Turn the Key Softly is a British film drama directed by Jack Lee that was released back in 1953, which I stumbled upon by looking at whats on the Talking Pictures schedules here in the UK ( a goldmine of great, classic movies you wouldn’t ordinarily see, certainly not on the mainstream networks). The film is a morality play at heart, telling the story of three women of rather different social backgrounds who are released from Holloway Prison early one wintry morning and which follows them for roughly 24 hours, documenting their various struggles to ‘stay straight’ and reject various temptations to slip back into crime.
I found the film absolutely enthralling, part of this because of its glimpse of a post-war London, and of a British way of life back then that is lost to us now- in some ways its like a science fiction movie set in some alien world, albeit rather familiar. The old fashions, the old decor, the old sensibilities, for good or ill (everyone smoking, even in restaurants). Its a feast for the eyes, old cars/buses/lorries/fire engines, side streets deserted of traffic, old-fashioned street corner pubs; I have a suspicion one could lose oneself in films such as this, a kind of dangerous nostalgia running through it that was likely unintended when it was made. It may have been a myth of the film, but its so endearing to see approachable English bobbies standing on street corners, or within earshot of a whistle for help, so many of them rushing to assistance during a robbery. Maybe it was never really like that, I don’t really know, but its such a fascinating, comforting thing to see and an indication of how life here seems to have gotten so much worse. I’d like to think of it as an honest representation of what London was like back then, because the film does seem very realistic and compassionate in its story and characters, its almost a docudrama that skirts the boundaries of film noir. The black and white cinematography is exquisite, capturing the grittiness of the streets layered in damp and cold (you can clearly see the breath from characters mouths as they talk caught in the light) and you really get a sense of the cold early-morning light of short days and neon-drenched winter-evening streets. The film looks and feels very real.
The cast is wonderful: the film graced by three very strong performances from its female leads, which rather makes it a surprisingly modern-feeling film in some ways. A very young Joan Collins plays Stella Jarvis, a Cockney beauty caught between what she fears is the boredom of a mundane life in a traditional marriage and the seductive ‘easy’ life of prostitution and all the excitement she thinks that offers. She’s very good in the part, Collins was obviously something of a beauty and carries that part of her role well, but she’s surprisingly adept at clearly showing her frustrations and fears in her expressions- suggesting she might have been a more serious actress given opportunity (damning her with faint praise there, I suspect). The character is the most under-written of the three and could have been something of a serious weakness for the film but Collins really shines and manages very well indeed.
Yvonne Mitchell plays Monica Marsden, the nominal lead of the picture, who carries the central story-line. Mitchell is absolutely brilliant; beautiful and fragile. yet underneath that exterior strong and independent. Its a nuanced performance- Mitchell was a stage actress really, which was a loss to film on the evidence of this role. Monica is struggling to shake off her lover, David, who she’s just done twelve months prison time for, after a bungled burglary. He seduces her as soon as she’s out and is secretly manipulating her into another burglary that very night, setting up her personal trial for what path she will take when she realises she has been duped by his false promises.
Kathleen Harrison as gentle old shoplifter Mrs. Quilliam steals the film, however: a sensitive performance of considerable understated tenderness as a lonely woman abandoned by her daughter and struggling through a life of poverty with her beloved pet dog, Johnny. The sad fact that her performance and character is as timely now as it was all those years ago is a grim reflection of the world we live in and how the aged are easily disenfranchised by society.
The archetypal old English lady is something of a cliche but its done so well here. Her increasing desperation when she ‘loses’ her dog, wandering in the dark streets calling out for him is really touching (I’ll admit it, as a dog owner, any scene of someone losing their dog is one to tug at my heartstrings) and her final fate all the more poignant.
Based on a novel by John Brophy, I suppose Turn the Key Softly is a very simple story, but its one very well told, and the setting and the location filming of it is really quite fascinating. Its a lost world, really, and a lost sense of community or how people lived- at time of writing, it was released an incredible 67 years ago, and here I am, swept off my seat by it like its a bolt out of the blue. Sure its a little melodramatic and there’s perhaps one or two coincidences slipped in there to serve the plot, but I can forgive all of that. This is a great little British movie. I’d love to see this film properly restored and given a Blu-ray release from the likes of Arrow or Eureka, I think it really deserves that kind of attention. I can’t speak highly enough of this film.
I would like to take this opportunity to point out the following website, https://www.reelstreets.com/films/turn-the-key-softly which I found whilst looking up the film after seeing it- the website has many screen captures from the film coupled with fairly recent photos of the locations. Its a spellbinding thing, comparing images of then and now, and if you haven’t seen the film, the screen captures will hopefully demonstrate just how well the location shooting was executed, and the docudrama look and feel of the film. If you are familiar with the film, you might find looking at these ‘then and now’ shots rewarding.
Turn the Key Softly is available on DVD and can also be caught by keeping a watchful eye out in the schedules for the Talking Pictures channel here in the UK, as I presume it will get repeated airings (as its content usually does).