Sunday, August 5, 2018

Turn the Key Softly ( 1953 )

"London, the biggest city in the world... and it's all yours"

Three women are being released from Holloway Prison on the same morning. They come from vastly different backgrounds and each has plans for what they want to do on their first day of freedom, but they have all agreed to meet for dinner that evening. This simple story, told with warmth and empathy, follows the lives of these women during the span of that one day and the touching and tragic events that take place before and after this dinner.

Turn the Key Softly, based on the novel by John Burphy, is an underrated British gem set within post-war 1950s London, a London that is no more. It plays out like a film noir with small but key scenes slowly unfolding events that all lead up to the nail-biting finale. Director Jack Lee, being the master that he is, manages to put so much character into these scenes, filling each with details that make it enjoyable to watch multiple times over. Five minutes after the credits roll, we understand the nature of each of these three inmates and are curious to see how they will fare once they step foot in the great city of London again. All wish to make a change, to live a better life on the right side of the law, but will they be pressured to slip back to their old ways?
First, there is Stella, portrayed by a young Joan Collins. She's a West-End girl, "a tart with a heart" who has a weakness for the good things in dangling earrings and fishnet gloves. She has an honest bus driver waiting to marry her. Then there is Monica ( Yvonne Mitchell ), an elegant beauty, quite sophisticated, who clearly doesn't belong behind bars. She loved unwisely and took the wrap for her criminal boyfriend. Lastly, there is Mrs. Quilliam ( Kathleen Harrison ), a soft-spoken old-timer who was jugged for 15 counts of petty theft. She lost her daughter's affection but has the love of her beloved Johnny to keep her going.

"I wish you had a nice young man waiting for you" - Mrs. Quilliam
"I don't know any nice young men" - Monica
Jack Lee directed this opening sequence in such a way that the audience sympathizes immediately with the old lady and Monica, who have become a pair, and are merely amused by Stella, who it seems obvious will be visiting prison shortly again. Within hours each of them is tempted to criminal behavior, and it is then revealed that these first impressions may have been off the mark. The film is an excellent character study of humans and the desires that lead them to crime. None of these gals are intent on doing wrong, rather they seem to merely attract misfortune. 

Turn the Key Softly is beautifully photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth ( Scott of the Antarctic, 2001: A Space Odyssey ). He often utilizes close-ups to convey the thoughts and emotions of the characters when dialogue is not spoken. The editing, by Lito Carruthers, is also taut. Within its 80-minute runtime, no scene is wasted. The finale on the top of the building at night is especially well filmed and edited. It is during the finale that the meaning behind the title "Turn the Key Softly" is also revealed. 
"For a whole year, day and night, all I could think of was warmth, food, and love"

While all of the production values were excellent, what makes Turn the Key Softly truly stand out is the cast. Yvonne Mitchell, a popular British stage and screen actress, is perfect as Monica. This woman was capable of speaking volumes in stillness, utilizing her eyes alone. Four years later she would be cast in a role completely the opposite of Monica, that of the frumpy housewife Amy in The Woman in a Dressing Gown, for which she won the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival. 

Joan Collins was only twenty years old at the time and was showing signs of the saucy siren she was to become. Her West End accent was over the top but she did a capable job portraying an easy gal who wants a little more in life than she knows she deserves. 

Kathleen Harrison was a legendary character actress having a career dating back to 1915. She was best known for playing Alice Thursday in the 1966 television series Mrs. Thursday and for playing Mother in the Huggett film series of the 1940s, but she made appearances in countless comedies and dramas as well. Mrs. Quilliam is one of her best roles. She is a gentle old gal and, in spite of her criminal record, is someone you would want to Monica did. 

The handsome Terence Morgan plays David, the dishonest lover. Morgan was very much like Richard Greene and could play villains as well as heroes with equal skill. Also in the cast is Geoffrey Keen as a generous employer, Thora Hird as a landlady, Russell Waters as a respectable drunk, and Glyn Houston as Bob the bus driver. 
The city of London itself is a starring attraction, too. The location filming offers a snapshot in time of places such as Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, the West End, the London Underground, and Shepard's Bush, one of the city's suburbs. London was rebuilding itself after the beating it got during the war and it was growing larger every year. In Turn the Key Softly the city is encased in fog, but it was looking grand nonetheless. 

This post is our contribution to the 5th Annual Rule Britannia Blogathon being hosted by Terence over at A Shroud of Thoughts. Be sure to head on over to the master page to read more reviews of famous and obscure British films of the 20th century. 


  1. What a lovely choice and a beautiful essay on a moving film. I was introduced to it in the last few years and it made a very strong impression.

    1. Yes, it is quite memorable for being such a simple little film. I'm glad you saw it, too, CW!

  2. Thank you for taking part in the blogathon! I have never seen Turn the Key Softly, but it sounds like I would enjoy it. It certainly has a great cast!

    1. Thank you for hosting the blogathon! It's a good film and it deserves to be more well-known, especially here in the States.

  3. Sounds like a fascinating movie and I also love the cast. It seems to be turning into Yvonne Mitchell month as I've read a several reviews of movies starring her.

    1. I hope you get a chance to see it, Rick, ( it's available on Youtube ) because I think you would enjoy it. It's a short film, very easy to follow, and yet it has depth. Yvonne Mitchell is always good to watch, I must have seen 10 of her films this year alone.

  4. Just watched this simple beautiful film, great casting, locations. It was a joy to watch