British Cinema of the 1950s: A Celebration

By Ian MacKillop; Neil Sinyard | Go to book overview

Yield to the Night

MELANIE WILLIAMS

JEAN-LUC GODARD once remarked that all you need to make a film is `a girl and a gun' and the opening sequence of Yield to the Night (J. Lee Thompson, 1956) looks like a textbook illustration of his axiom. The girl is Mary Hilton, played by Diana Dors, who whips out the gun from her handbag and promptly shoots the woman she holds responsible for her lover's suicide. As a result, she finds herself convicted for murder and sentenced to death. Most of the film's action takes place in Mary's condemned cell as she waits to hear if her appeal has been successful and relives her doomed love affair with Jim (Michael Craig) that led to her crime passionel and her arrest. The film, unusually, does not have a happy ending: there is no last-minute reprieve for Mary. The film concludes as she is led away to the gallows.

Yield to the Night is often mentioned in connection with the contemporary case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Although the film's scenario has a number of similarities to the Ellis case (a glamorous blonde murderess, a shooting), it is not, as is sometimes stated, based on it. The screenplay had been written two years before, and the film's appearance in the wake of Ellis's execution was coincidental. Nonetheless, this was a film that sought to enter the contemporary public debate on hanging, and to argue the abolitionist case to as many people as possible, through the medium of popular commercial cinema. What is particularly interesting about Yield to the Night is that it does not deal with a miscarriage of justice, like the later American anti-hanging film I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958). Mary Hilton is definitely guilty of her crime but the film still maintains that it is wrong for the state to hang her. To make a clear case against capital

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I teach film studies at the University of Hull. I have written on British film for the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, the Journal of Popular British Cinema and the Journal of Gender Studies and I am currently completing a doctorate on the representation of women in the 1950s films of J. Lee Thompson. This interest sprang from spending countless afternoons watching the Channel 4 matinee when I should have been doing something more constructive with my time. I also harbour a secret crush on Stanley Baker, especially in Hell Drivers. Melanie Williams

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