Thursday, July 15, 2010

So Dark the Night (1946) and My Name is Julia Ross (1945), Joseph H Lewis.

As an AV Club commenter wrote about Robert Osborne, "no matter where he is, as soon as you spot him he takes a few steps toward you and bends his arm at the elbow."  (Sure, it's not beneath me to quote "Juanito" from a comments board).  It was B-movie kismet for me last night, thanks to Osborne and the brilliant programmers at TCM.  I had literally been adding So Dark the Night and other Joseph H Lewis films to my list of missing B-movie classics and the next evening I stumble on a Lewis film fest!  

Lewis toiled in the murky depths, cranking out genre B's like Bowery Boys and Lugosi vehicles for Monogram and PRC before hitting his stride with movies such as My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night.  Although these two were also made on tight schedules and limited budgets, they reveal what surprisingly good movies could come of this stringent process in the right hands.  Lewis appears to have had Val Lewton's gift of creating a world out of a few carefully placed props and, like Lewton's best works, these offer exotic settings for their more mature psychological mysteries.  Myron Meisel's essay "Joseph H Lewis, Tourist in the Asylum," (From Kings of the Bs, 1975) emphasizes Lewis' emerging skills in storytelling through camera placement in So Dark the Night.  Characters are separated from another through use of space and dolly work.  Their phobias and anxieties are expressed visually.  "From the opening," writes Meisel, "the film shows complete visual control."  My Name is Julia Ross had me tense for all 65 minutes.  I believe the film's sense of reality is rooted in its lack of showy effects - we as viewers are simply stuck as prisoners in the wood-paneled bedroom alongside Nina Foch's character, plotting desperate escape.  The limited number of shooting locations deepen the sense of being trapped in an inescapable place.  Each physical prop (a letter, a stone) becomes tangible tools in our own arsenal as we strategize how to break free.  Interestingly, the film shares certain (minimal) plot elements with Shutter Island which for all its play with effects, flashbacks and colour did nothing but alienate viewers to its character's mental state.

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