Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Volume III – Five Minor Classics

From the TCM Vault Collection

I like to think of myself as something of a noir-teurist. I love the genre (and I use the term here loosely, as film noir is really more of an attitude and a style than a specific genre) and I enjoy exploring the work of particular directors whose work embraces the noir aesthetic. But in addition to directors, there are other defining creative collaborators: actors and authors and producers and even studios can all prove to be illuminating ways to group films.

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Volume III (TCM Vault Collection), a collaboration between Sony Picture and Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, continues the superb series of box sets showcasing some of the less celebrated noirs from Columbia Pictures in the classic era. You might say it uses the term “classic” generically (as in any films before 1960), but that’s not to denigrate the films in this collection. These are minor gems polished out of low budget productions. It’s just that Columbia had its own house style when it came to the studio-bound films of the forties, a particular way with its backlot street and shadowy lighting and foggy atmosphere in place of sets or locations. You can see a little of that here but like the previous sets, this collection illustrates the flexibility of the term “film noir” to encompass outliers in the shadowy, cynical American crime dramas of the forties and fifties.

My Name is Julia Ross (1945), the earliest film in this set, is more gothic psychodrama with a contemporary British setting seeped in old world flavor and a Gaslight plot, while Drive a Crooked Road (1954), barely ten years later, is a sunbright California crime drama, what I like to call beachhouse noir, a world away from the classic nocturnal urban style with its coast highways and sunny beaches and sleek West Coast architecture. The former has the noir visual palette – rooms that become increasingly suffocating, windows covered in bars to turn the manor into a virtual prison, the webs of criss-crossing shadows when night falls on the film (and the heroine) – and the latter the sour opportunism and contemptuous arrogance under the chummy surface of good-time guys snaring a repressed innocent into their criminal web. The Burglar (1957), brings both of those aspects together in a more sordid world of twitchy crooks, flophouse hideouts, duplicity as a way of life, and an atmosphere dripping in sexual longing and lust, with fractured, jagged storytelling and gargoyle close-ups that move the expressionism of the early noir classics into a more contemporary world.

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My Name is Julia Ross on TCM

After a career of working his way up through the rungs of the film industry, Joseph H. Lewis’ broke through the B-movie ceiling with My Name is Julia Ross, what you might call a B-plus picture: a little more time, a little more money. But what makes the difference is a lot more care and creative engagement on the part of a director determined to show the studio just what he has  to offer. The film plays as part of a tribute to Lewis on TCM this month and I wrote an essay on it for the website.

Her name is Julia Ross

Lewis’ first film for the studio since 1939, My Name Is Julia Ross was part of the “fewer and better” B-movie initiative, with a bigger budget usually accorded such productions and a 12-day shooting schedule, twice as long as he was given for the westerns he used to crank out for the studio. Lewis made the most of his limited resources, with judicious use of stock footage and back projection to establish the London and Cornwall settings and careful backlot shooting to put the characters on English streets and country roads, or high upon a seaside cliff looking dramatically down at a rocky, lonely beach. He lavished his attention on the mansion sets, giving the interiors a distinctive sense of old-money history and aristocratic elegance; he also photographed many of the scenes framed by foreground objects or through doorways and windows (looking at Julia through the bars of her upstairs window brings the feeling of imprisonment home simply and evocatively). While the characters work to establish a surface of normalcy, Lewis injects a sense of unease into the situation with oblique angles and webs of shadows.

To get greater depth of focus (which would become a hallmark of Lewis’ best work) he had cinematographer Burnett Guffey (then just another cameraman churning out low-budget features but later responsible for shooting In a Lonely Place [1950], From Here to Eternity [1953] and Bonnie and Clyde [1967]) flood the studio with extra lights and then close down the aperture, which darkened the image while still providing a sharp focus. It’s especially effective in night scenes, as Ralph lurks in the shadows and waits for Julia, who wanders the dark halls while keeping an eye out for her captors. Lewis choreographs the scenes smoothly and builds suspense with graceful camerawork, measured editing and dramatic compositions criss-crossed with threatening shadows.

Read the complete feature here. My Name Is Julia Ross, which is not on DVD, plays Wednesday, July 14 on Turner Classic Movies.