Turn the Key Softly

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Turn the Key Softly
Directed byJack Lee
Produced byMaurice Cowan
Written byJack Lee
Maurice Cowan
Based onTurn the Key Softly
by John Brophy
StarringYvonne Mitchell
Joan Collins
Kathleen Harrison
Terence Morgan
Music byMischa Spoliansky
CinematographyGeoffrey Unsworth
Distributed byGeneral Film Distributors
Release date
  • 19 April 1953 (1953-04-19)
Running time
81 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

Turn the Key Softly is a 1953 British drama film directed by Jack Lee and starring Yvonne Mitchell, Joan Collins, Kathleen Harrison and Terence Morgan. Lee and producer Maurice Cowan also wrote the screenplay, based on the novel of the same name by John Brophy, dealing with the first 24 hours of freedom for three women released on probation from prison on the same morning.


Three women of widely differing backgrounds walk out of the gates of London's Holloway Prison together at the end of their respective sentences. Monica Marsden is a well-bred young woman, led into the world of crime by her smooth-talking but crooked lover David; Monica martyred herself by taking the fall for a crime he masterminded. Stella Jarvis is a beautiful working-class girl who found her attractive appearance made West End prostitution a source of easy money, and was imprisoned after disregarding numerous cautions for soliciting. Mrs. Quilliam is a kindly elderly widow, who lived in poverty and was jailed for repeat shoplifting offences. Monica proposes that the three should meet up later for a fancy dinner, for which she will pay, to discuss how their first day of freedom has gone.

Monica goes to stay at her friend's flat and spends her morning job hunting. Having successfully obtained an office job despite her criminal record, she returns to the apartment and finds David waiting for her there. Although she is initially angry that he let her go to prison alone for the crime he planned and did not stay in contact during her incarceration, his smooth talking convinces her that the two of them can make a fresh start, now that he is gainfully employed as a car salesman. He invites her to accompany him to the theatre later that night.

Stella is engaged to Bob, an honest bus conductor who is not put off by her past, and has patiently waited for her to get out of prison so they can marry. She resolves to change her ways and make him a good wife. Upon meeting Bob, he tells her they can marry the following week when he can take time off from his work, and gives her three pounds to rent a room (since his landlady will not let Stella stay with him) and buy herself food until the wedding day, promising to meet up with her that evening when his work shift ends. She heads out to rent the room, but her route takes her through Leicester Square, where she visits her prostitute friends and squanders the three pounds on a pair of earrings.

Mrs. Quilliam returns to her former room in the poor neighbourhood of Shepherd's Bush, which her landlady has kept for her, and finds her special friend, Johnny. Although she discusses Johnny as if he were a close male friend or relative, Johnny turns out to be her beloved little dog, whom her neighbours have looked after in her absence. Mrs. Quilliam has very little money for necessities like food for herself and her dog. She and Johnny go to visit her daughter, Lila, who has married well and now lives in a nice suburban home with her husband and daughter. Lila, embarrassed by her mother's poverty and criminal record, is not happy to see her mother and coldly sends her away.

The three women, along with Johnny the dog, meet up at an elegant restaurant for the planned dinner. Afterwards, Stella, falling back into her old ways, allows a businessman, George Jenkins, to pick her up on the street. They go drinking together, he gets drunk and Stella realises she is going be late meeting Bob. Just before George falls asleep against a building, he tells Stella he doesn't like her new earrings and offers her money to buy a "decent" pair. She takes three pounds to replace Bob's money that she spent, puts George's wallet and her earrings back in his pocket, and hurries to meet Bob at Piccadilly Circus. She tells Bob she didn't make it over to rent the room, but that she has not done anything bad, proving it by showing him that she still has the three pounds. The two happily leave Piccadilly together to go rent the room for her.

Mrs. Quilliam stops at a pub, where Johnny accidentally escapes out of the door into an unfamiliar area. She frantically hunts for Johnny, and upon seeing him, is so relieved and overjoyed that she rushes into the street without looking, is hit by a car and killed.

Monica goes to the theatre with David, only to learn after they arrive that he plans to rob a safe in a building over the road and wants her to help him, after which they will both flee the country with the stolen money. She does not want to be involved, but he forces her onto the roof and locks the door, making her wait for him while he climbs down a rope ladder into a nearby window to rob the safe. While she is waiting, she manages to find the key, unlock the door and slip back into the theatre, leaving David alone on the roof where he is discovered by security and apprehended by police. After David is taken away, Monica is sadly walking home when she sees the dead Mrs. Quilliam being loaded into an ambulance and learns what happened. She then sees Johnny whimpering nearby, and takes him home to start their new life together.



Turn the Key Softly received very positive reviews from contemporary critics, who noted with approval its realism and honesty; also its avoidance of the twin pitfalls in a storyline of this nature of either overly sentimentalising its characters or attempting to spice up proceedings with over-the-top melodrama or unnecessary plot twists and digressions. All three leading actresses were praised for their portrayals, with Harrison in particular singled out as giving a memorable and touching performance. Only a fall-back on coincidence as a plot device was mentioned as a minor weakness.

New York Times critic A. W. wrote: "Turn the Key Softly...is pointedly realistic about its stigmatized principals. And, while this examination of the short courses of the lives of three ladies of varying degree after they have left London's Holloway Prison, is not precisely on a heroic scale, the producers have endowed the proceedings with compassion, sensitivity and a modicum of irony. Credit Jack Lee and Maurice Cowan,...with keeping their heroines on the move without snarling this traffic in tales. (They) see the ladies through with honest results. Yvonne Mitchell...brings attractiveness and understanding to the role. Joan Collins is properly lush and brassy as the Cockney charmer. However, Kathleen Harrison...contributes the film's top portrayal. She makes the loneliness of the poor and unwanted strikingly real."[1] Film critic of the Pittsburgh Press, Henry Ward, said: "Turn the Key Softly is the kind of movie that apparently can only be made in Britain. It is a warm, sympathetic sort of movie that is sentimental without being sticky or maudlin, a well-paced melodrama that never falls back on over-dramatics for effect." He described Mitchell as "appealing", Collins as "excellent" and Harrison as "superb", concluding that the film "came to our town with a minimum of fanfare. It doesn't need it. It has a good story told with fine acting."[2]


  1. ^ Turn the Key Softly A. W., New York Times, 4 February 1954. Retrieved 27 October 2010
  2. ^ "British score again with fine film" Ward, Henry. Pittsburgh Press, 20 March 1954. Retrieved 27 October 2010

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