Horrendously mistitled Blonde Sinner in the US the 1956 adaptation of Joan Henry’s Yield to the Night scripted by the author herself and John Cresswell, is a powerful and poignant portrait of a woman paying the unlimited price for a crime she felt compelled to commit.
Opening with a wonderfully shot voyeuristic sequence showing the slaying itself we are then taken with the killer Mary Hilton (Diana Dors) straight to a women’s prison where we witness the mundane and monotonous routine she must perform in the run up to her punishment.
Trapped in her cell with two prison guards at all times who work shift patterns Mary awaits what lies behind the door at the end of her bed, a door which leads to the gallows and her death. Tortured by the ticking clock counting down till her hanging she dreams of reprieve and ruminates on the past and the events that led her to cold blooded murder.
Released by Studiocanal on a 4K Blu-ray scanned and restored from the original negative Yield to the Night is a rare British addition to the Death Row genre populated with saccharine over acted Hollywood movies such as The Green Mile and Dead Man Walking.
In fact it may be hard for younger audiences to imagine a time when the UK had a death penalty however the last man to be executed was in 1964 while the last woman Ruth Ellis was hung in 1955 and many mistakenly believe Yield to the Night was a loose adaptation of her case even though Joan Henry’s book was published the year before.
Directed by Ice Cold in Alex’s J. Lee Thompson what works so well is the balance between showing Mary’s crime and her punishment, a format often abandoned by films of this genre that would only use the prison as a wrap around taking us to if for a shocking start and overly dramatic climax.
Prison life in England in the 50’s is not what many might expect with the female guards serving almost as hand maidens to Mary, washing and helping her sleep, sitting with her and protecting her ironically as much from herself as the outside world. The guards become her surrogate family, her confidants and her only friends as the visitors Mary receives seem only to upset and anger her. During the film both the characters and audience get caught up in what looks almost like a peaceful and idyllic life behind the prison walls until the reality of Mary’s crime and impending death catch up with them all, causing the fantasy to come crashing down.
By forcing the audience to witness Mary’s final weeks we also get to understand her as she rants and raves, submits and rebels, gives in and retreats into herself all the while avoiding the increasing realisation that she may not be freed.
Nominated for 3 BAFTAs and The Cannes Palm D’or in its original release Yield to the Night is hugely important as one of the few female led 50s drama, both in terms of the story and the fact it was written by a woman it has been described as one of the only ‘Angry Young Woman’ films working as an alternate viewpoint to the male tales of working class emotional unrest.
At the centre of the whole film and featuring in nearly every scene is Diana Dors, an actress often overlooked throughout her career due to her looks which got her written off as a blonde bombshell rather than a serious performer. Giving a performance more powerful than seen in many modern day dramas Dors is exceptional in the role taking us through a tour de force of emotions and integrity.
Dors importance to the effectiveness of the film cannot be over stated as the audience must believe not only her actions and motivations in murder but the emotional, psychological and spiritual toll taken from her during her incarceration and the true tragedy of the whole story.
A dramatic masterpiece made all the more poignant and important by its female focus and fantastic central performance Yield to the Night is a perfectly made prison movie taking the top spot in the often overlooked and ignored genre of British capital punishment movies.
Diana Dors on Yield to the Night: