❉ A bold and uncompromising classic of British 1950s cinema, with social justice at its heart.
“Dors brings an understated complexity to the role, reflecting both the motivation of her crime, and the agony of her situation.. She is almost unrecognisable in the lead role, swapping her usual sexually alluring look for plain prison clothes and unwashed hair. Her performance is a tour de force, the highlight of her fascinating acting career.”
Yield to the Night (1956), the pioneering social drama from director J. Lee Thompson, is a fascinating portrait of an individual whose life hangs acutely in the balance. The film, which has been remastered and released on Blu-ray and digital for the first time by StudioCanal, tells the fictional story of Mary Hilton (Diana Dors), a young woman facing the death penalty for murder after she shoots another woman. Throughout the film, we witness her recalling the events that led up to her imprisonment as she awaits news of her final fate.
Mary’s story is told in a series of flashbacks, as we see her meet Jim (Michael Craig) and fall in love with him. Already married, she leaves her husband, only for Jim to become disinterested. He is in love with another woman, Lucy. But Jim is Lucy’s plaything. She does not want him; in the same way he does not want Mary. Jim’s obsession for Lucy drives him to suicide. Mary’s love for Jim drives her to take revenge for his death and shoot Lucy dead in a premeditated act of retribution. Through Mary’s story we see that love can be all-consuming. Heartache can drive a person to extremes, especially if that person is taken away from you.
From the opening shots of the film, we are in no doubt about Mary’s guilt. We witness the build up to her crime, as she we see we see her journey anonymously through the streets of central London. When she arrives at her destination, she calmly takes a gun from her handbag and fires it at her victim in broad daylight. As shocked passers-by react, we finally see Mary’s face in close-up, looking coldly on having delivered the fatal gunshots.
The enduring power of Yield to the Night is found in the scenes within the four bare walls Mary’s condemned prison cell. Throughout the film, Mary endures the claustrophobia of her isolated confinement, bound by the endless routine, and closely guarded by six female wardens on rotation. She hopes for a reprieve, with each day holding the possibility of news of it. Never left alone, but constantly isolated with her thoughts, we see her slowly unravel under the pressure as she tries to fight against the system which keeps her there. The feeling of endless waiting and the torment Mary endures is palpable and uncompromising.
But Mary also forms an unlikely bond with the female prison wardens. Forced together continuously, we get to know their individual personalities and habits. They are sympathetic and kind to Mary in their own unique ways, creating a sense of female solidarity and heart. But the effect of her experience weighs heavily on those around her.
Yield to the Night is a tense and claustrophobic film. Lee Thompson and writer Joan Henry are clear from the start about its intention to highlight the issue of capital punishment. The film is a rallying cry for social change and the removal of the death penalty. Lee Thompson wanted to bring the argument against to a wider audience, by presenting the issue as a powerful but personal human story.
The plot of the film shares a more than passing resemblance with the true story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain in 1955. But Henry, who herself had been in prison as a young woman, based the screenplay for Yield to the Night on her own novel of the same title, published in 1954. But whereas the Ellis case was often portrayed as a victim of a miscarriage of justice, a heat of the moment crime of passion, Mary Hilton is presented very differently. She is obviously guilty of premeditated murder and deserves her sentence, yet we feel sorry for her and believe the punishment inflicted to be wrong. This makes the film, and the case for abolition of the death penalty, even more powerful.
Mary is not a wholly sympathetic character. She never repents for her crime and she is often cold towards those who show sympathy and love towards her. But Dors brings an understated complexity to the role, reflecting both the motivation of her crime, and the agony of her situation, meaning the audience is not without sympathy for her despite her callous actions. She is almost unrecognisable in the lead role, swapping her usual sexually alluring look for plain prison clothes and unwashed hair. Her performance is a tour de force, the highlight of her fascinating acting career.
Casting Dors also meant the film came to the attention of a wider audience, furthering discussions around the controversial topic of the death penalty at a time of national debate about its future. Ironically, by the time of the film’s release in 1956 a bill to abolish capital punishment had been debated in Parliament. The resulting Homicide Act of 1957 introduced a partial reform of the law on the use of the death penalty in the case of murder, and paved the way for further changes. Capital punishment was eventually suspended in the UK in 1969.
In addition to the restored film, bonus features of the new release include an interview with actor Michael Craig, and valuable insight from film historian and author Melanie Williams which highlights the importance of the film in the context of British cinema, and wider popular culture.
Yield to the Night is still an incredibly powerful film. It is uncompromising in its portrayal of a woman on the edge, and the futility of the situation she is enduring. By presenting the subject so starkly, it asks the audience to look to their own personal conscience and moral judgement. A bold and effective way to bring such sensitive subject matter to the screen.
DVD / Blu-Ray Extras
❉ New: Interview with Michael Craig
❉ NEW Interview with Melanie Williams, film historian and author
❉ Film Fanfare – no 12 – Diana Dors interview(1956)
❉ Film Fanfare – no 19 – Yield to the Night Premiere (1957)
❉ Behind the scenes stills gallery
❉ ‘Yield to The Night’ (STUDIOCANAL Vintage Classics Collection) was released on DVD, Blu-Ray & Digital on October 12, 2020 by STUDIOCANAL Vintage Classics Collection. Cert: 15 (UK), 12 (EIRE) / Total Running Time: 100mins.
❉ UK-based arts and culture writer Anna Cale’s new biography of Diana Dors, The Real Diana Dors, will be published in 2021.
Yield to the night interview clips (Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL)