Monday, August 08, 2011

The Unholy Wife (1957)

“I know in your book, there’s no such thing as the perfect crime.”

Diana Dors also known as the “British Marilyn Monroe” was fresh from the success of the 1956 film Yield to the Night (Blonde Sinner)--arguably the performance of her career when she made Unholy Wife (1957), possibly the worst film of her career. Yield to the Night gave Diana Dors a marvelous, sensitive and appealing role as condemned woman, Mary Price Hilton. Due to the film’s timely, uncanny resemblance to a controversial murder case (Ruth Ellis’s murder of David Blakely) and the fact that it became part of the argument for ending the death penalty in Britain, the film had, and continues to have, great social significance.

The first film Dors made in Hollywood was I Married a Woman, a comedy directed by Hal Kanter. Although the filming concluded in late August 1956, the film was held for release until 1958. As a result, Unholy Wife was Diana Dors’ first Hollywood release, and while the film was supposed to be the beginning of Dors’ glorious Hollywood career, the film finished up more as an embarrassment than anything else.

Director John Farrow (father of Mia Farrow) was almost at the end of his career when he made Unholy Wife, and he’d already made a respectable number of noirs including Alias Nick Beal (1949), Where Danger Lives (1950), and His Kind of Woman (1951). Farrow was to make just one more full-length feature, John Paul Jones (1959) before his death in 1963 at age 58. Unholy Wife is based on a story by William Durkee and adapted to the screen by cult crime writer Jonathan Latimer (Lady in the Morgue). Latimer and Farrow had worked together several times before, and with a cast including Diana Dors and Rod Steiger, this noir tale should have been successful. Instead Unholy Wife is a limp, listless drama in which inflamed passions don’t reach boiling point but remain merely tepid. So what went wrong?

The film is set in California’s wine country of Napa Valley, and the plot follows a very familiar pattern: a young sexy wife, with a lover on the side, married to an older man of means. In the case of Unholy Wife, the adulterous woman is Phyllis Hoochen, played by a luscious, ripe Diana Dors at the height of her potent beauty. She’s married to stodgy Paul (Rod Steiger), a man who’s deeply locked into his family traditions. Paul and Phyllis live in the Hoochen family mansion along with Paul’s ailing mother, Emma (Beulah Bondi) and Phyllis’s young son, Michael (Gary Hunley). Phyllis isn’t interested in motherhood, and doesn’t bother pretending. When she’s not trying to ship the kid off to boarding school, she’s busy banishing him to his room. Even to the casual observer, Michael is a boy who’s destined to grow up with ‘mummy issues.’ While Phyllis isn’t much of a mother, neither is she much of a wife, and for most of the film, she prowls around the Hoochen family mansion pacing restlessly like a caged panther.

The film begins with a scrubbed-face, brunette Phyllis telling the story of her past to a man. We don’t see the man’s face--only his shoulder, and Phyllis goes back in time to the recent past to explain a seemingly “perfect crime.” From this point, we see a very different Phyllis--bleached blonde, sexily dressed, and bored out of her mind at home with her decrepit mother-in-law who insists she’s heard a prowler. The prowler is none other than sweaty young rodeo stud, San Sanders (Tom Tryon). It’s not clear exactly how San and Phyllis met or how long they’ve been having an affair, but it is clear that San is the restless sort. Phyllis concocts a plan to get rid of Paul but the plan goes wrong. Since Phyllis is a girl who thinks on her feet, she turns the mistake to her advantage.

Scenes narrated by Phyllis also go back even further in time, to the year before when Phyllis first met Paul in Los Angeles. She was hanging around in a bar with a gal pal waiting for promising, affluent looking men to show up, and the film’s a bit fuzzy about exactly what she was hoping to achieve. There are hints that she’s a prostitute or at least in the market for wheedling expensive gifts from suckers (later, there’s a scene in which Paul gives Phyllis an expensive bracelet she just happened to admire in a jeweler’s window). Paul, who’s in L.A. for a convention, is a prominent Napa Valley vintner. Phyllis explains to Paul that she came to America with an American serviceman, and that she has a 6-year-old son, Michael, she rather brutally describes as “a souvenir from the Air Force.” She sees her lack of parental interest as part of her overall moral failing. At one point she tells Paul:

“I’m no good. Take Michael. Maybe it’s because I hate his father or maybe it’s because I just don’t like kids.”

Unfortunately Paul isn’t listening. He idealistically compares Phyllis to a vineyard that needs tender care. A double date on the beach seals the relationship, and Paul carries Phyllis off to his Napa Valley home.

Unholy Wife has all the ingredients for success but fails. It shares the same basic story as Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Human Desire (1954), and Marilyn (1954), yet Unholy Wife fails where those films succeed. One of the big differences between Unholy Wife and these other films (apart from quality), is that the films portray wives who need the brawn of their lovers to off their nuisance hubbies. Unholy Wife is an exception; Phyllis is more than capable of scheming and killing simultaneously.

While Unholy Wife is supposed to be a tale of torrid passion, there is zero screen chemistry between either Phyllis and Paul, or Phyllis and San. And this is in spite of the fact that Phyllis appears in a series of stunning outfits that appear to have been spray painted on her hourglass figure. No florals or patterns for Diana Dors--instead her clothes are solid colours: black, white, liquid silver, electric blue, and hot pink. The three characters, Paul, Phyllis and San are supposed to be in the throes of passion, but instead these three mull around like disconnected passengers on a cheap package holiday who’d like to pretend they’re not together.

Perhaps some of the film’s failure can be explained by the fact that the viewer is not privy to the initial meeting between Phyllis and San. There’s no screen presentation of the passionate attraction of these two characters who then slide into an illicit affair, and the few scenes that place San and Phyllis in the same room show San’s growing boredom and restlessness. The sex scenes are not the only manifestation of wooden emotion. In one scene, someone close to Paul is killed, and when he looks at the corpse, there’s no emotional impact, no breakdown, nothing. He might as well be looking at a leftover casserole. In addition, the numerous scenes are too short and choppy, have very little continuity, and are patched together by the explanatory narrative. When Diana Dors later saw the completed film, she stated that it was so badly edited, she barely recognized it.

The New York Times review called the film a “dull, unholy mess,” while noting that Dors’ “real forte” is comedy. The review also stated that Steiger delivered a “curious performance.”

The behind-the-scenes story of the film is far more interesting than the film itself. Diana Dors (real name Diana Mary Fluck--no wonder she changed it), was married to flamboyant playboy Dennis Hamilton, who also acted as her manager, when the film was made. The couple left for America and sailed for Hollywood together in June 1956. While Diana stated that she had “no intention of staying in America indefinitely,” and that she hoped to enjoy a split transatlantic career, husband Dennis stated just the opposite. He was expecting a lucrative RKO contract and declared that the couple would “become American.” Diana Dors’ shot at Hollywood proved that the actress, while fully capable of handling herself in Britain, was ill-prepared for Hollywood and its publicity machine.

Problems began in August soon after Dennis bought a mansion in the Coldwater Canyon area of Beverly Hills, and on the night a lavish party was thrown, somehow Diana, Dennis, and two other people posing by the pool, were pushed in. Hot-tempered Dennis attacked a photographer who ended up in the hospital. Bad press resulted for the British couple, and already RKO were seeking ways to renege on the contract.

Unholy Wife--also known as The Lady and the Prowler was initially set to star Ernest Borgnine as Paul Hoochen, but he was unavailable, so Steiger, who was estranged from his wife at the time, was cast in the role. Rumours of a relationship between Steiger and Diana began, and at one point, Dennis drove to the studio to confront Steiger. Some sources claim that Dennis drove to the set with a shotgun, but other sources state that the gun was an embellishment to an already juicy story. Reporters for the notorious Confidential Magazine even broke into Diana’s home looking for evidence of the affair. According to the book Diana Dors: Just a Whisper Away by Joan Flory and Damien Walne, Steiger and Dors were separated to “damp down rumours”:

“Steiger was sent away to a hideaway in Malibu, while Diana stayed in Beverly Hills. When they were eventually allowed back on the set, there was no question of a tête-à-tête between shots. They were made to wait in separate caravans.”

In Unholy Wife, perhaps all the acting effort went into bolstering the myth for the public that nothing was going on between its two stars.

After the filming of Unholy Wife concluded, Steiger dumped Diana via telephone and returned home to his wife. In November Diana returned to Britain. Although Diane and Dennis Hamilton managed to patch up their volatile marriage, the truce was just temporary. They were both chronically unfaithful, and while the relationship with Steiger went nowhere, when Diana made The Long Haul (1957) she had an affair with Victor Mature’s body double, Tommy Yeardye, and shortly afterwards the marriage was over. Hamilton took Diana to the cleaners for the divorce, and Diana rather passively agreed to all his financial demands. He died in January 1959, and the cause of death, according to some sources, was tertiary syphilis.

Diana Dors and Treasure Productions (one of Hamilton’s companies) sued RKO for $1,275,000 for its failure to meet its contractual obligations for three films, but the suit ended in a settlement of $200,000. RKO pictures argued that Diana had cancelled her contract and that “she had become an object of disgrace, obloquy, ill-will and ridicule” and had “an international reputation for insobriety, unchasity, intemperance and exhibitionism” (Come by Sunday: The Fabulous Ruined Life of Diana Dors by Damon Wise). Never again was there any promise, hint or sign of international super-stardom, and Diana’s later career was firmly entrenched in British television. She died in 1984 of uterine cancer at age 52, and she remains a much loved British star who never really reached her potential.

Written by Guy Savage


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