ANTHONY GILBERT – The Woman in Red. Collins Crime Club, UK, hardcover, 1941. Smith & Durrell, US, hardcover, 1943. Digest-sized paperback: Mercury Mystery #91. Also published as The Mystery of the Woman in Red: Handi-Books #29, paperback, 1944. Film: Columbia, 1945, as My Name Is Julia Ross. Film: MGM, 1987, as Dead of Winter.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS. Columbia, 1945. Nina Foch, Dame May Whitty, George Macready. Based on the novel The Woman in Red, by Anthony Gilbert. Director: Joseph H. Lewis.

ANTHONY GILBERT My Name is Julia Ross

   I almost gave up on Anthony Gilbert’s The Woman in Red after the first few pages because it seemed like every other paragraph conveyed some form of Had-she-but-known, often more than once. F’rinstance: She was wondering why she should be so convinced that nothing but harm, of danger even, could come of this venture…her whole being shaken by a protest that was instinctive and illogical In her brain, a voice rang like a chiming bell, “Don’t go,” it pealed, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go!”

   At which point I damnear went. But I stayed with it and I’m glad I did. Woman in Red isn’t completely successful, but when the characters talk, they slip the surly bonds of Gilbert’s prose and come alive, with entertaining results. This was my introduction to series sleuth Anthony Crook, a delightfully irreverent character and light counterbalance to the turgid and often ridiculous story around him.

   Well, maybe not ridiculous; the tale of Julia Ross, a working girl who takes a position as an old dowager’s secretary, only to find herself whisked off to a remote house in the country where everyone calls her by another name and treats her like she’s crazy has some effective moments and even generates a good deal of suspense.

   But it’s hard to take a story seriously when the would-be killer tricks our heroine into wearing a red dress so as to rouse the deadly ire of a passing bull. And when the basis of the plot turns out to be a nest of foreign spies being coincidentally pursued by Julia’s beau…. Well I’m just glad there were enough bright characters and tricky bits of business to make it all worthwhile and even entertaining.

   Woman in Red was turned into a film called My Name Is Julia Ross (Columbia,1945) and it had the artistic fortune to be adapted by Muriel Roy Bolton and directed by Joseph H. Lewis, a filmmaker who brought artistry to just about everything he touched. Shot in 18 days (as delightfully detailed in Mike Nevin’s Joseph H. Lewis [Scarecrow, 1998]) on a budget that wouldn’t buy catering on most “A” pictures, this emerges as a riveting, atmospheric film, and one to look out for.

   Nina Foch is excellent as the imperiled heroine, set neatly against Dame May Whitty as the dotty-looking but sinister master- (or should it be mistress?) -mind. Even better, there’s George Macready as Whitty’s not-quite-right son. Bolton re-structures the basis of the plot, replacing spies with a background story that George married a wealthy heiress for her money, then inconveniently killed her. Now he and Mom need a replacement who can be passed off as the wife and meet a more acceptable end so he can inherit her fortune and avoid the gallows.

ANTHONY GILBERT My Name is Julia Ross

   It’s fine work from writer Bolton, who also did an intelligent job on something called The Amazing Mr. X, which I must get around to reviewing someday.

   Director Lewis does an outstanding job with all this. His off-beat angles and compositions are never just showy, but always work to establish character or atmosphere. And he creates a nifty tension between the murderous mother and son, with Whitty always trying to take knives and other sharp objects away, and Macready always on the point of rebelling — a nasty prospect from the look of him, and one he would relish. Macready’s career ran the gamut from the preposterous The Monster and the Ape to the prestigious Paths of Glory, but he was never better than right here, playing off Dame May Whitty like an incestuous Lorre and Greenstreet.

ANTHONY GILBERT My Name is Julia Ross

PostScript:   Mike Grost has a lot to say about this film on his website. Check out his long insightful article here. The movie was also reviewed by J. F. Norris on his blog. Here’s the link.