Essential: THE MOB (1951)

TB: This week I am going to let Jlewis start, then I will provide some of my own comments at the end. I wanted to discuss this film, since I think it’s a very slick B-crime film and the acting is first-rate. Jlewis liked it, but not as much as I do.

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JL: Directed by Robert Parrish with Columbia’s top star Broderick Crawford capitalizing on past hits like ALL THE KING’S MEN and BORN YESTERDAY, we get another of the all-familiar “Johnny” characters in crime dramas. For some reason, every detective writer resorts to that name, I guess because it suggests innocence in a way that Charlie or Roger does not? Broderick’s Johnny witnesses a murder and mistakes the killer as a fellow detective because he flaunts a badge like his. The victim is a testifying waterfront crime witness. When critiqued by his bosses at Hall of Justice headquarters, he gets to redeem himself by tracking down this mystery man.

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Although he has very dangerous work to do infiltrating the underground by posing as an ex-criminal himself, we suspect right away that Johnny will survive in the end just eleven minutes into the film. Why? Because he is engaged to get married to Mary (Betty Buehler), presenting her a ring. We’ve discussed this set-up before with the war movies. Those who are married or engaged (with the added plus of a little one on the way) are the ones who survive and those who are either womanizing bachelors or potentially in-the-closet (or so we think with our 21st century eyes) are expendable. On the plus side, neither future groom and bride are glamorous young people (looking late thirties/forties-ish) and Mary is clearly not an accessory here like some other films profiled, but actually plays a key role in the final two climaxes when her life is in as much danger as Johnny’s.

I should add that Broderick’s shorter than usual haircut and mustache in the beginning makes him more accessible to viewers as an Average Joe than his earlier exaggerated roles. Once on the job as “Tim Flynn” of New Orleans, the mustache is shaved off and we get the Bronx tough guy accent so he feels more at home on the NYC waterfront.

The dock scenes themselves invite plenty of comparison to ON THE WATERFRONT, bankrolled by the same studio Columbia later to Oscar fame. The fact that this film features more rear-projection shots and studio mock-ups than the latter gives us an indication how much film-making changed at just one studio over two and a half years. (THE MOB was shot in early ’51 and the latter in late ’53.)

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I am not sure if the dialogue here was all original or copy-catted from others, but so much of it sounded eerily familiar. I was thinking of James Dean in the later REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, when “Tim” is taken for a ride in the back seat of a sedan (again resembling ON THE WATERFRONT and a famous back seat scene there), when his sarcastic comment about why he wasn’t blindfolded results in a response of “you’ve been reading too many comic books.” When introduced to mob boss Joe Castro, a young Ernest Borgnine, who cracks “My name is Castro and I don’t have any boss”, the sarcastic “Tim” cracks the funny line “Not even a wife, Mister Castro?”

Another murder takes place involving a possible witness/stool pigeon, this time involving with “Tim” as the murdering suspect. Castro and his henchman Gunner (Neville Brand) have him set up here. A fist fight between Johnny/Tim and Gunner provides the bulk of the action in this otherwise more-talk-than-action gangster piece. Other characters of interest include a corrupt cop (Walter Klavum) and the bartender Smoothie (Matt Crowley) who gives him information on others for a price and is later revealed far more important than Johnny/Tim realizes.

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On the other side of the law and ready to retrieve him from this dangerous pit full of mob crocodiles are the feds played by Otto Hulett as Lt. Banks, whom he reports back to in periodic private car discussions, and Richard Kiley (easily recognizable by his distinctive TV and radio voice) as Thomas Clancy infiltrating the scenery as a fellow dock worker and sporting a wife (Jean Alexander) involved as well. The final investigation of the “wrong side of the law” involves a car that Johnny/Tim and Smoothie use that drips “stuff” on the road so it can be tailed and is wire-tapped so the feds can listen in… which makes me wonder why both was necessary when the latter worked just as well in exposing.

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Then Mary somehow gets involved and a rather un-climactic showdown takes place in a hospital, of all places. The ending involving another nurse of Mary’s profession also being tied to the feds is a trifle silly but it does lead us to the adequate happy ending we expect. I have a feeling most moviegoers at the time were not terribly “wowed” by the action here, but nonetheless left feeling good that romance prevailed in the end even if Johnny gets kissed by another man’s wife as a joke.

Going by the cars showcased early on, I initially thought the setting of this pic was the mid 1930s when the FBI was busy trackin’ ’em down, but later we see some 1951 models on the road so it is revealed all contemporary. Nonetheless comparisons can also be made to Warner’s G-MEN and the MGM “Crimes Does Not Pay” shorts with the good guys shown investigating step-by-step with maps, wire tappings and detail investigations. However the fact that Smoothie, Castro and Gunner don’t seem all that threatening makes this picture feel too easily resolved.

***

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TB: It’s interesting how a film resonates (or doesn’t resonate) with two different viewers. On the IMDb rating system, I gave it a 9. Originally I had given it an 8 but increased my rating with subsequent viewings. I look at it as a very slick B-crime film. The acting puts it over, even if some of the plot devices are hackneyed.

The dialogue might seem familiar in THE MOB probably because it was copied later by other writers. I found a lot of the wisecracks to be expertly delivered, especially by Brod Crawford. I love the running joke of him playing a guy from New Orleans (while undercover) and having to continually order and drink beer and wine, something the real Johnny doesn’t like mixing.

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The weakest part is them omitting how Mary got picked up by Smoothie’s gang. We should have seen how they nabbed her. But I guess we were supposed to be surprised, along with Johnny, when he went into the other room and saw her there. But I would like it to have been explained, how they kidnapped her.

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I enjoyed the hospital sequence. I thought it was particularly suspenseful, notably the part where Smoothie entered the room and it looked like he was going to kill them both. The first time I watched it, I had no idea the nurse who came into the room was an undercover cop. I liked how Smoothie was gunned down by a cop shooting him from an upper window in a nearby building. It was definitely a tidy ending, but there really was no need to drag out Smoothie’s demise.

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Jay Adler played the owner of the fleabag motel. Great character actor, brother of Stella and Luther. He has another memorable role in 99 RIVER STREET, a noir made shortly afterward.

The character of Mary was the only significant film role for actress Betty Buehler. She has just two credits on the IMDb, which leads me to believe she was either a stage actress or had acted under another name for other roles. I did find a nice write-up about her, after her death in 2012. It wasn’t an obituary really, more an appreciation by someone in her hometown who knew her family. According to that column, she appeared in some 50s TV anthology programs. But none of that is listed on the IMDb.

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I thought Buehler had excellent chemistry with Crawford, and as Jlewis indicated, we didn’t need a glamorous young couple cast as the leads. This film has more true-to-life types of people, and I think that’s one reason why I like it so much. Even Kiley and his wife, despite their earlier deception, make a somewhat down-to-earth couple.

THE MOB may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

TB: Joan Crawford was one of the screen’s most versatile, durable stars. Maybe her success can be attributed to her real-life ambition, but I think it’s an indicator of her talent. She specialized in risky parts that other actresses were afraid to take. She didn’t mind alienating the audience by playing against type and shattering everyone’s expectations of her. She was bold.

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Speaking of bold, the performance she gives in SUDDEN FEAR is without question one of her most brilliant. There’s an incredible sequence where she realizes her husband is a murderer and plans to make her his next victim. It’s a master class in on-screen emotion, and she uses all the tricks she learned during the early part of her career in silent films.

JL: This is another of those familiar titles I only belatedly got to. It has been well reviewed in many texts due to Joan Crawford’s excellent performance and is one of the crown jewels of that last great bumper-crop year of Howard Hughes’ RKO Radio, 1952, although technically a Joseph Kaufman production merely financed by the studio. David Miller directs and his name is mostly familiar to me through his shortie work at MGM (the “Crime Does Not Pay” series, for example).

TB: Miller’s first features were B films, but by the 50s, he had graduated to big budget “A” pictures, and he would also helm productions with Lana Turner, June Allyson and Doris Day. He directed Crawford again, in 1957’s THE STORY OF ESTHER COSTELLO.

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JL: Elmer Bernstein’s music begins ominously over the opening credits featuring a clock (and there are lots of clocks, watches and time tables throughout since “timing” is a matter of life and death), then turns romantic to let us know we are going to see a “woman’s picture” if presented with noir-ish suspense. We then progress to a Broadway stage and I am instantly reminded of Bette Davis, Crawford’s counterpart, in ALL ABOUT EVE but with a change here: Crawford plays writer/director Myra Hudson instead of another Margo Channing.

The play is called “Halfway to Heaven” and Jack Palace is in the Margo/Eve role as the performer, boasting a rather interesting name: Lester Blaine conjures up A STAR IS BORN’s Norman Maine and Vicki Lester in my mind. Like the equally doomed Norman, Lester is not too successful at his career. Myra dumps him because she considers him “not my idea of a romantic leading man.” He angrily storms back to her about her fixed opinions about how a romantic lead should be played, requesting she see a famous painting of Casanova sporting an eye patch and warts.

TB: This is where the casting of Jack Palance, who is not quite a conventional romantic lead, works to the film’s advantage. Originally Crawford wanted her old MGM pal Clark Gable for the lead, but he was deemed too old and she was talked out of that choice. She had to be persuaded to go with Palance, which she agreed to do after she screened his performance in PANIC IN THE STREETS. I think having her new husband be a younger ambitious man makes the story stronger.

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JL: Myra’s play is a smash hit without Lester involved and she stumbles upon him on a train bound for San Francisco (“oh you will love *MY* San Francisco”), pretending to be forgiving of their earlier dispute. They proceed to play card games, which involve some interesting mind games and clever slight of hands… and we get plenty of mind games and close ups of hands doing sneaky activities throughout this picture.

In the dining car, she praises him: “I like people who make up their minds and then stick to it whatever the odds.” As things get more emotionally and passionately invested, she asks “is that a wedding ring?” and he tells her it was his mother’s, making him free for the taking. As her hand clenches his, we cut to the train making a weird S-move around mountain highlands that suggest both the train and Lester resembling a snake eager to constrict her in his coils.

TB: And as we soon find out, when the action moves to San Francisco, he does constrict her. But at first, she is unaware of his true motives.

JL: Yes. At one point, after much dating, he abruptly refuses her call at a party held in his honor. Clever editing shows her high heels walking back and forth as she keeps trying on the phone, inter-cut with his shoes pacing back and forth beside a bed stand that resembles a cage… potentially suggesting he feels too “caged” by this relationship of bedroom activities. Soon she is pleading with him on a stairway at his boarding house (and there are lots of stairways in this movie, just as there are clocks) that she “has nothing” without him.

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TB: Incidentally, this scene where Myra goes to Lester’s place and tells him she needs him (right before they are married)– that’s the same stairwell used in CITIZEN KANE when Kane confronts Boss Jim Gettys about exposing his affair with Susan Alexander. So although SUDDEN FEAR was sort of an independent production, partially financed by RKO, they used RKO’s facilities; the interiors were done on RKO’s sound stages.

JL: Myra and Lester marry then have even more hot passion at a summer cottage. This culminates in a Scarlet O’Hara scene of her waking up feeling so refreshed in bed but, unlike Scarlet, not wearing her nightie under the covers. He returns in his robe to watch her climb out and change into her swimsuit. She pretends to be modest, stating she looks worse in the morning than at night. Cue THE infamous line that gets repeated oh so often by fans of this flick: “A woman has to wear lipstick. I feel positively naked without it.”

The great ruin to all of this marital bliss is brought on by the arrival of Lester’s ex-girlfriend Irene, presented by Gloria Grahame.

TB: I think that while Crawford had final casting approval on the picture, she was somewhat stuck with Gloria Grahame, who was at that time under contract at RKO. She didn’t like Grahame at all and had her banned from the set when they were shooting scenes in which Grahame was not appearing. Grahame was having an off-camera affair with Palance, meaning Palance and Crawford did not sleep together (Crawford occasionally slept with her leading men). And perhaps that sort of tension– with him actually involved with Grahame, whom Crawford detested– gives the film an extra dimension, especially in those later scenes where Myra is supposed to be hurt and jealous, and she really has a reason to hate Irene.

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JL: We glimpse Irene seductively taking off her white head shawl at a cocktail party. Later a similar shawl is worn by Myra herself and their all too similar appearances in dress code prompts Lester to get them confused in the movie’s climax. Yet despite occasionally dressing alike, there are clever back to back edits of these two women showcasing how very different they are. I particularly enjoy the phone conversation Irene has with Lester about Myra giving away much of her father’s estate and play proceeds to the “hu-hmm foundation” (actually it is the Heart Foundation but she has trouble finding her own heart) while smoking a cigarette in her jammies with her hair all undone.

This is followed by a shot of Myra crooning at him while applying all of her flawless makeup and lipstick at her dressing table. Everything Myra does is done to great perfection. Irene is as simple as her pitbull wind-up toy dog, little realizing how easy it is for others to sneak into her apartment to snoop around when she is not around.

TB: And we should mention that Myra is able to gain access to Irene’s apartment when Irene is out, because at one point, Myra has lifted the key from Lester’s belongings and has had a duplicate made.

JL: Parts of this resemble DOUBLE INDEMINITY and other let’s-get-rid-of-the-spouse murder plots, but with the added twist of Myra discovering the truth through the recording devices that she uses for her play writing. She demonstrates them early on for Lester as he recites gooey romantic lines from her plays, but he is kinda forgetful and dimwitted, discussing his schemes with Irene while these devices are ”bugging” him.

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TB: In my opinion, the best scene in the movie is the long scene at the 45-minute mark where she plays the record and hears them conspiring against her. To me, this is Crawford’s finest cinematic moment. Even more powerful than her work in MILDRED PIERCE or POSSESSION (1947) for which she was also nominated. She has no dialogue in this lengthy scene, it’s all her listening to them and reacting. It’s brilliantly executed and could only have been done by an actress who started her motion picture career in silent films. By this point, 1952, we get an accomplished actress, with years of experience under her belt. She gives a masterful performance all the way through, but most especially in this sequence, where the plot takes a 180-degree turn and her character’s life is turned upside down.

JL: Ironically Lester still thinks he has the upper hand, never realizing Myra is on to him until fairly late. There is a clever exchange at the summer cottage in front of a roaring fireplace. Irene asks “You don’t suppose she could suspect anything, do you?” His response: “Not the way I make love to her.”

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Speaking of “making love,” it is especially noteworthy that he does it the same way before and after all of the plotting with Irene, but we the viewers can see a definite difference in Myra during the first and second half parts. The dialogue of “Good morning Mr. Blaine” and “Good morning Mrs. Blaine” is still going on, but there is a subtle difference in the way Myra says it later than she did before. She purposely suggests him going to the cottage to ready it for their second honeymoon getaway, knowing fully well that he will be all sneaky with Irene there. “I was wondering what I have done to deserve you” she croons as she kisses him. After closing his bedroom door, that romantic gooey face of Crawford the actress masterfully becomes a grim frown of “he won’t get away of this.”

TB: It is a bit of a stretch how she can count on them to see the notes she has written to them in their own handwriting. For instance she has no guarantee that Lester will find the note she plants inside his pocket.

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Also, when she does the sprained ankle routine, and the others leave the house and she is all alone with Lester in the bedroom, he could just as easily kill her and then stage a burglary. He’s running out of time and needs to get rid of her, so she is taking a huge risk that he won’t just get rid of her right then and there. Of course, if he did that, we wouldn’t get that great climactic finale with her back at Irene’s place.

The ending of the film is set up very smartly. We see Myra making a timetable, detailing how she intends to get revenge on Lester and Irene. She is making plans for Lester to die, and for Irene to take the fall for his murder.

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There is a very good shot of her after she makes the timetable…where she has a vision of how her plan will be carried out with Irene being convicted. We see Myra’s face, and we hear the pendulum of the clock swinging…then the camera moves in for an extreme close-up of her eyes. She blinks once then holds a very long, vengeful stare. There is pure horror in that fixed expression– the horror of what’s being done to her, and the horror she intends to inflict on the others. It’s a truly intense performance…and the way she conveys fear, which is what this movie is about, puts her on a level that actresses seldom reach on screen.

JL: Regardless of some flaws in the storyline and presentation, this is a great melodrama with three great performances. As much as I like Gloria Grahame, she pretty much acts the same as she does in many other movies. It is Palance and Crawford who are clearly at the top of their form. The final scene with Crawford holding her face and then looking towards the camera is as great as any Crawford fan expects it to be.

SUDDEN FEAR may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945)

JL: This Columbia Gothic ladies pic, directed by Joseph H. Lewis, got some good reviews in the ol’ movie guides by Leonard Maltin and Leslie Halliwell, so I was at least half familiar with the title since the 1980s even though I only just watched it. James Agee also enjoyed it back in 1945, even if he didn’t want to like it, stating in his typically acidic tongue that it was “a likeable, unpretentious, generally successful attempt to turn good trash into decently artful entertainment.”

TB: Agee never was one to heap lavish praise on a B-film, unless it was something made by Val Lewton. 

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JL: I found Burnett Guffey’s atmospheric cinematography pleasantly reminiscent of such classics as Hitchcock’s REBECCA and SUSPICION (shadowy large rooms lit by windows and curtains, waves along the coastline, etc.) and, despite a short running time, this was a classy A picture done on a B budget. From what I gathered, it enjoyed a cult following on the Late Late Show in the sixties and seventies since it is the type of entertainment that you snuggle under pillows for.

TB: This film grabs the viewer right from the start. I love the way the opening credits play, in such a way that you are just hooked and want to know what’s going to unfold. There are storm clouds and then a sudden downpour of rain.

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JL: It opens with impressive establishment shots of rainy London. We do not see our Julia Ross at first, but watch and listen to the boarding lady Mrs. Mackie, wonderfully played by Doris Lloyd, complain to her with Julia’s back to us. This adds a certain aura of mystery to our lead star and sets up the basic premise promised in the title: Julia must always be certain of who she is at all times in order to survive in life.

Regarding Mrs. Mackie, we viewers do not know what to think of her since she seems grumpy and sinister at first. Yet she is the one who saves Julia’s life later when she discovers a letter addressed to Julia’s former boyfriend Dennis (Roland Varno) suddenly stolen by a strange visitor at her rental house.

TB: Mrs. Mackie and her tenants are not at all like the nest of vipers Julia soon meets when she goes out in search of a new job.

JL: There is an interesting theme here: just because somebody is sweet, does not mean they have your best interests at heart. Julia tells her Allison Employment Agency lady and her new boss that they are “very kind” and they certainly appear to be. Sometimes those who have a rougher exterior are the ones whom you can really depend on.

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The basic plot involves a struggling Julia who gets a job as a secretary to an eccentric family and, after mysteriously getting drugged by tea, wakes up miles away from London along the Cornwall coast and in a rather familiar looking California mansion I have seen in other movies but, for various reasons, can not remember which ones. Suddenly she is no longer Julia Ross but Marian Hughes…with a husband and lovely “MH” initials on all of her bedroom linens!

TB: We should mention that the husband is portrayed by George Macready, who usually was assigned by Columbia to play less-than-savory types. So we know the minute he appears on screen that Julia/Marian is not going to have a “happy marriage.”

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Macready has a slightly scarred face, which adds to the more menacing aspects of the character he plays. Julia becomes terrified, and so do the viewers. We are anxious for her to escape the husband’s clutches. Of course, most of his problems stem from the strange relationship he has had for years with his controlling mother (Dame May Whitty).

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JL: Incidentally, we should give a nice shout-out to Mikhail Romanovich Bakaleinikov’s music. It doesn’t draw too much attention to itself like the louder stuff at other studios done by bigger names, but enhances all of the action on screen so that you can stay intensely focused. He was a veteran of the Columbia studio who covered practically every genre with titles stretching from BLONDIE to EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS.

Anyway, back to the main character and her story. Julia aims to figure a way out of the confined set-up she has found herself in. Also she does not want to be judged crazy by others outside her prison home for not accepting herself as Marian.

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TB: What I most enjoy about this movie is that everyone in the village thinks Marian/Julia is crazy…and all her attempts to convey the truth seem like lies. The sequence where she hides in the back of the car to leave with some guests is very well played. Nina Foch does it so remarkably, it’s easy to become wrapped up in the story and sympathize with the character’s plight.

JL: Nina Foch has a no-nonsense voice that often reminds me of fellow Taurus actress Anne Baxter, who got the meatier role as Nefertari in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS while Nina played Bithiah. She has always been an interesting, if underrated, actress who first appeared in Warner shorties like WAGON WHEELS WEST, then mostly B-movies before her supporting role of some attention in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Never a big name star, she was still durable in her profession and was still making making guest appearances well into her eighties on such hit TV shows as NCIS and The Closer, her final appearance on the small screen being a year before her passing.

TB: She had an Oscar-nominated turn in EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954), where she once again played a secretary. Though the dynamics were not quite the same in that film. In her later years, Foch was known in Hollywood as an acting coach. One of her students was Fred Dryer when he was transitioning from football star to TV star. In the last season of his hit series Hunter he had her on the show as a special guest, playing a Norma Desmond type that he and his partner met during an investigation. She was always great to watch.

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TB: Okay, so what did you think Whitty’s performance in this picture?

JL: I must confess that most of the roles I have personally seen Dame May Whitty play (as in THE LADY VANISHES, SUSPICION, MRS. MINIVER and LASSIE COME HOME, for example), she is always such a sweet, dignified marm. Yet that is part of the fun of seeing her play evil here. The sweetest ones sometimes have the hidden agendas.

TB: Whitty had remarkable range. This character is so unlike the cozy dignified roles she was given to play at MGM. It’s a bit startling at first.

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JL: She is dear mommy to Ralph (Macready) whom we are teased as to having a violent streak early on with his delight in sharpening knives. In a nutshell, these two need Julia to pose as Marian so they can inherit a much needed fortune.

When Julia discovers that her own life is also in danger much like the woman she is posing for, she writes a letter to Dennis and manages to get it past. That is, until they quickly catch on and the letter is retrieved in a rather interesting, roundabout way.

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TB: I felt these scenes were rather suspenseful. As well as the scene when she tried to escape in the guests’ car, which I already mentioned. We want her to get away from this crazy bunch.

JL: We all know that crime does not pay and our heroine will succeed in the end. This is a nice, fast-paced woman-in-danger suspense, the kind that was so plentiful in the forties but got overshadowed in succeeding decades by far too many men-in-danger actioners that involved gun shooting and fast cars. The women must always figure their way out of danger by using their brains rather than their brawn.

TB: The film’s relatively short running time makes it better than it probably would have been if they had padded the scenes and stretched it out to 90 minutes. It’s sharply written and edited. There are no wasted moments, no extraneous filler scenes. All films should be made so economically and efficiently.

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MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS may currently be viewed on YouTube.