Joseph H. Lewis’ taught noir finally makes it to Blu-ray

The joy of loving cinema – and I’m not talking about devouring whatever the latest juggernaut product is being fed to us every Friday night at the multiplex or cheapie lazily streaming on Netflx – is that no matter how much we know or see, there are ALWAYS hundreds upon hundreds of pictures hiding, waiting to be discovered. And if you’re a fan of the unofficial subgenre French film critics dubbed “film noir”, there are so many of them out there, from poverty-row potboilers, to major studio “B” movies. And thank God for boutique labels like Arrow Video for taking the time and effort to dig up many of these mini-masterpieces and give them the affection and attention they deserve.

Among Arrow’s latest offerings is director Joseph H. Lewis’s MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, a lulu of a thriller that served as the basis of the almost equally obscure 1987 mystery DEAD OF WINTER. That unofficial remake is certainly a fine distraction, with a cast that includes the great Roddy McDowall and Mary Steenburgen, but it can’t hold a candle to Lewis’ original. This is prime nastiness, with a damsel in deep distress, reptilian, money-crazed villains of every age and gender and suspense so thick you can cut it in half.

The film stars Nina Foch as the titular heroine, a mild mannered administrative assistant who travels to London to get a job as a secretary for kindly rich widow Mrs. Williamson Hughes (Dame May Whitty from Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES). Almost immediately she is drugged and dragged to the lady’s looming seaside manor where both the matriarch of the house and her sinister son Ralph (George Macready) begin spinning a narrative that Julia is in fact NOT Julia and all, but Ralph’s mentally unstable wife Marion. Though the horrified Julia protests, she soon finds herself kept prisoner, part of insidious ruse to cover up the fact that Ralph has in fact murdered his rich fiancee and now, mother and son are attempting to use Julia in order to claim the dead woman’s inheritance. And to do that, Julia will naturally have to have “an accident”…

Lewis got his start making downmarket programmers and his quick and dirty, no-nonsense approach to the filmmaking process are what makes the breakneck, bigger budgeted Columbia picture MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS such a thrill. It’s unpretentious, dirty and direct and moves like a bullet from a gun, with shadowy black and white photography (by BONNIE AND CLYDE’s Burnett Guffey_ capturing the serpentine narrative, the wicked mother and her psychotic son are truly vile and Foch gives it her all, in an intense performance that is both strong and vulnerable. You’re with her Julia, every step, trying to find an out and collapsing in frustration when every way out is ruthlessly sabotaged by her tormentors. There’s also a Gothic, swoony romantic urgency to the film too, much of it distilled from the lovely coastal imagery, accentuated by a rousing Mischa Bakaleinkoff (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS) score. And that mock-suicide trick ending makes for a thunderous finale.

Arrow’s startling 2K transfer (commissioned by Sony pictures) is a grainy, gorgeous delight and they include a brisk commentary from noir know-it-all Alan K. Rode as well a new appreciation of Lewis’ work with Columbia Pictures. Hugely recommenced film and an essential release.