Saturday, December 31, 2011
New Year's Eve with Diana Dors
The Siren didn't get you a Christmas present. Or a Hanukkah gift, or a Kwanzaa offering, or anything else, and she's sorry, because she loves you all, she does. So here's her gift to you, for New Year's: a link. Click right here and watch the 1956 British noir/social drama, Yield to the Night, in its entirety. The movie stars Diana Dors and was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who went on to helm Ice Cold in Alex, Cape Fear and Guns of Navarone. It's on Region 2 (and was screened a couple of years ago at the Film Forum) but isn't available on DVD here in the U.S. The link was given to the Siren by the generous gentleman named Dan Leo. And now she passes it along.
The Siren warns you, because she can’t deal with the guilt if she doesn’t, that this downbeat movie will not have anyone clinking the champagne glasses. Still, it does have a New Year’s Eve angle--basically, a PSA--which the Siren will note in due course. But at some point soon, please, carve 90-some-odd minutes out of your schedule and watch. Then come back and read this post.
Did you do it? Good. If you didn't, oh, what the hell; this movie is not about plot twists.
Whoever programmed for the PBS Alabama affiliate during the Siren’s girlhood had a raging obsession with a children’s movie called The Amazing Mr. Blunden, or perhaps had acquired a royalty-paying interest in it. Whatever, the (wo)man threw Blunden on the schedule on a regular basis. The Siren and her sister saw Mr. Blunden so many times we'd talk back to the screen in Bama-bred British that would have had Tom Shone grimacing in pain: "Tew layte, Mistah Blunden! Yew're awwlways tew layte!"
The Amazing Mr. Blunden meant Young Siren thought Diana Dors was a character actress who looked like this
and it was a few years before she found out that au contraire, Dors spent her time at the top looking like this:
Dors has a small part in David Lean's towering version of Oliver Twist and a larger one in A Kid for Two Farthings, Carol Reed's entry in that great genre, "Cry Your Eyes Out Over an Animal.” Neither movie prepared the Siren for Yield to the Night. It was Dors' big acting break and, despite the way her career played out, melancholy proof that she deserved other parts as good as this one.
Yield to the Night boasts a pre-credits opening that starts with a shot of a woman’s feet, surrounded by pigeons, seamed stockings tapering down into high heels. We follow her as though spying, the camera crouching and peering from behind fountains, through banisters and gates. She gets into a taxi and when she emerges we see the back of her platinum head and the sway of her coat with each step. Her black-gloved hand tries a key in an ornate door as a chrome-trimmed car pulls up. The ominous, drumming soundtrack gives way to the cocktail-ready music on the car’s radio as this mink-clad woman’s foot is shown, shoeless on the gas pedal. She slides her elegant pump back on and walks around the front of the car. Through the windows of another parked car, we watch her lean through the open window to gather her packages from the day’s shopping. The mink lady opens her front door, the one we just saw. The blonde’s feet are reflected in a hubcab before we move up to her little cloth clutch, and she takes out what we’ve surely been expecting--a gun. The mink lady reaches through the car window for more packages, and the blonde fires into her back. Then, finally, we get a good look at the face of the blonde as she continues to fire and the victim collapses.
And what do you know--the blonde is Diana Dors, tossing the gun pointedly between the mink lady’s prostrate legs. As people rush to the scene, there’s a zoom to that sensual face as Dors savors the one moment of heavily qualified triumph this character is ever going to get. The expression begins to dissolve into apprehension almost right away, as a man looks up at her in bewilderment.
A socko opening, worthy of being compared to Wyler’s version of The Letter.
As soon as the credits are over, here’s our blonde in prison. No trial scenes--they would be silly anyway, since Mary Hilton (Dors) didn’t exactly try to commit the perfect murder. Yield to the Night is not a whodunit, but on one level a whydunit, Hilton’s time on the British Death Row alternating with flashbacks to show How She Came to This, a noirish backstory combined with chilling prison scenes.
The film quickly establishes prison’s relentless infantilization of the condemned woman. The male chaplain and lawyer call the prisoner “Mrs. Hilton” and talk to her in an optimistic head-patting way that they clearly don’t even buy themselves. But to the women who guard her, Mary is “Hilton,” like a schoolgirl. Regal-featured Yvonne Mitchell plays the guard, Hilda MacFarlane, who forms the closest bond with Mary. In her first scene, MacFarlane fetches sleeping tablets, prescribed to get Hilton through the first night of knowing she’ll be hanged in less than three weeks. Then she lays a black cloth across Mary’s eyes; the lights in the cell are always on, probably to prevent Hilton from using darkness to cheat the hangman.
Hilton can’t choose her books or her pastimes, she can’t even cut her own nails. The guards do it for her while she sits in the bath, perfect skin gleaming with water, arm passively outstretched, in a recurring image that evokes both the birth of Venus and the death of Marat. Yet Hilton still tries to claw back life’s decisions; one of the first things she says to the guards is a peevish, “I don’t want any cocoa.” She demands to go to bed early, she sweeps chess pieces onto the floor, she must be coaxed to eat. Hilton can flash resentment at reminders of her fate, such as late in the movie, when a hapless substitute guard tries to go through the door--always shut and elaborately ignored--that leads to the execution chamber. Dors’ expression and her acid “Not that one” are more frightening than her demeanor when committing murder. Other times, she relishes reminding the guards of their ghoulish duties, telling MacFarlane that a black cloth over the eyes is what you’d put on someone facing a firing squad. The guards fuss over Hilton, making sure she wears her cloak on cold walks, keeping her inside during inclement weather, cleaning and bandaging her blistered heel; it’s an all-female world of denial and futility.
The flashbacks show Mary as a white-hot beauty who asserts herself less than does Hilton, the bare-faced, straw-haired, sullen prisoner. She meets the agent of her doom, the feckless, handsome Jim (Michael Craig), and falls in love with him almost immediately. Mary doesn’t care that at their first encounter, Jim is selecting a bottle of her favorite perfume (“Christmas Rose”) as a gift for another woman. As her affection for Jim grows, his interest wanes, as it always does with such men. All he wants is an easy road to an easy life. Mary--already married and stuck with a dead-end job in a dead-end postwar Britain--can’t give it to him.
The attempts to hold him become frantic after he dumps Mary for the rich woman she’ll eventually shoot dead in the street. Despite his essential worthlessness, Jim is educated, a piano player with copies of poetry lying around his dingy flat. He pretends the books are leftovers from school, but Mary doesn’t believe him. There is, in this wastrel, a thread that she could pick up to a life that isn’t just days behind a counter and evenings with panting men. Those loud, vulgar suitors aren’t altogether bad sorts; they treat her with some kindness, certainly more than she receives from Jim. But Dors’ face as she looks at her lover shows yearning not just for him, but for something beyond the seediness.
At the time she made Yield to the Night, Dors herself was married to a man who could be charitably described as not worth the trouble. The Siren wonders if that parallel ever crossed the actress’s mind, or if she was too in thrall to her husband to note the coincidence. Dors’ looks were extraordinary, a boneless oval face dominated by extravagant lips that today’s actresses spend thousands failing to achieve. And her figure, mamma mia; not to mention that the fashion in British underpinnings was evidently less confining than on our side of the Atlantic. In any event, the Siren finds Dors as strong in the flashbacks as she is in the harsher prison scenes, because Dors makes you believe that a woman who looks like that would still obsess over a man who doesn’t want her. Now of course, this happens in real life all the time; but on screen, many’s the sex symbol who would have a hard time selling that kind of self-abnegation.
The climax of the flashbacks comes on New Year’s Eve, as Mary, ravishing in a white lace dress that she spent her last cent on, waits by the telephone for Jim’s call. And here is the New Year’s PSA: if you are thinking of standing someone up for the first time in 2012, watch this scene and repent. If at some point in your dissipated existence, you already stood up someone, watch this scene, then go to your room and think about what you did.
Movies that stack the deck in favor of an obvious social message seem to fare badly with critics these days, but the Siren simply doesn’t care as long as the drama works; and Yield to the Night is a striking movie whatever your beliefs. In 2006 film scholar Melanie Williams paid tribute in The Independent; she quoted director Thompson: "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." The filmmakers were aided by real life; the release of the movie came shortly after the execution of Ruth Ellis, a case later dramatized in Dance With a Stranger. (If you scroll down, there is a good account of the Ellis case at this marvelous London history blog, including an ineffably creepy photo of the bullet holes she left, visible to this day on the wall of a Hampstead pub.)
Yield to the Night is often described as a fictionalized account of the Ellis case, but that isn’t correct. Joan Henry wrote the book and screen treatment several years before Ellis committed murder. Henry herself had served eight months in two prisons for unknowingly passing a bad check, and she spent years afterward campaigning for prison reform, even making an earlier movie with Thompson, The Weak and the Wicked. That film also starred Dors. In a final, cold coincidence, Ellis and Dors knew each other from Ellis’ brief work on a more typical Dors vehicle, Lady Godiva Rides Again.
Life, then, conspired at the time to give Yield to the Night a ghastly relevance. Williams compares its effect to Orwell’s essay on witnessing a hanging, where “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.” More than fifty years on, watching Diana Dors’ last bits of physical affection--a few seconds spent picking up a cat in a prison yard--the Siren still found the movie relevant. She wishes it weren’t.