Turn The Key Softly (1953) – Review

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For Whom The Bell Tolls. As these three women are released from prison on the stroke of eight o’clock, the prison bell tower signals the end of their incarceration, and you would expect such an occasion to be filled with positive anticipation, but not so here in the opening act of a film that follows the first day of freedom for these most recent of prisoners. Director Jack Lee chooses to close in on the faces of these women, whilst the dull, deliberate gong deafens the senses, almost belying a foreboding and clairvoyance for what awaits them outside the confines of Holloway women’s prison.

“There you go ladies, London, the biggest city in the world, and it’s all yours.”
The general feeling of mild, impending peril should not really comes as a surprise to those already familiar with Lee’s direction, as first a wartime photographer, then documentarian, his creations were most comfortable when relaying struggle. Freedom is a prize worth having, clearly, but like in wartime, this fifties drama relishes the chance to remind us that the same freedom here, as with battle on a global, not personal scale, does not come without cost. The lives witnessed here are far from idyllic, not least those featured, but also those of a post-war London, not a decade old from the fear of horrific events of a war that most of us can now only imagine. Lee reminds us that even in the midst of celebration at personal virtue, reality still smacks of an honesty not reduced by the passing of time. The man on the train that covertly reads the a tabloid newpsaper from behind a broadsheet and even something as simple as a goodwill gesture of returning a pillow to a baby’s pram does not go unpunished as the baby throws it out again the minute it is lovingly and carefully placed.
Story-wise Turn The Key Softly is a little inconsistent, with mixed messages reverberating throughout from romantic submission in spite of knowing better to some confusing decisions with regard to character arcs in general which do not bear scrutiny too closely. Having not read the book by John Brophy, it is a little difficult to guess if this was a cinematic decision or not, but sometimes on occasion, the actions of the characters do not substantiate the individuals’ perceived view or opinion.
Entertaining though, it certainly is. The performances by all of the three leading ladies here are compelling and eminently watchable, even if you do question their actions from time to time. Unfortunately, for Collins fans especially, the ends of the three separate storylines remain unravelled too much for closure and the viewer can rightly wonder why they feel a little short-changed. Nonetheless, the execution of the script cannot really be faulted, even if the script itself may be a little lightweight for a drama of such intended honest realism.
In summary, a flawed but nonetheless fascinating study of three women on a snapshot day in fifties London that will make the wistful yearn for those that are likely to remember the city at that time. With strong, capable and honest performances from the main stars, conjuring life into three very different lifestyles, this will entertain but not especially enlighten.

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