The Unholy Wife
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John Farrow's 1957 The Unholy Wife is one of only a handful of pictures the British film star Diana Dors made in Hollywood, and watching it, it's not difficult to see why she was an uneasy fit. That's not a reflection on her gifts as a performer or as a personality: As certified bad gal Phyllis Hochen, Dors maintains a preternaturally self-controlled cool throughout The Unholy Wife -- the figure she cuts is not just unattainable but unyielding. That quality is what makes the performance, and the movie, interesting. But it does make her more impenetrable than other, earlier noir actresses -- Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer, and Gloria Grahame, for example -- and yet not quite unguarded enough to earn the sympathy we usually grant so easily to noir heroines, even the ones with the blackest souls. Dors probably suffered from being so frequently compared with the far more vulnerable Marilyn Monroe: With Dors, particularly in The Unholy Wife, there's too much ice to go along with the carnal fire -- she's a country that can't be conquered, and what was Hollywood supposed to do with that?
Dors was born Diana Mary Fluck in 1931, in Swindon, England, the daughter of a railway worker. In a 1957 television interview with Mike Wallace, she stated that since childhood, she'd always wanted to be a big movie star, and she worked her way toward that goal playing small and, later, larger parts in films at home in Great Britain: She appeared in David Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist, and in 1955 co-starred, with Celia Johnson, in Carol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings. In her breakthrough film, the 1956 Yield to the Night (known in the States as Blonde Sinner), made just before Dors left Britain for Hollywood, she plays a wronged woman who commits murder. In The Unholy Wife, her American film debut the next year, she played Phyllis, a not-so-wronged wife who nevertheless has murder on her mind.
Dors' Phyllis is a dance-hall girl and single mother who beguiles wealthy vintner Paul Hochen (Rod Steiger) -- he marries her and whisks her away to his spooky Napa Valley estate, a place where this sullen, stacked beauty feels predictably out of place. The story is told in flashback: When we first see Dors, she's not wearing foxy bombshell clothes but a simple inmate's or prisoner's shift. Her hair isn't coiffed in the silky white-blonde waterfall we'll later see Phyllis wearing; it's brunette streaked with stubborn gray. Her expression is blank and unreadable -- not necessarily triumphant, but perhaps resigned to the reality that really bad sins eventually need to be paid for. This Phyllis is spinning out the story of how she planned, and got away with, the perfect murder.
In The Unholy Wife, Dors sure looks like a woman who could get away with murder. She slinks through the picture in a series of fitted suits and dresses that are technically very proper, though they not-so-secretly accentuate her va-va-voom proportions. Her lounge ensemble consists of a tight black turtleneck worn with trim slacks and mules -- not necessarily inappropriate for hanging around the estate, but on Dors, it's killer nonetheless. Dors' eyes are made up with a dark line of upturned lashes, like the ones you see on the early incarnations of Barbie. They're not easy eyes to get to know. But her lower lip is so full and quivering, almost innocent-looking -- it's the mouth, not the eyes, that makes you want to trust Phyllis, at least a little. Steiger's character does so at his peril, and it's possible Steiger was flummoxed by Dors in real life, too. In the New York Times review that appeared upon the movie's release, the critic noted, "Miss Dors seems bewildered, and no wonder. And certainly the most curious performance comes from burly Mr. Steiger, as the husband, whose vocal resonance ranges from Marlon Brando to Ronald Colman and back. Make up your mind, man."
As it turns out, Steiger and Dors were rumored to have started a romance during the filming of The Unholy Wife, though the relationship didn't last. And in general, it seems that Dors didn't exactly ingratiate herself during her brief time in Hollywood. In 1957 she and her husband at the time, Dennis Hamilton, held a party at their new house, and Dors and several other guests were pushed fully clothed into the pool; a professional photographer then snapped photos. Hamilton punched the photographer, resulting in a scandal and great deal of ill will. RKO, the studio behind The Unholy Wife found excuses not to cast Dors in films, and she returned to England not long after.
If America never quite knew what to make of Diana Dors, the English certainly did: She was well-loved in her home country, and it seems that even staid Englishmen -- or maybe particularly staid Englishmen -- relished her celebrity antics, like sailing down Venice's Grand Canal in a gondola during the 1955 Venice Film Festival, wearing a mink bikini and a smile. Dors died in England in 1984, at age 52, of cancer, though she worked nearly until the end of her life: In her later years she appeared regularly on British television and in made-for-TV movies. At the time of her death, the Kinks' Ray Davies wrote an affectionate ode to Dors, "Good Day": "Hey, Diana, I've really got to learn to take a tip from you/Put on my makeup and try to make the world take notice of you." That's just what Dors did, and to hell with anyone who couldn't appreciate the effort she made.
Producer: John Farrow
Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer (screenplay); William Durkee (story)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Film Editing: Eda Warren
Cast: Diana Dors (Phyllis Hochen), Rod Steiger (Paul Hochen), Tom Tryon (San Sanders), Beulah Bondi (Emma Hochen), Marie Windsor (Gwen), Arthur Franz (Father Stephen Hochen), Luis Van Rooten (Ezra Benton), Joe De Santis (Gino Verdugo), Argentina Brunetti (Theresa), Steve Pendleton (Deputy Bob Watkins).
by Stephanie Zacharek
(Stephanie is the chief movie critic for Movieline - www.movieline.com)
"The Mike Wallace Interview," television interview, 1957
The New York Times