Nothing 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 …
Viv 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.’
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.
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).