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.

Wedding Preparations in the Country

I rarely read Kafka straight through.  Even in the middle of a story, I’ll take a sudden hiatus and return to it later, not the worse for a break.  The world through his eyes is weird, menacing, and illogical, yet too close to reality to make it entirely escapism.  This collection of his complete short stories is no different; I’ve owned it for several years, and returned to it just now after an extended break.

“Wedding Preparations in the Country” is less fanciful than his more famous work, The Metamorphosis, yet it is no less Kafkaesque.  Raban, a city dweller, is setting out on a rainy night to journey to the country, where his fiancee awaits him.  Along the way, he encounters his friend, Lement, as well as a host of strangers who leave their own influences on him and his already tenuous nerves.  Raban alternates between soaking in his surroundings and musing over the trip before him, finding little to comfort his anxieties and much to increase his sense of dread.

This short tale was quintessential Kafka.  I particularly enjoyed it because it brings out one of the best qualities of his writing – the impressionism.  He writes attitudes more than characters, atmospheres more than places, and feelings more than coherent thoughts (Kafka’s rambling dialogues are masterful).  Of course, it’s not an upbeat story; like most of his plots, it seems more like a thought experiment or a bad dream.  The realism that comes through, however, is what leaves me in awe every time.  It’s like looking at Monet painting from a distance: you don’t see blobs of paint, you see a window into someone else’s real world.

100th Anniversary

Cover of a 1916 edition.  The book was first published in October 1915.

of the publication of The Metamorphosis!  (I would link to the article I saw about it, but won’t because spoilers (sigh)).

You know, it is on my list of top 10 favorites, but I’ve yet to read it on paper.  I first listened to the excellent LibriVox audiobook by David Barnes, then later I listened to a partly-abridged audiobook read by Cumberbatch.  I have it in my “Complete Short Stories” – I really should read it before the month’s up.

It’s stunning to realize that, after 100 years, Kafka’s insights are still very applicable.  Undoubtedly The Metamorphosis can mean different things to different people…  To me, at its most basic, it’s a concise analogy of the facade many people consider to be “love.”  In other words, when love is defined in materialistic, give-and-take terms, it means a “normal” family like the Samsas can turn into a dysfunctional one, when their “normal” life is interrupted by the unexpected.  The morphing is, perhaps, not the appearance of the “monstrous vermin,” but the actual reaction to the creature.

I think I’ll try to read it sometime this week and post my thoughts.  If you’ve read it recently or will be reading it soon, feel free to share a link to your review!

Kafka (1991)

“That’s what you’re trying to eliminate, isn’t it?  
Everything that makes one human being different from another.” 

Perhaps it says the most to admit that, even so soon, I wouldn’t mind watching this again.

Hollywood and great authors rarely go together.  If that great author is Franz Kafka, one of my favorites, then the very concept is shaky and a good execution defies all odds.  Interestingly enough, Kafka makes up its own concept and just goes for it.  Somehow even the pickiest of critics can find something to like about it.

But can we talk about Jeremy Irons for a minute?  Portraying Kafka, he strikingly resembles Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, which is only a good thing.  More to the point, Irons is the glue that holds the show together.  The supporting cast is fine, the script is pretty good, yet he is the one who brings credibility to the setting.  His timidity and humorless perspective bring out the best parts of Gregor Samsa, Josef K., and the rest of Kafka’s book protagonists, and fortunately he has few of their faults.

We follow Kafka through a tangled plot which, despite its problems, I must applaud for its attempt.  It places the author himself in various Kafkaesque elements, such as the Castle, Gregor’s troubled relationship with his family, and the general unease from The Trial.  Then it combines them all under an umbrella plot of revolutionary terrorists plotting against a dictatorial government.

I would take issue with this, except that it makes a degree of sense, taking Kafka as a movie, which it is.  You have to give moviegoers a plot – beginning, middle, end.  Kafka manages to present Kafkaesque “monotony,” if you will, in a more palatable and familiar format, without really sacrificing anything important.  Some may disagree, but I don’t think this addition was altogether a negative.

The dialogue was the main disappointment.  There were times it didn’t feel genuine, or it glossed over things such as the development of the female character, Gabriela.  This was when the Hollywoodization was most apparent (as an aside, there are exceptions to every rule: Lincoln, for example, had very well-written dialogue.)  Probably not so noticeable if not compared to the books…but that’s what I’m here for.  🙂

Production-wise, I enjoyed the soundtrack of Eastern European-inspired music and black-and-white cinematography.  That’s kind of an understatement – the visuals were stunning.  The scenes of the office, streets, and Castle were properly cluttered and claustrophobic and eerie.  The chase scene down the elevator was way creepy.  Is it strictly Kafkaesque?  No, but it is cinematically Kafkaesque.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this film to non-Kafka fans.  It really depends on what you like to watch.  As a fan, I thought it was worthwhile, and in a sense, much less “dark” than the books themselves.  Dramatization takes some of the mystery out of it.  What you lose in psychological subtlety you gain in entertainment value, and that trade-off, in this unusual adaptation, turns out mostly for the best.

Content:  Rated PG-13 for some frightening scenes and a nude image.  One of the villains goes into a restroom to look at photos of female models.  A maniacal assassin chases people at night; one character seen in the distance is stabbed; a man is tortured off-screen…unsure if anything is later shown.  Near the end a man is shown strapped down while his brain is being examined, a little graphic.  Overall, comparable to some Doctor Who episodes, without the lightheartedness.  On a positive note: no profanity or language that I recall.  (Also, it is easy to anticipate scenes to fast-forward, if you are a bit squeamish like me.)


Disclaimer: I don’t own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use).