Fear of death…
We all have thought of death or dying at some points in our lives and when we do, the fear can be gripping. It really does not matter what you believe in terms of the afterlife, it still scares us. Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown…is it going to hurt, etc.? And on and on. Yea, it’s a gloomy topic, but Yield to the Night, (1956) addresses, and very well I might add, the issue of capital punishment. Death by execution. The movie set against the cold, and grim prison cell in England makes a strong statement against “a life for a life.” It resonated then, as it does today. This film addresses the issue more strongly for condemned women. We have to remember this movie is a child of its time, the 50’s. The thought of women being hanged or fried on a chair for a crime no matter how violent, was too hard for society at the time to bear. The movie was produced in England, which at the time, popular opinion had turned against capital punishment, and England had gone through a number of unpopular executions, one of which was a woman who shot her lover, Ruth Ellis. Some people believe that this movie was loosely based on the Ellis case. However, the director J. Lee Thompson later denied that the movie was based on the Ellis case.
The movie opens with a tour-de-force murder scene. We see an attractive young blond woman, Mary Price Hilton (Diana Dors) shooting another woman mercilessly as the woman leaves her car. She just kept on shooting, and shooting. Talk about a crime of passion, this was one. Mary forgets herself, all moral code went out the window, and she just kept shooting. Can something like this happen to anyone? I thought.
Path of destruction…
We don’t see the trial, but we see Mary’s story in a series of flashbacks. We see her failed romance with Jim. Mary is a married woman, unhappily we gather, and has left her husband for Jim. Jim is a once would-be pianist whose disappointments in life have reduced him to playing in nightclubs as a third rate host. It is in one of these clubs Mary meets Jim and loses herself. Jim is handsome, and “cool.” He’s a hit with women, one of which is Mary’s rival, Lucy. The first thing Mary notices about Lucy are her “high heel shoes.” The things we women notice! Mary falls deeply in love with Jim, but Jim falls fatally in love with Lucy. This just makes Mary’s hatred for Lucy all the more stronger. Lucy is a woman of the world, and has no use for Jim. The colder Lucy grows towards Jim, the faster he begins to fall into a downward spiral. This was just one more disappointment Jim could not handle, and so he commits suicide when Lucy rejects him. As far as Mary was concerned, Lucy was fully responsible for the death of the man she loved, and she was going to see to it she did not get away with it.
The condemned woman’s prison cell scenes in this movie are incredibly realistic down to the door with no handle, which leads into the execution chamber. A door Mary must stare at day in, and day out in a cold, dank cell. And although, we know the horrible crime Mary has committed, you pity her, you understand her, and you can almost feel her anguish. She is afraid of death, she wants to live. Time in a cell can make the most hardened criminal think of his or her actions. Mary has thought a lot, and eventually takes responsibility for the wrong she has done. As the clock moves closer to the hour of her death, we see how this has not only taken a toll on Mary, but also on those charged with guarding her. Matron Barker (Joan Miller) whose calm demeanor cracks, and who gently takes the shell-shocked Mary’s fingers and wraps them around a comforting cup of tea when Mary is denied a “stay of execution,” is a compelling scene. Senior Matron Hill (Olga Lindo) whose hard demeanor finally succumbs to pity as she stroked Mary’s hair, a very moving scene. The philanthropic prison visitor, (Athene Seyler) who brings the beauty of the outside world to Mary by giving her flowers from her garden. She also imparts words of wisdom and comfort to the wayward woman. Matron Hilda MacFarlane, (Yvonne Mitchell) a caring Christian prison guard, who offers Mary a blindfold so that she can sleep in the cell whose light is never turned off. And who tells Mary in her despair, “Have you ever thought that we ALL die, some morning?” Just take a look at Mary’s face when she hears that, even in death, knowing that we are not alone makes a difference.
The most captivating scene in the movie is the last. Mary and two prison guards kneel as the Chaplin reads a portion of scripture and prays. A beautiful ray of sunlight comes through the cell window and reflects a cross on the wall. As if to tell us, all wrongs have been made right. The close-up shots of her standing and walking out the door, the door she stared at for months, to face her death will stay with you for a long time.
I have seen Diana Dors in another film and thought she was pretty good, but I got to say she did an exceptional job in this role as a jilted woman turned killer. I have been spending an awful lot of time watching British classic film and am really taken by some works of realism and depth, this film being one. I find this movie to be more convincing than that of Susan’s Hayward’s “I Want to Live,” which dealt with the same topic. It makes a strong case against capital punishment. It made me wonder. I have always struggled with this issue, but this film made an impact on me. Will taking a life for a life make it all better? Will it deter crime, will it bring the victim back, and is the perpetrator truly being punished for his or her wrong doing? Or will life in prison be a much better punishment? I am afraid I am still conflicted, I truly am. This film is a keeper and you can see it on youtube here!