Echoes of Literature in "Julia Ross"

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The cautionary cliche, while well known, still remains almost limitless in its potential for the mystery and thrillers genres.  Perhaps this is why watching My Name is Julia Ross (1945) immediately calls to mind its literary precursors from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Daphne du Maurier.

The opening, in fact, takes a page out of Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” only this time set in the 1940s.  Londoner Julia Ross is a beautiful young woman, recently unemployed and completely alone in the world.  Her only friend and would-be boyfriend, Dennis Bruce, has just announced his marriage to someone else.  Depressed, and at a loss for how to pay the bills, Julia responds to an ad seeking a secretary for a wealthy Mrs. Hughes.  Mrs. Hughes makes Julia a generous offer, on the condition that Julia come to live with her at her mansion in Cornwall.  When Julia wakes up the next day, she realizes she’s been been drugged, taken prisoner, and given the name “Marian” in order to impersonate Mrs. Hughes’s missing daughter-in-law.

Unlike Doyle, the filmmakers lose no time in divulging Mrs. Hughes’s nefarious motives, so unlike “Copper Beeches,” the whole scheme is revealed in the first fifteen minutes of this 65-minute film.  It seems premature, but then as the plot pivots to escape-room – er, escape-estate – conflict, you can start to enjoy the tension as Julia tries to outsmart her captors.

Nothing could be more film noir than the Cornish coastal setting, one made famous earlier by Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).  Mrs. Hughes’s house could be a sister to du Maurier’s Manderley, and the sinister beach, roaring with the sound of breakers, makes you feel like you’re in a spin-off story set in the same foreboding environment.

Less effective are the characterizations.  To be fair, Julia Ross (played by Nina Foch) is a passable heroine for this type of story; in fact, she’s far more spunky than the nameless narrator of Rebecca.  On the other hand, it could be argued that Rebecca’s shyer, more nervous protagonist – especially as played by Joan Fontaine, in one of my very favorite performances – is better suited for the genre.  Julia is what I would call “selectively smart,” too dumb to see something fishy in Mrs. Hughes’s offer, but smart enough to try plan her own escape.

The other characters, unfortunately, are even worse.  The ex-husband of Marian, Ralph Hughes (played by George Macready) is supposed to come across as psychotic and rapey.  He would be terrifying if his lines weren’t so painfully hilarious and involving him randomly stabbing things with a pocket knife.  May Whitty is convincing as an apparently average Mrs. Hughes, but there is no backstory to suggest why she would shield and aid her awful son, apart from the fact that, well, they’re family.  This film would really have benefited from some tighter script-writing and/or an additional thirty minutes to fully build the characters.

One of my biggest pet peeves in a movie is when the screenwriters force a tidy ending when a succinct one would be more effective.  Spoilers in white: In this case, Julia’s future is resolved not by her making a smarter employment decision, but when the still-single Dennis Bruce, whom we’ve barely got a chance to meet, decides to pop the question.  Uh, what lesson is being learned here?  Even Doyle, back in those old Victorian days, was kinder to his heroine Violet Hunter, explicitly against Watson’s wishes!  The ending of this film was very much tacked-on and highly unsatisfactory.

Overall, I give the film 3.5 stars.  It’s not in the league of Rebecca, but if you enjoy thrillers of that style and era, then My Name is Julia Ross is a small investment of time for revisiting moody Cornwall.

The Congo and the Cameroons – Penguin Great Journeys

The Congo and the Cameroons contains excerpts from Mary Kingsley’s memoir Travels in West Africa, published in 1897.  The first two sections cover some observations and anecdotes about West African flora and fauna, while the last two-thirds of the book follow Mary’s climbing of Mount Cameroon.

Mont-Cameroun
Normand Roy [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary – like her fellow solo traveler Isabella Bird – was a tough cookie.  She was only about 33 years old when she decided to become “the third Englishman to ascend the Peak [of Mount Cameroon] and the first to have ascended it from the southeast face” (p. 33–34).  With her trusty umbrella, some German camping gear, and a small group of native assistants, she set off into the jungle.  Surviving rain, mud, tornadoes, and a range of minor accidents, Mary was determined nothing, even her own moments of discouragement, would keep her from achieving her mission.

Apart from bravely facing the elements and all kinds of creepy-crawlies, Mary was also quite a character.  She writes much in the style of a male British officer of the day, referring to her assistants as “the men” or “my boys.”  Natives and Germans alike feature heavily in her jokes, so it is hard to tell whether she was racially prejudiced, misandrist, or simply impatient with anyone less committed to her goal than herself.  Either way, I really didn’t care for her sense of humor.

While I may not read the full memoir, I’ll probably seek out a biography on Mary Kingsley, because it sounds like she had a very interesting life.  (I was particularly interested to learn on Wikipedia that she met Mary Slessor, a missionary whose story fascinated me as a child.)  Sadly, she died when she was only 37, serving as a volunteer nurse in the Second Boer War.  I can imagine how many more adventures she would have gone on had she lived a longer life, but it’s amazing what she accomplished in the years she had.

A Fistful of Dollars – An Outsider’s Review

Mild disclaimer…I’m what you would call a “casual” Western fan.  I’ve read very few Westerns, and my viewing experience has been largely of the vintage variety, ranging from John Wayne classics to more obscure TV series, like my all-time favorite, The Virginian.  I’ve mostly avoided heavier fare, a la The Revenant, and to be honest, the first Western I liked was a Gary Cooper comedy called Along Came Jones (1945).

Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones trailer
Gary Cooper’s lovably dorky Melody Jones

The above makes me particularly ill-qualified to review Westerns as an overall genre.  But since watching A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with my parents last night, I thought I’d share some first impressions of an early Clint Eastwood film.  (Note: my “first” first impression of Eastwood was his film The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), which was too gritty for me to really enjoy.)

A Fistful of Dollars is the first of director Sergio Leone’s famous “Dollars” trilogy, three “spaghetti Westerns” so-called due to being Italian films set in the American Old West.  Thirty-something Clint Eastwood stars as the American protagonist, the “Man with No Name” who shows up in the town of San Miguel with a gun, a horse, and his signature poncho.  He finds himself in the middle of a family feud between the fierce Rojo family and the less-fierce Baxter family, neither side particularly pleased to have a stranger intruding on the drama.  Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Marisol and a traumatized little boy draw the Man further into the conflict and the darker side of the Rojos.

This is one of those “iconic” films which is all genre and no story.  Ok, there’s a story… but it’s told in tropes and archetypes.  Here you won’t find the moral dilemmas of The Virginian, nor even the psychological depth of Wayne’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We have Evil Guys, Good Guys, and a Small Town – oh, and of course, the Superman figure.

To be fair, what Eastwood creates here is his own archetype, one he became famous for.  Cool-headed, lanky, and with a dry sense of humor, he is an echo of Wayne, clearly from the same “family” but not a twin.  A sense of ambiguity and pragmatism surrounds the Man with No Name.  He makes no promises, and he has no expectations.  With minimalist dialogue, the Man makes his position clear nonetheless; he is on his own side, living and killing by a set of morals which are partly learned yet partly self-defined.

Rojo and his henchman, quintessential villains

What saves the film from being purely violence is Marisol’s subplot.  Another layer of the Man’s character unfolds as he witnesses her plight, and without saying too much, I felt it added some depth to an otherwise shallow tale.  It would hardly be a Western without a damsel in distress, but in the context of A Fistful of Dollars, the role of a “weak” female character is well understood by the grim setting, as well as balanced by her male counterparts, the innkeeper and the coffin maker.

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars.  Contains some violence, equivalent to modern PG-13.

This Side of Paradise – a peek into the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald

This Side of Paradise dust jacket 

My first attempt to read this book was on a plane, four years ago.  I had been going through some tough times, and as I plodded through the first fifty pages, my mind kept wandering.  I grew tired of the apparently carefree protagonist – who had the romantic name of Amory Blaine – and ultimately tossed this to the Not Finishing stack with a single comment: “Weird book so far.”

Having finished the book now, I would word it a bit differently: “Weird book, but oddly rewarding.”

If you are a reader who can love a book for the sake of its writing, This Side of Paradise is just your sort of book.  It is written in a series of vignettes and takes place over the course of Amory’s childhood, youth, college years, and early adulthood.  Much like the crisp narrative of The Great Gatsby, each scene has its own particular mood and brilliancy, and the effect is a chocolate box of impressions, some bitter and some sweet. 

Youth is like having a big plate of candy. Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.

There is a great deal of bitter in Amory’s life, as it turns out.  Born into wealth, he drifts through childhood with not too much schooling and eases into Princeton University with more than academics on his mind.  Campus drama appeals to him, yet he realizes he is always a little different than his peers, fitting not neatly into some clique or crowd mentality.  Amory adores poetry and falls in love many times and in many different ways.  His listless egotism, however, holds happiness at arm’s length.  “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.”

This eerie surrealism comes back again and again in the plotline.  The best example, and my favorite part of the book, was Amory’s vision of the man with the pointed shoes.  It was almost Dostoyevskian and could be a short story in itself.  It was also completely unlike the rest of the story, and, more than a welcome diversion, made me think about him from a different light.

My motivation for coming back to This Side of Paradise was to get into the 1920s, but it went further than that – I entered an entire American subculture, which was so specific to the early 20th century and yet also specific to the wealthy class that it seems to be its own microcosm.  I felt both connected to Amory and distinctly alienated from his way of life and thinking.  Perhaps this is because, under the purple ties and flowery speech, he is just a twenty-something like me.

3.5 out of 5 starsThis Side of Paradise was weird, but worthwhile.

The Children of Húrin, and their Middle Earth

By David Revoy [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Courage, resilience, loyalty, and hope.  These themes, among many others, permeate J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and its immediate prequel, The Hobbit.  I think of these ideas to be as much Tolkienesque as the “ring saga” itself: the bleakness in LOTR is well exceeded by acts of bravery and strength of faith.  Yet if you go back further in Middle Earth history to The Children of Húrin, you’ll find very different tale, as similar as it may seem in most respects.

Before Sauron, there was another dark lord called Morgoth.  Like Sauron, Morgoth intended to rule all Middle Earth, and he was merciless to any who stood in his way.  Túrin, son of Húrin, is compelled by his mother Morwen to leave the eventual war zone of his home village and find refuge with the elves in Doriath.  Though a natural leader, Túrin is hotheaded and impulsive, and in a world where all must fend for themselves, he finds it easier to make friends than to keep them.  As he grows from boy to man, with all the glory and heartbreak that his heritage has left him, Túrin feels he must take on Morgoth in his own way, and, if he can, reunite with his mother and the sister he has never met.

I regret putting this off so long.  It’s a bleak, lingering wreck of a story, more disturbing than shocking.  I loved the characterization of Túrin and Morwen, because they seemed to me very real people, given their circumstances.  Túrin has good intentions, but in the greater scheme of things, he is not particularly heroic.  I would hardly expect him to be; he’s just trying to survive, and that without a Shire to remember, or a Samwise to turn to.

Some of the plot was a little repetitive; most of it was tragic and depressing.  By the end, I almost felt like it was too tragic, to the point of melodrama, but that might just be me.  I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, though I rounded to 4 on Goodreads.  Recommended to those who enjoyed reading LOTR and also anyone who likes mythology stories.