Many years ago, in an autumn afternoon of my dim and distant Home Counties youth, this film was screened on television. Walking into the living room as my mother sat watching it, I either remarked that it was ‘boring’, or liked the visual images but just didn’t understand it- I forget which, but either way I was obviously far too young to understand it properly.
Years later, as a rabid exploitation freak, I the same mother (well, obviously) buys me a book on Pete Walker, and there he is, citing the same film as a major influence. Thus begins a lengthy mission- to see the damned thing again, and pay more attention. Having eventually done so, equilibrium is restored and I find myself enriched, as should all lovers of macabre drama, or films of the immediate post-war era with a social message. WOMEN OF TWILIGHT, although directed by the comparatively unremarkable Gordon Parry, equals (if not betters) most of its contemporaries, such as YIELD TO THE NIGHT, THE GOOD DIE YOUNG, STREET CORNER, and Hammer efforts such as POLICE DOG and STOLEN FACE.
So why write about it at Christmas of all times? Shouldn’t this be the time of year at which Shimon graces us with remembrances of some sort of festive cheesefest? After all,‘tis the season to be jolly. Well, I can’t be sure, but I’ve a pretty strong suspicion that it was around this time of year that I caught my first ill-educated glimpse of this engrossing, engaging and almost masterful film. Lest we forget that twilight netherworld betwixt Boxing Day and New Year, where forgotten gems creep out once more into the schedules to remind us of bygone eras. Or at least they used to. This review is therefore a toast to those times.
Parry, not a distinguished director by any means (although he had helmed TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS two years before) does a fine job here, albeit without impressing any of his own personality onto the work. Cameraman Jack Asher, the man who would soon go on to make such an impact in the early days of Hammer, is exemplary, somehow managing to evoke both sadness and hope simultaneously in each shot. But the stars remain inevitably the cast- and the storyline.
Rene Ray (surely a great forgotten heroine of British cinema if there was one, and not to be confused under any circumstances with legendary transvestite Ricky Renee!!) is incredible in the role of Viv Bruce, the sympathetic gangster moll (the gangster in question being low-life club singer Laurence Harvey- YAAAY!!) who ends up, as do all the principal characters, living in the boarding house for pregnant women and lone mothers run by the sinister, seemingly unflappable Nelly Alistair (Freda Jackson).
Now, openly discussing even the existence of such establishments in films was probably pretty outré back then, let alone making them the focus of the entire plot, so it’s immediately obvious we’re onto some pretty daring film-making here. Obviously, such a statement is relative to the time, as it’s still ostensibly a talky black and white British drama- a melodrama, even. But by no means a staid or conventional one, and definitely in no way a ‘weepie’. Whilst it is the sort of movie one could watch whilst curled up cosily on a snowy Sunday (as I believe my Mum did), it cuts straight to the bone on several occasions and pulls no punches in its depiction of a world where there are no heroes or heroines, just people who survive and people who don’t. Sometimes not even the ones you want to.
Among the assembled number we meet Lois Maxwell as an educated lady recently fallen on hard times, Vida Hope as a cut-throat Cockney thief with a heart of gold, the drop-dead gorgeous Ingeborg Von Kusserow as a flirtatious former au-pair (what else?), Dora Bryan as the ‘sensible one’, Joan Dowling as the ditsy blonde with a penchant for occasional theft, and most importantly of all, Dorothy Gordon as ‘Mad Sally’- initially lingering on the periphery of the story (and quite literally peering out of the occasional doorway), but eventually proving herself to be the pivot on which hangs the safety (or not) of Jackson’s corrupt mini-empire.
It’s Gordon’s back story that will determine the outcome of events for all concerned, and it was this performance (the type which gives rise to such superlatives as ‘heartrending’ ‘chilling’ and ‘epoch-making’) that led Pete Walker to cast her in the role of Bates, whom he described as ‘the same woman grown up’ for HOUSE OF WHIPCORD. At time of writing, Gordon is still with us but in her 80s and very much retired: someone should really give this woman some recognition for her work before it’s too late, although being consigned to the footnotes of history is a tragedy that has befallen many a great actor or actress, and in some ways seems bizarrely in keeping with the nature of their stock-in-trade. Not that I would wish such a fate on anyone.
Walker has also spoken of how the film’s handling of social attitudes towards women on the wrong side of the legal fence, whether by involvement or association, led him towards WHIPCORD’s overall concept. Gordon’s character is the most obvious link, but if one looks hard enough, one can definitely see all the pointers. Nellie Alistair, whilst neither as insane nor threatening, is very much a Mrs Wakehurst of her time, and there are echoes of both Lili and Chris in Anne Marie De Vernay, the hapless heroine portrayed in Walker’s later movie by Penny Irving. The difference is, WOMEN OF TWILIGHT (or “WOT”) as it shall henceforth never be known by anybody, is definitely not a horror film: there are evils at work, and some distressing scenes that deal with all-too-real subjects, but it remains a drama realised very much in the dialogue between its central players, as befits its origins as a stage play. Ironically, given that it may have been one of the first true Britsploitation films, no overtly exploitative traits are employed.
Another major difference is that whereas WHIPCORD is very much, despite its status as a WIP film, one whose storyline is grounded in the actions of its male participants, WOT is carried by its female cast pretty much right through. Laurence Harvey only appears in a few brief scenes, and no other man figures as heavily in the plot, especially not one with a name like ‘Mark E. Dessart’! Written by a woman (Sylvia Rayman), with the aim of telling the story of several strong-willed, independent yet ultimately fallible women, this is very much a feminine film- although there is absolutely no reason why a man shouldn’t be able to enjoy it. In those terms, it can also be considered groundbreaking.
Of course, it’s still very much a film of its time, and the social moirés, even from a liberated point of view, are rooted in its decade of origin. For all their determination, most of the women are still either married, engaged or in some way involved with a man who has in some way contributed to their downfall, or who may be there to ‘save them’ from it, and most of them have produced offspring early in life. But maybe that’s the point. True freedom from such constraints wouldn’t come for another two decades- and in some parts of Britain, one might be forgiven for thinking that it still hadn’t. It’s nice to think, therefore, that the writers and director of WOT were considering such issues as far back as 1953- even if most people weren’t paying attention.
A true gem, and one that definitely deserves a wider audience- if only as a reminder of the slightly grimmer elements of an era many have expressed nostalgia for, and a social problem that is thankfully no longer an issue, even if the Government (any Government really) would have you think otherwise. I’d still gladly exchange a day of life in 2008 for 24 hours in 1953 though- but it would have to be in black and white. As we all know, the world only went into colour in 1967…