A young woman journeys through the streets of central London. When she arrives at her destination, she pulls a gun from her handbag and shoots another woman. We finally see her face in close-up, looking cold and detached, having delivered the fatal gunshots to her victim.
Released in 1956, J Lee Thompson’s Yield to the Night tells the fictional story of Mary Hilton (Diana Dors), who faces the death penalty for murdering the woman she holds responsible for her boyfriend’s suicide. As she awaits news of her appeal, we witness Mary in her cell recalling the events that led to her imprisonment.
It’s a tense and claustrophobic film. Thompson and writer Joan Henry are clear from the outset about their intention: it is not about establishing the guilt or innocence of Mary Hilton; we are in no doubt about her culpability. Rather, Yield to the Night is a rallying cry for social change and the removal of the death penalty. Thompson wanted to put the argument against capital punishment to the public by presenting the issue as a human dilemma. Mary is obviously guilty and yet we can’t help but sympathise with her and believe her punishment to be wrong.
The plot bears a resemblance to the real-life case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain in 1955. But Henry, who herself spent time in prison as a young woman, based the screenplay on her own novel of the same title, published in 1954.
Throughout the film, Mary endures the mundanity of her isolated confinement, caught up in an endless routine while being closely guarded by six female wardens. She hopes for a reprieve, with each day holding the possibility of good news. Never left on her own, but constantly alone with her thoughts, we see this woman slowly crack under the strain. She tries to fight against it but only grows more angry and frustrated. “Conform to the routine and you’ll feel better,” she is told.
But Mary also forms an unlikely bond with the female wardens. They are sympathetic and kind to her in their own individual ways, creating a sense of solidarity. The effect of her experience weighs heavily on those around her. Hanging is never mentioned directly but left uncomfortably unspoken by everyone. The word ‘execution’ is not uttered until the final scenes, when she receives the news that there will be no reprieve granted.
The camerawork is often disorientating, reflecting Mary’s mental state. Sometimes she is framed from ground level or through doorframes, with images reflected in windows or slightly out of focus. The image of Mary peering through the bars of her bed in her starkly lit cell stands out. She obsesses about the sound of footsteps in the corridor, trying to judge whether her time has come.
The feeling of endless waiting and the torment Mary endures is palpable. “I know every mark and blemish of this cell,” she says to herself as she lays in bed. “The light… Why don’t they put out the light?” The distortion of sound and vision becomes more intense as the film counts down to her inevitable fate.
Diana Dors is almost unrecognisable in the lead role, swapping her usual polished look for plain prison clothes and unwashed hair. Hilton is not a wholly sympathetic character. She never repents for her crime and she is often cold towards those who show sympathy towards her. But Dors brings an understated complexity to the role, reflecting both the motivation of her crime and the agony of her situation.
Casting Dors also brought the film to the attention of a wider audience, furthering discussions around the controversial topic of the death penalty at a time of national debate about its future. Ironically, by the time of the film’s release a bill to abolish capital punishment had already been debated in Parliament.
Mary ultimately does not regret her crime, yet towards the end of the film she desperately laments, “I cannot yield to the night… I want to live, I want it more than ever.” In the powerful last moments she looks directly into the camera, as though the viewer is complicit in the outcome of her case. She walks towards us through the door and into the darkness. Mary’s fate is sealed, but Yield to the Night asks us to look into our conscience and consider a different outcome for other women like her.
A newly restored version of Yield to the Night is released on Blu-ray and digital for the first time by StudioCanal on 12 October.
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