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Film Title

Turn the Key Softly


Jack Lee


  • Yvonne Mitchell as Monica Marsden
  • Joan Collins as Stella Jarvis
  • Kathleen Harrison as Mrs. Quilliam
  • Terence Morgan as David

The first twenty-four hours of release from prison of three different women are dramatised in Turn the Key Softly. Although some of the social drama it strives for can get forced, it is largely an honest and sympathetic examination of the paths we may or may not take in life. Strong performances from the female leads help it be watchable.

On one morning, three women are released from Holloway Prison, London. Each woman is somewhat different from the other and slowly we piece together why each was imprisoned. Monica Marsden is a middle class lady who was seduced by crook David and coerced into helping him with his thieving activities. She was caught and David got away, leaving her to take the blame. Stella Jarvis is a pretty young thing who we are lead to believe fell into prostitution so she could afford the material things in life, despite having found seeming happiness with a kindly bus conductor. And lonely Mrs. Quilliam is very poor and has multiple offences of stealing food to provide for herself. Their returns back to society take different turns as they are forced to confront life once more and decide what is to be done, regarding personal feelings, circumstances and the nature of choice. Monica has to contend with oily David entering her life again, Stella must make a choice of whether material wealth outweighs potential happiness with her forgiving boyfriend and Mrs. Quilliam has to deal with being neglected by her daughter and only having her pet dog Johnny for support and companionship. The question is, just which path will each lady take now that they are back out in the world again?

Director Jack Lee does a commendable enough job at bringing out dramatic and emotional impact, though it can be said that some of the film and story is basic and could have done with more extension. After all, Turn the Key Softly only runs for under 80 minutes, which both has a weakness and goodness to it. I think the positive parts manage to raise the film up a lot, and while still flawed, when it hits the dramatic mark it is damn effective. Some of it comes off as more than a little superficial, in particular the rather sketchy way that Stella’s story is written. Her arc has watchable and sports interesting areas, but it doesn’t quite have the gripping power of the other two women’s experiences. Monica and Mrs. Quilliam have the more compelling stories; facing the grim realities of their situations, consisting of trying to not be drawn to a bad influence and crushing loneliness. When the focus is on these characters and their struggles, Turn the Key Softly gains points and a sense of drama. The use of black and white highlights the challenges ahead for the ladies and London in bustling but unforgiving fashion. The film was made in the 50’s and England was still suffering post war austerity, which is subtly referenced by the fact that there is no flash of razzmatazz to the editing of cinematography. It’s largely observant and the unvarnished style suits what Turn the Key Softly strives for. A jolt of tension and suspense keeps Turn the Key Softly good in the last half as Monica’s former flame puts in motion a job, which he drags her into under extreme duress. One of the best things Turn the Key Softly does is not sugarcoat the three main characters or condone what they have done. It presents them as humans, who have made mistakes and are attempting to get back on track once more. The music score is suitable enough when being understated, but there are times when it takes away from the story by going overboard with flourishes.

If there is anything that makes up for the occasionally flawed execution in the film, it’s the acting. Yvonne Mitchell brings dignity, demure grace and indecision to her part of the middle class Monica, who wrestles with her feelings for her slimy former boyfriend and tries to make a life for herself. She’s an intelligent woman but like all of us, not immune to the complex feelings of the heart. This is what Mitchell plays ideally; the desire to move on, but the constant lingering of the past that won’t loosen its grip. Joan Collins, although having the most limited role, is still very charming and brassy as the often vain Stella. She’s got an impudence, dreamy eyes and sassiness to her, tempered with a feeling of uncertainty over her future. The beautiful Joan Collins makes the part very watchable, owing to her naturalness and personality. The trio is rounded out by the weariness and sadness of Kathleen Harrison as the lonely old Mrs. Quilliam, who’s only company is her beloved dog Johnny. Here is a woman of desperation and desolation, who still attempts to keep a smile on her face despite her increasing adversity. You want to give this woman a hug and tell her that things are going to be OK, that’s how emotionally convincing and sympathetic Harrison is. Terence Morgan is the definition of a louse, and a nasty one at that when playing Monica’s crooked lover. Although he’s slick and smooth, you know exactly what he’s up to and really do want him to get what’s coming to him in be way or another.

So while it sometimes doesn’t get beneath the surface of stat it’s intending to display, Turn the Key Softly is still on the whole, a well acted and interesting film that paints a pointed and frequently realistic picture of three women experiencing life and it’s difficulties again after their release from prison.