheme that’s trapped the unwitting Julia. Let the paranoia and foreboding begin.
Julia awakens from a drugged sleep into a new life, a gilded cage in a mansion on the coast of Cornwall. Everyone calls her Marion, Ralph’s wife, who’s had an unfortunate history of breakdowns and has been seen by the best doctors — or so all the locals are told. In short, she’s “balmy”, as the maid Alice (Queenie Leonard) tells the villagers. Any attempts by Julia to tell them who she really is only confirms her madness as the Hughes mother and son stand around cooing sympathetically, watching her every move.
In short, this plot belongs to the postwar trend in what we now call “gaslighting”, as someone — usually a woman — finds herself boxed in and patronized by a conspiracy that just looks like normal society’s desire to clip her wings. The impression is that life itself, or at least the culture you live in, is enough to drive you mad. To drive home the irony, Alice tells her mistress that she can’t understand her attitude, since she’s got everything a woman could want.
The term derives from Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light (1938), filmed in England by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and in Hollywood by George Cukor in 1944. That story’s Victorian setting harkens back to a common element in Victorian melodrama centering on women, as delineated brilliantly in Wilkie Collin’s novel The Woman in White (1860). Collins’ agenda included calling attention to women’s legal powerlessness and dependence on men in his society.
Why did this trope flower in the wartime films of Gaslight and its postwar imitators? In an extra on this Blu-ray, scholar Nora Fiore states that this theme resonated with women who were in the process of being herded out of wartime factory work and into supposed domestic bliss, which is why she interprets the film’s facetious (yet highly typical) coda as an ironically over-the-top signal of escaping one form of imprisonment for another. As heroine and boyfriend drive in front of flagrant rear-projection, he proposes a new “secretarial job” and she says “Sounds like marriage”, which bait-and-switch was precisely the problem with the previous offer.
This film originated in the writing of two women. Popular British novelist Anthony Gilbert (aka Lucy Malleson) wrote the novel, The Woman in Red (1941), which got tailored into a screenplay by Muriel Roy Bolton that amounts to a series of cleverly orchestrated and frustrated escape attempts in which Julia Ross relies on her wits against a hostile world. Sometimes she gets in her own way and sometimes she anticipates brilliantly. According to anecdotes from both Foch and Lewis, as recounted in Alan K. Rode’s commentary, everyone understood the script as something special, and Foch said “we busted our ass” to make a good movie.
Signs of this busting include the photography of Burnett Guffey, which maintains a clear, cold realism amid quiet compositional flourishes (a Lewis specialty) until bursting into set pieces of expressionism when needed, such as the night scene with the shadowy hand and the later scene when Julia hovers at the top of the stairs. Another sign is the meticulous character casting, from those already mentioned to Doris Lloyd as the suspicious landlady, Charles McNaughton as the polite old gatekeeper who knows better than to let the missus out, Evan Thomas as a shockingly unhelpful doctor, and Olaf Hytten, Ottola Nesmith and Harry Hays Morgan as a trio of frustratingly clueless if self-satisfied villagers.
While this film was well-received for a B picture, Lewis’ follow-up fared less well. Perhaps this is because So Dark the Night (1946) breaks too many rules of its detective genre, yet these unusual qualities are what catch our attention now, along with Lewis and Guffey’s relentless visual flourishes that keep casting compositional vigor and sheer beauty into our faces. Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme observe in their commentary that when the New York Times called the film “pretentious”, it was a sign that a mere thriller was putting on airs above its station, thank goodness.
Variety liked this picture as much as My Name Is Julia Ross, but its review, unfortunately, thinks nothing of giving away the killer’s identity in the surprise ending. So much for industry rags.
Signs of “pretension” begin with the screenplay by Dwight V. Babcock and Martin Berkeley, based on a Reader’s Digest story by Aubrey Wisberg. The first half hour of this 70-minute production is devoted to what looks like a simmering May-December romantic triangle in the lovingly shot French countryside (played convincingly by a Hollywood backlot). Our hero is introduced via seemingly irrelevant exposition — and as in the previous film, we’re teased by seeing his body well before the rest of his face — as the most brilliant detective in Paris, Henri Cassin. This is a rare plum role for Hungarian-born Steven Geray, an eternal character player of baby-faced demeanor who could be jolly or evil at will.
When Cassin arrives in the village, for this is another village story of unhelpful locals, it’s not so much himself who catches the eye of innkeeper’s daughter Nanette (French actress Micheline Cheirel) as the details of his shiny automobile. She determines to marry that car, if you will, and move to Paris, far from her jealous brooding farmer boyfriend (Paul Marion) who’s got nothing going for him beyond being young and stunning — which may after all be enough, as the touchingly chagrined Cassin discovers. He finds himself out of his depth, both romantically and when the grim mystery finally starts. This plot not only baffles him, it may baffle the audience as Lewis loads more emotional heft into the reactions of the grieving survivors than we’re using to seeing in neat little throwaway mysteries.
While we can’t say more without spoiling a big surprise, the commenters point out that the revelation, while unusual and very dark, does have a few antecedents and even appeared in one other film of the same year, which we shouldn’t name. We’ll hint that the other film is one of the many at this time based on a Cornell Woolrich story, whose ending it changed. Still, it’s an ending that feels more in keeping with today’s sensibility of Millennial Unreality (my term) than with even a decade as fraught with uncertainty as the Forties.
Eugene Borden and Ann Codee register as Nanette’s bickering parents, who for some reason lapse into French at excitable moments. (Oughtn’t we to understand that they’re always speaking in French while we hear it in English for the sake of convention, or is this an anomalous village where French peasants commonly address each other in English?) Helen Freeman registers even more as a widow of uncertain intent, and future comic Brother Theodore (aka Theodore Gottlieb) plays a hunchback on whom, refreshingly, no suspicion is cast except possibly by viewers.
Character players Egon Brecher, Gregory Gaye, Paul Mercier, Jean Del Val and Emil Rameau fill out the cast, and the commenters point out that several of these appear in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942). Hugo Friedhofer provides the effectively romantic and tense score with psychological fillips.
Prolific veteran Ted Richmond produced the picture, whereas Wallace MacDonald had produced My Name Is Julia Ross. Lewis had a reputation for clashing with producers and going through them like tissues, as he had a reputation for self-promotion that requires his memories to be compared with historical facts. The critics on these discs, including Imogen Sara Smith on So Dark the Night, attempt to do so while calling attention to each film’s felicities. The result is that Arrow’s Blu-rays offer thoughtful analysis and beautiful visual presentation.