He was known as “Wagon Wheel Joe” to his peers in the motion picture industry—a mocking nickname given to him by those who edited his B-Westerns during director Joseph H. Lewis’ early moviemaking days. Joe is a solid example of the kind of film director who, to borrow an observation from author Gregory Mank on fellow second feature helmer Edgar G. Ulmer, “had to take a rat…and make Thanksgiving dinner out of it.” Lewis’ oeuvre is the yardstick by which “style over substance” is measured; he could infuse the most mundane movie material with an exhilarating visual style (which some have attributed to his father’s trade as an optometrist). Joe dabbled in various film genres and styles (East Side Kids films, westerns like The Halliday Brand, etc.) but he’s perhaps best known for the proto-Bonnie and Clyde tale Gun Crazy (1949; a.k.a. Deadly is the Female), one of the most memorable film noirs.
Lewis got his initiation into noir when he went to work for Columbia Pictures in 1945 and directed My Name is Julia Ross—a B-picture that caught the studio by surprise when it became a box office sleeper hit. Julia Ross has been previously released to DVD, but it made its Blu-ray debut yesterday (February 19) in a swanky edition from Arrow Academy (my Facebook chum and fellow movie blogger William T. “Garv” Garver rightfully calls Arrow “the Criterion of cult”). The film was a favorite of Joe’s; he considered it the true catalyst of his motion picture career, and although I’ve seen the movie many, many times I never get tired of admiring it. Its arrival on Blu-ray makes it stand out all the more, with its high definition (1080p) presentation the perfect complement to Burnett Guffey’s astounding cinematography.
Nina Foch plays the titular heroine—a young woman stranded in London with no prospects and behind in her rent. Things begin looking up when an employment agency puts her in touch with the wealthy Mrs. Williamson Hughes (Dame May Whitty), who hires her as her private secretary…under the stipulation that she move in with her and her son Ralph (George Macready). Julia arrives at her new address with the intention of getting back together with her boyfriend Dennis Bruce (Roland Varno)—whose plans to marry his fiancée have gone south—but then she doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting. Dennis, mystified that he was snubbed without explanation, attempts to track Julia down…it’s as if she’s vanished into thin air!
Based on Anthony Gilbert’s 1941 novel The Woman in Red (adapted by Muriel Roy Bolton), My Name is Julia Ross provides an excellent showcase for Nina Foch in one of her first starring roles. Her Julia Ross is a woman who’s trapped in a frightening nightmare—she’s been kidnapped and taken to a mysterious mansion in Cornwall, with Mrs. Hughes and Ralph convincing all and sundry (servants, visitors, etc.) that Julia is really Ralph’s mentally ill wife Marian—and throughout the film’s running time (an economical 65 minutes) plays a compelling game of cat-and-mouse with her captors, looking for any avenue of escape. Whitty has one of her best roles as the manipulative dowager, but the real villainy honors goes to Macready, a mama’s boy with a disturbing fetish for knives and other sharp objects (I’m impressed that they got this sexual subtext past the censor). If I have any quibble with Julia Ross (and considering how many times I’ve sat down with the movie it must not matter much in the long run) it’s that the slightly sunny ending is a wee bit out of sync with the overall menacing tone of what preceded it.
The success of My Name is Julia Ross prompted Columbia’s Harry “White Fang” Cohn to offer Joseph Lewis the assignment of directing the studio’s big “A” offering, The Jolson Story (1946), but Lewis was committed to another little B-thriller in So Dark the Night (1946)—also released to Blu-ray from Arrow Academy on the nineteenth. So Dark is an interesting compliment to Julia Ross in that it works in reverse; it starts out as a genial, innocuous little tale with French detective Henri Cassin (Steven Geray) on holiday in the provincial little hamlet of St. Margot…then grows disturbingly dark as it goes along. You see, Cassin has fallen in love with young Nanette Michaud (Micheline Cheirel) during his vacation—much to her mother’s (Ann Codee) delight and father’s (Eugene Borden) apprehension—and plans to make her Mrs. Cassin. Nanette has been promised to farmer Leon Achard (Paul Marion), however; Leon is none-too-enthusiastic about his girl’s flirtation with Henri, and even states in so many words that if he can’t have her no one will.
On the night of Henri and Nanette’s engagement party, Leon arrives to once again voice his displeasure and not long after, both he and Nanette take a powder. Nanette’s body is discovered several days after her disappearance…so it’s assumed Leon made good on his threat. Here’s the problem: the body of Leon soon surfaces in his barn—eliminating the chief suspect and prompting Cassin to investigate, particularly when a note reading “another will die” turns up after the discovery of the croaked Leon.
I had a passing familiarity with So Dark the Night before I watched it for the first time Monday night and I have to say: this is a most impressive movie. In the manner of another of one of my favorite second-tier directors, Roy William Neill, Lewis works magic with an economical budget and makes this engaging little programmer look startlingly close to an “A” film. The info on So Dark at the American Film Institute’s website erroneously identifies it as an entry in Columbia’s Whistler series…it isn’t, but I’m curious as to whether it might have been slated as one at one time. Of course, that means that Richard Dix would have had to play Cassin, which would have deprived Columbia contract player Steven Geray (born Istvan Gyergyay) of a marvelous acting opportunity (Geray was a character actor who played a lot of headwaiters and desk clerks, yet made lasting impressions in films such as Gilda  and The Unfaithful ).
The cast in So Dark the Night is comprised of admittedly unfamiliar second players but there are some remarkable performances here; I was most impressed with Geray and Helen Freeman (as a widow so desperate to shake off the dust of St. Margot off her shoes she tries to blackmail the murderer into taking her to Paris). Borden also does nice work as the sympathetic father (who’s devastated by grief when he learns of his daughter’s murder) and though I think Cheirel is a little too old to be completely convincing as Nanette there’s no denying she’s a beauty. The Arrow Academy Blu-ray perfectly accentuates Burnett Guffey’s breathtaking cinematography and Lewis’ stunning use of visual expressionism. So Dark was based on a story by Audrey Weisberg (published in Reader’s Digest) with its screenplay adapted by Dwight V. Babcock and Martin Berkeley.
Both the My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night Blu-rays are accompanied by their respective theatrical trailers; with Julia you get an audio commentary by Facebook compadre/noir authority Alan K. Rode and a nice little featurette, Identity Crisis: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia, with Nora Fiore (a.k.a. The Nitrate Diva) providing background and analysis of the film. Night teams up Facebook classic movie/critic comrades Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme (The Self-Styled Siren!) for its commentary, and So Dark… Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia tackles the history of the movie with Imogen Sara Smith (the author of the great In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City). Noir fans will definitely want both of these first-rate Blu-rays for their shelf—many thanks to Clint Weiler at MVD Entertainment Group for providing the screeners.