Turn the Key Softly (1953)
“An Intimate Study in Passion and Suspense…!”
Director: Jack Lee
Cast: Yvonne Mitchell, Terence Morgan, Joan Collins
Synopsis: Three women’s first day of freedom after their release from prison.
Three woman from vastly different backgrounds are each released from Holloway prison on the same day, and Jack Lee’s modest little movie follows their exploits during their first hours of freedom. Monica Marsden, played with graceful reserve by the talented Yvonne Mitchell, is the pivotal character around whom the other two seem to revolve, even though their paths only cross once, at a pre-arranged dinner, after their release.
The early scenes quickly establish the characters of the three women. Monica is middle class, speaks with a cultured (but not posh) accent, and is the last sort of woman you’d expect to find in Holloway; Stella, played by a youthful — and incredibly beautiful — Joan Collins, is a vain and fickle girl whom, we are left to infer, has been inside for prostitution, although the movie is careful to avoid any mention of the word or practice itself. The last of the three is Granny Quilliam (Kathleen Harrison), an ageing working class woman who has been in and out of prison on a number of occasions for shoplifting. Quite how these three would become friends who would bother to keep in touch upon their release from prison is never explained, but Monica invites the other two to join her for dinner later that day.
The three women go their separate ways at the prison gates. Stella is met by her unlikely fiance Bob (Glyn Houston), a bus conductor, who gives her three quid to find herself some digs in Cannonbury until they can get married the following week. But while Bob returns to work, Stella heads to the West End where she blows the three quid on a pair of flashy ear-rings. Granny Quilliam heads back to the East End where she is grudgingly given her old room back by her landlady (Thora Hird) and reunited with her mangy mutt, Johnny. Meanwhile, Monica moves in with a friend and quickly finds herself work in an office. Returning home from her interview, she finds David (Terence Morgan) waiting at her door, and we learn that he was the man who seduced her into a life of crime then deserted her when the police showed up. Now he’s back, and it’s not long before he’s coaxed Monica straight back into bed.
The dinner enjoyed by these three women serves as the catalyst for the defining events that close the movie to varying degrees of satisfaction. One character meets a tragic end, while the second faces a fairly uncertain future and the third finally finds the strength to turn her back on a life of crime. The rigid class structure still in place in Britain in the 1950s pretty much dictates which character will meet each fate, and while the movie makes a call for the fair treatment of female ex-prisoners trying to keep on the straight and narrow in an increasingly frenzied world, it also pretty much reaffirms social opinions that had been entrenched in the collective consciousness since the days of the Empire.
Although Kathleen Harrison’s is arguably the most sympathetic of the characters and she gives an affecting performance in the part, Granny is also perhaps a little too much of a stereotype to make a positive impression. We know what her criminal specialty will be before we even get to know her, and the inherent sadness of her lifestyle means a tragic end is all but inevitable. Collins’ Stella, a tarty young brass whose yearning for a more opulent life fails to conceal her cheap and vulgar tastes, is the exact opposite of Granny in that she has no real frame of reference within the real world. An impulsive, pretty young girl, presumably a prostitute, who is genuinely in love with a poor and modest bus conductor just doesn’t ring true for a minute, and her story ends with us never really believing that she has truly reformed. By the same measure, Monica seems too intelligent and self-aware to have been hoodwinked by such an oily con man as David in the first place, and to be so easily fooled by him a second time.
As a character study, Turn the Key Softly barely rises above the quality of a B-movie due to this inconsistency of behaviour in two of the three women, and the predictability of the story of the third. It does succeed in making us care about what happens to them — even the largely unlikeable Stella — however, and benefits from great performances from all three actresses. The film itself provides some wonderfully atmospheric shots of London in the early mid-1950s, and even delivers a well-constructed police chase on the roof of a theatre which, while out of place with the tone of the rest of the movie, provides us with a satisfying fate for one of the movie’s least likeable characters.
Turn the Key Softly is one of those difficult to see titles which means that when it doesn’t show up on a TV schedule or in a bargain bin some might almost feel obliged to view it. You probably won’t be disappointed if you do — it’s solidly crafted, and at just 77 minutes is too short to outlive its welcome — but it probably won’t leave much of an impression once you have.
(Reviewed 27th August 2013)