Trompé Setsuled (setsuled) wrote,
Trompé Setsuled

A Narrow Road That Stops

The other thing Diana Dors and Susan Hayward have in common is that they both received the most acclaim of their careers for portraying women on death row for murder. Dors' came first and is the better film, 1956's Yield to the Night. Made in England nine years before the death penalty was effectively abolished in Britain, and a year after the last woman was executed in Britain, the film strongly reflects a political climate already leaning against execution. The makers of the film attempt to at least look like they're presenting as fair an argument as possible--though Dors being a sex symbol was just one of several elements of propaganda in it. Yet, in arguing for the life of a woman who not only committed murder but never feels sorry for it, the movie creates an effective noir portrait of obsessive, focused madness.

The movies I've seen Dors in have presented her as a bombshell with platinum hair and sexy clothes. She looks that way in flashbacks in Yield to the Night but most of the movie she looks like this:

I wasn't impressed by her performance in previous films but here her minimalist style subtly conveys the introspective psychic numbness of her character as, trapped between the prison's stone walls under the light the guards never turn off, she runs over the events leading up to her conviction over and over. Here is a woman trapped in Sylvia Plath's bell jar.

Mary Hilton (Dors) is obsessively in unrequited love with Michael (Jin Lancaster) who is, in turn, obsessively in unrequited love with Lucy (Mercia Shaw), an older woman, far wealthier than impoverished Michael and Mary. Mary is married to Fred (Harry Hilton) but the two are separated. Michael sleeps with Mary regularly but invariably becomes cold to her afterwards, clearly to anyone watching abusing Mary's obsession.

When Michael commits suicide and addresses his suicide note to Lucy--who couldn't care less--Mary seeks revenge. And despite the fast approaching execution and visits with the priest and a middle aged society woman who urge her to reconsider, Mary never feels sorry for what she did. But she is afraid to die.

The cards are stacked a little in favour of sympathy for Mary--particularly for any heterosexual men watching who probably wouldn't mind an avenging angel with benefits who looked like Diana Dors. And we never even see Lucy's face, she's essentially always an off-screen presence. But the movie is wholly from Mary's perspective, based on a book by Joan Henry who spent eight months in prison herself and frequently wrote about prison experiences. The film was directed by her husband, J. Lee Thompson, who uses Dutch angles and Expressionist lighting in naturalistic locations to show a world filtered through a sense that the regular world is wrong and horrible somehow.

Yvonne Mitchell costars as a prison guard. She's not the only prison worker who feels sympathy for Mary--they all seem to until the death sentence becomes a certainty. Then, Mary notes in voice over, everyone gets a detached look in their eyes when talking to her--she recognises this look because it reminds her of how she felt when she decided she was going to kill someone. But Mitchell seems to interest Mary more for opening up to her a little about her feelings regarding her mother's recent death and the unlikelihood she will ever marry--Mitchell is the only guard who isn't trying to tell Mary how to feel and she doesn't patronise her. The moment where Mitchell says goodbye to her is tremendously effective. But my favourite scene is in the prison yard where Mary looks at a tree and thinks of and recites in voice-over lines from an A.E. Housman poem.

Loveliest of Trees
by A.E. Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Tags: ae housman, capital punishment, death penalty, diana dors, film noir, j lee thompson, joan henry, loveliest of trees, movies, the iliad, yield to the night, yvonne mitchell
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