Fifty years ago this week, a very important British film went on release. It was critically acclaimed, greeted with rapturous applause at Cannes and was even specially screened to members of the House of Lords - but you'll struggle to find any anniversary celebrations in its honour. You can't even get the film on DVD. Indeed, if J Lee Thompson's Yield to the Night is recalled at all today, it is as a fictionalised version of the real-life case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
But even this is not strictly correct; the film's writer, Joan Henry, Thompson's wife and a former jailbird herself, had written the first treatment of the film several years before Ellis carried out her killing. The film's appearance in the immediate wake of Ellis's execution was coincidental, and yet at the same time there was an eerie confluence between these fictional and real-life tales of crimes passionnels, mainly due to the casting of Diana Dors in the role of the murderess awaiting the gallows. Dors, Britain's most unapologetically glitzy star in the age of austerity, bore more than a passing resemblance to the glamorous blonde nightclub hostess Ellis.
Cheekily describing herself as "the only sex symbol Britain has had since Lady Godiva", and at this point best known for a publicity stunt that saw her punting down the Grand Canal in Venice clad only in a mink bikini (she later admitted with characteristic candour that it was actually made from rabbit fur), Dors grabbed this rare opportunity to show off her seldom-required acting ability and willingly underwent a process of total deglamorisation to play the condemned woman, swapping furs and jewels for prison-issue calico, wiping off her elaborate maquillage and foregoing the attentions of celebrity hairdresser Raymond "Teasy-Weasy" Bessone to let her dark roots show through the usually immaculate platinum blond. Picturegoer magazine was certainly impressed with the transformation, heading its review of the film with a surprised, and rather delighted, proclamation: "YES - Dors CAN act without her mink."
If Dors got a showcase for her acting rather than her other more obvious charms, then the film-makers also got something out of the bargain: a popular personality to entice audiences along to what might otherwise have been an unappealing prospect - a social problem film set for much of its running time in the 18x12ft dimensions of the condemned woman's cell. However, this apparent mismatch between star and subject-matter did make for some strange inconsistencies in the promotion of the film. While the studio publicity material encouraged cinemas to stage debates about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, it also went in for more traditional ballyhoo as well, suggesting a "contest to find the girl who most resembles Miss Dors in face and figure. Prize: a washing machine!" And had they cast another actor in the lead, the film might not have been luridly retitled The Blonde Sinner for the American market.
All the same, Yield to the Night marked a notable break from the breezy bonhomie of most British productions of the period: no Kenneth More winning the war all over again or going on a jolly jaunt in a vintage car here. Instead, the film dared to engage with the darker elements of 1950s society and refused to compromise, allowing its heroine no last-minute reprieve from her fate, instead closing on a heart-breaking final close-up of her face, numb with horror as she's led away to the gallows, before cutting away to her unfinished cigarette still smouldering in the ashtray while its smoker is herself being extinguished.
In the face of overwhelming public support for capital punishment, Yield to the Night attempted to make a case for the abolition of hanging within the format of popular film. And, decades before Dead Man Walking, it focused not on a miscarriage of justice, but on the final days of someone who is guilty of her crime, even going as far as showing us the murder being committed in a gripping pre-credits sequence (one of the first of its kind in British cinema). Thompson was clear in his defence of his tactics: "For capital punishment you must take somebody who deserves to die, and then feel sorry for them and say this is wrong. We did that in Yield to the Night: we made it a ruthless, premeditated murder."
But the film is not just laudable in its campaigning aims: it's also a striking piece of work aesthetically, with Thompson showing the first clear signs of the directorial talent that would flourish in later films such as Ice Cold in Alex (1958), Tiger Bay (1959) and Cape Fear (1962). Yield to the Night oscillates between the claustrophobic world of the prison, defined by grim routine and lightened only by the odd kindnesses of the warders, and the outside world, recollected in flashback by Mary Hilton, the character played by Dors, as she reflects on how she ended up committing a murder and tries to forget the words from an A E Housman poem that keep reverberating in her head and reminding her of the death by hanging that awaits her in a few days: "And since to look at things in bloom, fifty springs is little room/ About the woodland I will go, to see the cherry hung with snow."
There are some astonishing and memorable moments in the film: a dream sequence that contains a nightmarish shot of Mary holding out the skirts of her prison nightdress and smiling at an unseen presence, like a little girl proudly showing off her party frock, before she seems to remember where she is and her smile suddenly vanishes; Mary's flash of sullen anger when the warder who has taught her to play chess sets out a game for the two of them to play, prompting a sudden furious outburst - "I'm sick of everything being arranged. I don't understand this game and I never will! I don't want to learn!" - as she sweeps the chess-pieces off the table, scattering them across the cell; the queasy irony in the fact that so much attention is paid to the blister on Mary's heel (got from wearing prison-issue shoes) with careful daily bathing and bandaging of the wound, so that the state can be sure it's sent a perfectly healthy body to its death.
The film is the cinematic equivalent of George Orwell's famous essay on witnessing a hanging, in which it's only when he sees the condemned man do something as simple as walk around a puddle to avoid getting his feet wet on the way to the scaffold, a tiny, futile gesture of self-preservation on the brink of death, that Orwell is struck by the "unspeakable wrongness" of what is about to happen.
For today's viewers, the film also offers a satisfying evocation of a pinched, dreary post-war world, with its forlorn landscape of dingy bed-sits and seedy piano bars. With such cultish attractions, it's little wonder that Morrissey seems so fond of Yield to the Night, having used a still from the film on The Smiths' Singles album cover and as a stage backdrop. Just like his beloved filmA Taste of Honey, Yield to the Night presents another passionate young woman who wants more from life than it is willing to offer her, and Dors fits beautifully into Moz's wistful gallery of thwarted but feisty British glamour girls, along with Pat Phoenix, Yootha Joyce and Viv Nicholson.
Other important cultural breakthroughs of the Fifties have had prominent anniversary celebrations: Look Back in Anger has already generated a serialised biography of its author, a three-part TV documentary and countless articles considering the play's cultural impact; more specific to British cinema, the documentary shorts of the Free Cinema movement, which launched the careers of directors such as Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, has been honoured with a special DVD box-set and a season at the NFT. It's time we made a little space to celebrate the courageous aims and artistic achievement of Yield to the Night, which features a rare depiction of an "angry young woman" at a time when the Angry Young Man was the height of fashion. At the very least, can someone bring it out on DVD?
The writer is a lecturer in film studies at the University of HullReuse content