Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

My Name is Julia Ross and Dead of Winter **Double Feature**

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!

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Gilda

Rita Hayworth was a big singing and dancing star of musicals in the early 1940s, but the film that made her an international sex bomb (literally) wasn’t released until 1946: Gilda.

The plot, which echoes Casablanca in a number of respects, concerns a love triangle in a faraway land, in this case, Argentina. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a cocky grifter who is on his uppers. He is saved from a mugging by a mysterious and rather menacing casino owner named Ballin Mundson (George Macready) whom he subsequently manages to talk into hiring him as an aide-de-camp. All is well for a time, though Johnny suspects that the casino is only a front for Mundson’s other, more shady, business. But before you can say cherchez la femme, their relationship changes for the worse when Mundson marries a sizzling beauty named Gilda (Hayworth), with whom Johnny has an unhappy history. Thus commences a love-hate-love relationship in which Johnny and Gilda torment each other while Ballin begins to suspect the truth about their former relationship. Meanwhile, both the police and Ballin’s criminal associates are closing in on his other lucrative but illegal line of work.

This is a star vehicle for Hayworth from the famous moment she first appears on screen with a sensual toss of her hair. She gets to sing and dance as well as act, most legendarily in her striptease style number “Put the Blame on Mame”. Countless American men (and no doubt some women) were sexually enthralled with her forever after.

I know too much about Hayworth to have such an uncomplicated reaction. I feel sorry for Margarita Cansino, the pudgy Hispanic girl and incest victim whom Hollywood turned — at the cost to her of physical and emotional pain — into Rita Hayworth. She never got to be who she really was and virtually every man in her life, starting with her father, exploited her. It’s a credit to her strength that despite understandable, significant emotional troubles she managed to always pull things together on screen throughout the 1940s and be a terrific movie star. Gilda is generally considered her finest hour, and with good reason.

Even though it’s Hayworth’s film, two other aspects of it are extremely compelling. The first is Glenn Ford. He’s kinetic on screen, a man always appraising every angle in search of some advantage. He also manages, despite not having classically handsome Hollywood-type features, to convey enough sexual attractiveness that Hayworth’s desire for him is entirely believable.

Gilda (1946)

The other thing I adore about this movie is Rudolph Maté’s camerawork, which is completely arresting beginning with the opening, rising shot of those big rolling dice. I have praised him before for his work on Vampyr, but the tools of cinematography came a long way technically since that early film. And boy, does Maté take advantage. Perfect use of light and shadow, deep focus shots, close-ups at critical moments, it’s all here in the hands of a master. And thank you again UCLA Preservation team for this crystal clear, gorgeous restoration of the print.

The performances and the cinematography help make up for an uneven script, which may simply have had too many cooks. There are some lines to die for, and some sharp dialogue, but the plot structure of the last third is unnecessarily clunky in some respects and too pat in others. Still, Gilda is a very fine film noir that completely holds up almost 70 years later.

p.s. The conventional take on Bosley Crowther’s career as a NYT film reviewer is that he lost touch with modern tastes in the late 1960s (His repeated trashing of Bonnie and Clyde being the death-knell) after a long and distinguished career. But if you read his obtuse, inept review of Gilda twenty years earlier, you will see that he never really knew what he was talking about.