The 1941 novel The Woman in Red has been used as the basis of a film twice, with a four-decade gap between versions. As a special double feature, I recommend both adaptations: 1945’s My Name is Julia Ross and 1987’s Dead Of Winter.
My Name is Julia Ross was a modestly budgeted Columbia production with a 12-day shooting schedule. But at that point in his career, director Joseph Lewis was used to churning out a C-picture a week on Poverty Row. To have a B-movie budget was for Lewis a major upgrade in resources that allowed him to show how much talent he had. Clocking in at just over an hour, the film serves up noirish gothic suspense and a career-best performance by Nina Foch as the title character. She’s an American living in London who answers a job advertisement placed by a seemingly gentle old woman (a deliciously evil Dame May Whitty). Julia thinks she will be working as a personal assistant, but instead is promptly drugged, kidnapped and moved to a remote mansion on the Cornwall coast where everyone calls her by a different name and acts as if she’s married to a knife-obsessed weirdo (George Macready, who was made for these sorts of roles)! But the villains have not figured on how brave and resourceful is their prey…
My Name is Julia Ross is often cited by critics as being the perfect demonstration that you can make a fine movie on a low budget. The script and performances are solid and the brisk pacing keeps the viewer engaged throughout. Burnett Guffey, a future Academy Award winner, contributes moody and at times even eerie photography, and Lewis’ influence on shot selection is also easily evident (He loved to shoot actors through wagon wheels and fences, here there are shots through the newels of a staircase and the iron bars of a secured window). It is not surprising that the movie more than returned its modest budget and put Lewis on the path to even greater successes (Most notably, the simply amazing Gun Crazy, which features a central character with a fetish that resembles Macready’s here).
Many years after My Name is Julia Ross was released, Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone re-imagined the story considerably in Dead of Winter, making the lead character an actress desperate for work (Mary Steenburgen, who has fun playing three different characters). She is interviewed for a role by an inordinately polite and at the same time somehow disturbing assistant (Roddy McDowell, who steals the film) to an alleged film producer (Jan Rubes). In the midst of a raging, isolating winter storm, they bring her to a remote New England mansion and ask her to shoot a scene in which she impersonates Julie Rose, an actress whom they claim has had a nervous breakdown and needs to be replaced on a major film production currently underway. But as the audience we know that Julie has been murdered, and our heroine is falling into a web of danger.
Some of the plot twists and shocks in the film are anticipatable, but others are complete, effective surprises. As you would expect from a modern film, there is more graphic violence than in the original, but it’s not at all overdone. As in the original, it’s rewarding to see a strong, smart female lead character and also have a few moments of black humor. The one significant weakness of Dead of Winter is its length. If director Arthur Penn had to work with Joseph Lewis’ budget, I suspect he would have cut the first 11 minutes of set-up and character backstory and opened the film instead with the Steenburgen’s first meeting with McDowell. That would have made a better movie because the film as made can’t keep the audience in suspense throughout its 100 minute running time, even though the climax is truly nail-biting.
As a set, the two versions of this story make an entertaining and suspenseful double feature. Also, for film buffs, watching these films back to back is a chance to appreciate how the production of movies has changed over the decades.
p.s. Some trivia for you: Gene Wilder’s 1984 film The Woman in Red was based not on the book but a French movie).
p.p.s. Steenburgen’s husband in Dead of Winter (William Russ) is apartment bound because his broken leg is in a cast, but he can at least look out his window and take photos with his high-end camera…I think we know to which classic movie this is an allusion!