Women of Twilight (1953) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Brit-Film-Noir-Twilight-SlasherNothing to do with Stephenie Meyer, this stark social drama (aka Twilight Women) was based on Sylvia Rayman’s groundbreaking all-female play. The up-and-coming Lois Maxwell and Laurence Harvey co-star, though the film is dominated by René Ray as unlikely heroine Viviane and Freda Jackson as an evil landlady. It begins in Noirish fashion with a couple of policemen looking for a good-for-nothing crooner and the tortured woman trying to help him escape a murder charge.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“Sluts, all of you, with your rotten little bastards. I took you off the streets, when decent people wouldn’t look at you … And this is how you repay me!”

Viviane eludes the police and heads to a club where her boyfriend Jerry (Laurence Harvey) works (this leads to a brief and very unconvincing sequence as Harvey warbles clearly with somebody else carrying the tune). She wants him to run and offers him the expensive bracelet he gave her to finance an escape – but in typical Noir fashion he knows he is done for, and instead heads straight for the waiting cops. Well, that’s how the film begins – the play however opens with Christine (played by Maxwell in the film), who is clearly meant to be the audience identification figure. She is smart and intelligent, well-spoken and seems to come from middle rather than lower-class background. She recently had a baby and as a result is having trouble finding lodgings – she claims to be married and that her husband is in the US, on business. Nobody believes her though and they are right – at the time ‘illegitimacy’ really was seen as a sin by many and just finding a room to live in could be really hard in an era when ‘Coloureds’ and Irish were routinely turned away. But because Christine really does seem like a respectable sort, we assume (correctly) that the father of her child will actually turn up and make an ‘honest’ woman of her – but it turns out that this is much more than a sop to the conventions of the time, and the very least of her problems …

Women-of-Twilight-01Viv becomes notorious as Jerry’s ‘moll’ and having turned down offers to sell her story to the tabloids, is spurned by polite society so also ends up staying at the lodging house run by Helen Allistair (played by Jackson), who seems kindly in giving space to those women with children unwanted by others. But she takes their ration books as well as rent and exploits the women, who have to all live together in a squalid single room – what they really pay for is the childcare, which is mostly the responsibility of Helen’s partner, the tough, imposing and even scary Jessie (Vida Hope). The film catches up with the play with the arrival of Chris, who becomes friends with Viv, despondent over her boyfriend’s fate as his execution date comes ever nearer (in those days in the UK it was felt that it was cruel to allow too long between sentencing and execution – so hard luck if they made a mistake …), as does the due date for their baby.

“I believe you want her to die”

We get involved in the various activities of the women, who all have babies but no husband. There is the society girl shunned by her family, the factory worker Rosie, who is waiting for her boyfriend to become of age so they can marry, the sweet and down-to-earth Olga, who is clearly something of a prostitute though it is only alluded to (and played to perfection by Dora Bryan). That something sinister is possibly going on emerges when Rosie’s child is held by the hospital for neglect and at this point the character of landlady Helen really takes over as we see her manipulate and abuse her tenants with Jess acting as her ‘muscle.’

Women-of-Twilight-02

The film does a reasonable job of ‘opening out’ the play, which is set entirely in a sub-basement over a four-month period, but does alter its trajectory slightly after its new 10-minute prologue. Viv and her love for bad-boy Jerry (Johnny Stanton in the play) becomes much more of a focus. Unusually her feelings are unconditional but we are still invited to share her grief though we are under no illusions about his guilt. A scene in which she and Jerry talk in prison shortly before he is due to be hanged is fascinating for its equanimity, though it’s a shame that Harvey wasn’t a better thespian. This is very surprising for a film of this vintage and well worth keeping in mind. Otherwise the film is often remarkably faithful to the play, which is also a surprise given its outspoken handling of various hot topics of the time as well as incidents including attacks on pregnant women, baby farming, murder attempts, buried bodies and various elements that might have been considered too strong for cinemagoers of the time. It did get the first British X certificate of its day, meaning that it was strictly for adults but only a few elements have been sanitised, though the decision to cut nearly all of Viviane’s emotional speech first at the end of the first act is a real shame.

Women-of-Twilight-03

Maxwell is very good as the ‘nice’ girl Christine but René Ray and Freda Jackson just mop the floor with all the competition as they duke it out as Helen’s scheming turns to murder. Ultimately this is a story with some kind of redemption and some sort of happy ending too, at least for some of the characters, with most of the evil-doers ultimately punished. This works a little better in the play as the movie rushes things at the final furlough and gives less screen time to Sal, the ‘simple’ girl who can come across as a very clichéd character if not played with enough sympathy and understanding (she is partly just there to help wrap up the plot in the final act, literally holding the key to a long-buried secret). And there are weaknesses to the play too, as you might expect from the debut work of a writer in their mid twenties, especially with Sal and by making the villain rather an unshaded monster. On the other hand, seeing her get what’s coming to her is something you are desperate to see done by the end! But this is still a fascinating work that deserves to be much better known, as is the original play, which in its day was a real ‘succès de scandale’ not least for a shocking sequence when a woman is thrown down a flight of stairs – in the film this still downright upsetting. The movie is also fascinating for its production links to Hammer studios as much of the personnel, including cinematographer Jack Asher and production manager Anthony Nelson-Keys, would all be making their names at the other studio very shortly afterwards.

DVD Availability: The film is currently available on DVD from VCI video in the US under its alternate title, Twilight Women as a double bill with the Lewis Gilbert’s thriller Cosh Boy (also under its US release title, The Slasher). The image quality is OK but rather dank and taken from an old video master rather than a print – but it appears uncut and preserves and delivers an important work, so it more than does the job for now.

Women of Twilight (1953)
Director: Gordon Parry
Producer: Daniel M. Angel
Screenplay: Anatole de Grunwald
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Art Direction: William Kellner
Music: Allan Gray
Cast: Freda Jackson, René Ray, Lois Maxwell, Laurence Harvey, Dora Bryan

Anyone who wants to know anything about the play and the film version really should consult the Wikipedia page as it is largely the work of academic and actor Jonathan Rigby, who also recently directed a revival for the London stage (it will be on again in April 2014 – details can be found at: www.pleasance.co.uk/event/women-twilight).

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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24 Responses to Women of Twilight (1953) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – Thanks as ever for such a thorough, thoughtful and interesting review. I couldn’t help thinking as I read it how much the culture of the times affects the choices for these characters. Among other things, what a fascinating look at that era.

    • Thanks Margot. In fairness I think that the theme of ‘baby farming’ is probably one that belonged more to the Victorian era that postwar britain but this is still a fascinating work (as a play and a film).

  2. Colin says:

    I forgot I have this movie sitting on the shelves. I’ll have to try and give it a spin over the next few days.

    • Really curious to know what you think – I watched not long after seeing a performance of the play so that certainly had an effect. I look forward to watching Joan Collins in Cosh Boy from the second half of the double-bill next!

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    Wow. THis looks pretty interesting. I have never seen or heard of it.

  4. I have mixed views about this film in spite of some very interesting characters not to mention a plot with some worthwhile elements. I owe that to being completely in the dark about this movie or its cast. Your review does, however, make me want to see the play which, alas, isn’t going to be possible. You weighed the film and play very well, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant. It is very much a product of its time as well as aplay about a specific time – it is certainly worth a look and if the film becomes available online I would certainly think it is worth a quick look.

  5. TracyK says:

    The women characters sound interesting. I will add it to the list; it would be great if it was available to stream to sample first.

  6. Colin says:

    Just watched it. Not bad at all.

    I’ll be honest here and say I thought some of the melodrama was a bit heavy but it all comes together quite well. I agree with your criticisms of the rushed nature of the climax and its convenience too. It’s quite satisfying tough, so I wouldn’t want to be too harsh on it. You’re right too about Harvey; I don’t think he was the greatest actor at the best of times, and his relative inexperience draws more attention to that here. However, leaving all that aside, the score was actually the feature that bugged me most. I felt it was too lush and too intrusive, and damaged the mood in places.

    OK, that’s the criticism out of the way. As far as the positives are concerned, Jackson and Ray were first rate and in a class above everyone else. Jackson in particular was extremely malignant and venal, a fine villain. And Jack Asher’s cinematography was a real pleasure. We tend to think of his colorful efforts for Hammer but I have to say his shadowy noirish work here is very memorable – it adds a lot to the movie’s atmosphere and raises the quality substantially.

    So, a number of strong and weak elements on show. All told though, the strengths (the acting of Ray and Jackson & Asher’s photography) were more significant for me. Thanks for bringing this back to my attention – I enjoyed it.

    • Thanks very much Colin, so good to get your take on it – and yes, how could I forget how jarring that score s? All jaunty like a comedy in exteriors and then you get inside and it doesn’t match at all! It is melodramatic and in that sense too a real ‘woman’s picture’ in the generic sense as it was sold then, no question, but it has that pungent whiff of something really nasty and real that elevates it for me.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, there’s plenty of darkness lurking in the shadows, some really quite disturbing themes explored in fact. So although there’s a fair bit of melodrama it’s shrouded in enough pretty biting social comment that it never grows tiresome. And that’s another element that was woven into later Hammer productions, just maybe not quite so obviously.

  7. Yvette says:

    Though I probably won’t be watching this one (no big surprise I think – lately I just don’t have the stamina to deal with ‘grim’), I do thank your another well-written review, Sergio. Oh how I envy your ability to connect the dots. (That’s what I call it anyway.) Something I just cannot get the hang of.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the review Yvette – the play is well worth a look one way or another and as I say, evil is well and duly punished in the end, which helps a lot!

  8. Thanks for the plug, Sergio!
    One small point – Vivianne is not thrown down the stairs in the play. (This would be difficult to achieve without serious damage on an eight-shows-a-week basis!) The text indicates that she is thrown against one of the beds. We thought this a bit feeble so had her flung hard against a wall, which brought the requisite gasp of horror from the audience pretty much every time. (Very gratifying.)
    Also, you mention the film’s connections to Hammer but not to Pete Walker’s HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, made in 1973. Apparently he cast Dorothy Gordon in this film because he had been so affected by her haunting performance in WOMEN OF TWILIGHT. I suppose you could speculate (in fact, I think some people have) that her prison wardress Bates in HOW is her disadvantaged Sal all grown up. I suppose, having been maid-of-all-work in Mrs Allistair’s prison-like north London establishment, it’s a natural progression to end up as a wardress in Mrs Wakehurst’s private women’s prison on the Yorkshire moors!

    • Sorry about that stairs Jonathan – it works so well in the film and assumed you had had to modify it for your production. I most certainly gasped when she got bashed against that pillar (it’s that the sort of thing one should arrange to have done to one’s wife on a regular basis I ask myself?). I would never, in a gazillion years have thought of the Walker in this way … and now it will probably leave me permanently traumatised – thamks :)

  9. Kelly says:

    I’d love to see this on stage. The subject matter sounds well suited to that medium.

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