October 08, 2020
Harrowing prison scenes transfigure this gripping 1956 story of a woman awaiting execution for murder, written just before the hanging of Ruth Ellis
Yield to the Night review – unforgettable death-row drama starring Diana Dors
J Lee Thompson’s gripping capital punishment drama Yield to the Night from 1956 gets a re-release: a Brit noir classic and a unique career achievement for Diana Dors as Mary Hilton, a woman awaiting execution for murder. The events leading up to Mary’s crime are intercut with her jail ordeal, attended by female wardens or “matrons” in the brightly lit cell, whose lights can never be dimmed because of suicide-watch surveillance. It unfolds like an eerie, lucid dream of squalor and shame. I first became aware of this film in 1995 when the Smiths’ Singles album came out, using as cover design the image of Dors gripping (or, ambiguously, caressing) the frame of her bedstead, like the bars of a cell. The final track of that album, incidentally, is There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.
Mary is permitted a black cloth over her eyes to help her sleep, which she grimly compares to the blindfold given to someone in front of a firing squad. She doesn’t mention it, but both Mary and the cinema audience would sense the other comparison: the sentencing judge’s black cap. Mary becomes delirious as she becomes obsessed with all the tiny details in her cell: the scratches on the wall, the sheen of the enamelled tin mug, the painted brickwork, the pattern on the back of the matrons’ playing cards. Thompson’s camera records these details with unforgettable psychopathic precision. Above all, Mary is obsessed with a door in her cell that has no handle on her side. She (and we) are never explicitly told – but Mary realises that she will see that door open only once, and very soon. What lies behind it, horrifyingly, is the gallows platform, as near to hand as an ensuite bathroom.
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