A young woman awaiting her execution for murder looks back on the circumstances that led her there.
Very spoilery, if you’ve been trying to avoid them since 1956.
“I don’t think you should write about love unless you’re a poet. It sounds silly,” opines doomed convicted murderer Mary Hilton (Diana Dors), of the stream of supportive letters she receives in prison from estranged husband Fred, a man she left for handsome ne’er-do-well gambler and sometime nightclub piano player Jim Lancaster (Michael Craig).
There’s no reason she shouldn’t say what she thinks; even now women often don’t do that enough and Mary, awaiting her execution, has nothing to lose. But it shows how writer Joan Henry and director J. Lee Thompson have created in Mary a character without easy get-outs for us to take her side. Yield To The Night is about the wrongness of capital punishment in itself; if you think it’s wrong, it’s wrong regardless of the actions or demeanour of the person condemned.
Mary is sometimes unlikeable but always sympathetic. Some of the film’s commentary is short and to the point — a prison warder points out that killing Mary won’t bring her victim back — but most of its exploration of the death penalty is in the flashbacks leading up to Mary’s crime, and her final two and a half weeks in her cell.
It’s a stunning film, its oppressive sadness feeling like a physical weight by the last devastating yet wholly inevitable scenes. That heaviness was not what I was expecting when Ray Martin’s melodramatic, anticipatory score burst forth in the first moments as Mary set off to commit murder.
She kills the wealthy Lucy Carpenter, Jim’s great love, in cold blood; long after Jim has died by suicide, gassing himself in his rented room. Mary shoots Lucy dead not because Lucy was in love with Jim but because she wasn’t. Just as Mary was someone for Jim to dangle on a string, so Jim was a plaything for Lucy. Mary’s motive is revenge, seeing Lucy as responsible for Jim’s death.
In one big way Yield To The Night wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. After decades believing this was the first filmed version of the real life story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged by the State in Britain, I discovered that their similarities were actually all coincidence.
The rumour resurfaced when Dance With A Stranger, starring Miranda Richardson as Ellis and Rupert Everett as her lover David Blakeley, was released in 1985. Yield To The Night came out in 1956 though, and was based on a book by Henry that had already been published when Ellis shot Blakeley in 1955.
Yield to The Night is also, and this time rightly, seen as the film that showed the British cinema-going public exactly what its star Diana Dors could do when given the right material; considering how cliche-busting it is, I feel I should therefore refrain from phrases like “searing indictment” even though that is exactly what it is, in terms of Britain’s use of capital punishment.
(Bizarrely, in America it was known as Blonde Sinner, playing on the very reputation Dors was presumably trying to escape. Though even the British publicity goes for a gleeful melodrama that doesn’t show up in the movie itself: “Would you hang this girl?” screams the tagline, presumably a rhetorical question rather than a request.)
It is unbearably sad, and unbearably tense, as she and we wait for the footsteps along the corridor that could be the prison governor bringing news of a reprieve from the Home Secretary; Mary knows such news would be communicated to her instantly, day or night. She waits with desperate hope, before that too is snatched away and then she’s counting down the days to her own death.
We are witnesses to a process usually kept secret behind high walls, which makes Mary’s lack of privacy within those walls all the more striking. She’s always surrounded by warders in her cell, playing cards or chess at the table. The lights are permanently on, so she has to wear a black cloth over her eyes to sleep, a foretaste of the blindfold she will wear at her execution. We are spying on Mary long before she gets to her cell though, peering at her through central London stone balustrades and from behind statues in the film’s first scenes.
Striking too, when we often assume people in Britain’s past were more censorious and authoritarian, is the compassion shown to Mary by almost everyone: warders; the prison chaplain; the elderly Miss Bligh, her anti-capital punishment, Christian prison visitor; Fred; and strangers signing a petition to have her sentence commuted.
Systems can be accidentally inhuman though. There’s a bleakly comical continuation of ordinary tasks, the “life goes on” boring rituals that are so jarring to someone about to die. Having her fingernails clipped, and a wound on her foot treated, while being informed that if it’s dressed each day in a few days it will be gone — in a few days Mary will be dead, but at least her foot will be fine.
Feet actually play a big part in Thompson’s film. The first scenes focus on Mary’s feet as she taps through pigeons in central London on her way to murder Lucy, who, luxuriously dressed in a fur-trimmed coat, herself taps along the cobbles of her wealthy London mews. In a flashback Lucy appears in Mary’s shop, and Mary comments on her beautiful suede heels.
The flashbacks mean Yield To The Night never turns into a dreary slog even though it’s often drenched in sadness at the pointlessness of it all. Mary’s grim last days are offset by Mary thoroughly enjoying herself, an independent girl about town, until she meets Jim in a club.
Dors is terrific as Mary, her anger and terror often making her mock others; shock and dread take her partially out of herself, leaving her a wry observer of the behaviour of people around her. Her beauty is part of it. In the flashbacks she’s elegantly dressed on her boutique shopgirl wage, tiny-waisted, platinum blonde, with bee-stung lips. Later in her cell, after the trauma of the trial and sentence, she seems both aged and childishly petulant.
Yvonne Mitchell delivers a finely judged performance as Matron Macfarlane, a spinster who missed out on her chance to marry. She is surely partly in love with Mary, her warm concern turning into something more personal as Mary’s execution draws near. When Mary refuses to see her own mother and brother, Macfarlane, holding on to her trying to calm her down, looks as if she wants to kiss her. Later as Mary lies distressed in bed on her last night on Earth, the warder hugs her as she cries. The next morning Macfarlane says a quiet goodbye as her shift ends, knowing Mary is about to die; she’s a woman used to loss.
Always inescapable is the locked door between Mary’s cell and the execution room. There is no handle, as it’s opened from the other side, and Mary can’t escape it, the pathway between this world and the next. It’s also the symbol for the darkness that is in everyone; one wrong decision — if only Jim had never turned up in the boutique where Mary worked, wanting to buy perfume — can take someone down a new and dangerous path. On the morning of her death she prays with the chaplain before walking into the dark room, the door closing behind them.
Yield To The Night is available on DVD, blu-ray and digital: