Cast & Crew
From her jail cell, Phyllis Hochen recounts how she almost executed the perfect crime: One night in Napa Valley, California, Phyllis, who is married to vineyard owner Paul Hochen, disdainfully responds to her mother-in-law Emma's fear of prowlers by shooting a gun to scare them off. Still fearful, Emma calls the sheriff, and after Phyllis hears her young son Michael stirring, she warns them both to return to bed. What Emma has actually heard is the arrival of Phyllis's new lover, rodeo star San Sanford, who hides in the kitchen as Deputy Watkins and Paul's brother, Rev. Stephen Hochen, arrive. Stephen, who remains suspicious of the seductive Phyllis despite her assurances that Emma was merely imagining noises, advises her to ignore Paul's well-known practice of keeping his doors unlocked. The next morning, Paul shows wine merchant Ezra Benton around the winery, explaining that the business has been handed down through generations of Hochens. During lunch, Gino Verdugo, Paul's best friend and grape supplier, quietly informs Paul that a Fresno businessman has offered to buy his grapes, infuriating Paul, who believes that the sale will ruin the grape market. Watching Paul, an irritable Phyllis remembers how they met: Phyllis and her friend Gwen are flashy party girls in Los Angeles when Paul and Gino offer to buy them dinner. While Paul and Phyllis dance, she explains that she moved from London with an Air Force sergeant who has since disappeared. When Paul hears that Phyllis has a six-year-old son named Michael, he takes them all to the beach the next day, and after Michael sees Paul kiss Phyllis and becomes upset, Paul hugs the boy and gives him a seashell, explaining that it carries the sound of the sea to ward off loneliness. After their weekend, Phyllis is surprised that Paul still wants to see her, and although she tries to reveal her sordid past and her inability to love her son, Paul proposes, insisting that she is like a vineyard that has not been tended to properly. Coming out of her reverie, Phyllis, hoping to break her tie to San, tells Paul that she is sending Michael back to boarding school and wants to go on a vacation, but he explains that he cannot leave his business. Paul then informs a forlorn Michael that he can stay, and although the boy begins to reveal what he saw the previous night, Phyllis interrupts them. Later, they attend the annual vineyard fair, where Gino reveals to Paul that he plans to sell out to the Fresno buyer, prompting Paul to punch him. A crowd gathers and the men are separated, after which Paul berates himself for his temper. Mistaking Phyllis' apathy for kindhearted tolerance, Paul agrees to her suggestion that he apologize to Gino before going home. She then rushes to the estate to meet San, who is growing impatient with her lack of availability. Hoping to run away with San, Phyllis plans to shoot Paul when he comes in the front door, but when Gino arrives, she kills him accidentally. Paul enters soon after and, believing Phyllis' story that she thought Gino was a prowler, prepares to call the sheriff. Knowing that San will leave her if she does not have the Hochen money and name, Phyllis decides to pin the murder on Paul. To that end, she lies to him that she is breaking parole and will be imprisoned and deported if questioned. As she has planned, Paul offers to take the blame, and they race to make it look as if Gino burst into a locked home and Paul mistook him for a burglar. In secret, however, Phyllis slips a note into the dead man's pocket that asks him to meet her at the house and mentions Paul's terrible temper. The police accept Paul's story about the break-in until they discover the note, after which he is arrested. Although Paul is indicted for murder, Stephen later tells Phyllis that the sheriff plans to acquit him at the trial. While her husband is in jail, she sends Michael back to school and carries out her secret tryst with San, who plans to leave town soon. Desperate, she tells him that Paul killed Gino in a jealous rage, and begs him to wait until the trial. To prevent Paul's acquittal, Phyllis takes the stand on the final day of the trial and claims that she killed Gino. When she is on the witness stand, however, she purposely makes vague, unconvincing statements, and as she has planned, the prosecutor makes it look as if she is protecting her husband. Paul is sentenced to death, and although he agrees with Stephen that Phyllis had ulterior motives, he confesses that he took the blame in order to protect his beloved Michael, adding that a war wound prevents him from having children of his own. Meanwhile, in the wine cellar of the estate, Phyllis brags about her scheme to San, and when Emma overhears, she suffers a simultaneous heart attack and stroke. With only hours left until Paul's execution, Stephen tricks Phyllis into admitting that she is not on parole. While the doctor orders Phyllis to administer strong medication to Emma every four hours, Stephen asks Paul's judge to reconsider the case, but is told that he must uncover new evidence. Stephen visits Emma and discerns from the movements of her fingers that she heard Phyllis say she killed Gino. Phyllis interrupts him, and while they quarrel, Emma manages to swallow two of her pills. When Phyllis gives her the scheduled pill, Emma dies of an overdose, and Phyllis is accused of murder. Stephen calls the sheriff, judge and lawyer, and although Phyllis begs them to believe she is innocent, she is jailed and Paul is freed. In the present, Phyllis finishes telling her tale to Stephen, and asks only for last rites before her execution. As she is led to the electric chair, Paul shows Michael around the vineyard that will one day be his.
Luis Van Rooten
Francis De Sales
Theodore Von Eltz
Harry Maret Jr.
Jean L. Speak
The Unholy Wife
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
The Unholy Wife
The working titles of this film were The Lady and the Prowler and The Prowler. The Unholy Wife was based on William Durkee's television play "The Prowlers," which was broadcast on the CBS series Climax! on January 5, 1956. According to a January 1956 Daily Variety article, RKO production head William Dozier purchased the story when it aired, at which time Dozier was the director of network programming for CBS. According to a February 1956 Los Angeles Times item, Dozier considered Shelley Winters and Anthony Franciosa as stars, and a March 1956 "Rambling Reporter" item in Hollywood Reporter reported that John Farrow was considering Ernest Borgnine for a starring role.
A July 1956 article in Los Angeles Examiner noted that although the story closely resembled the case of William Woodward, Jr., a society figure shot by his wife Ann after she claimed to hear a burglar in their house, it was written a few weeks prior to the Woodward shooting. According to the Variety review, some scenes were shot on location in northern California. The Unholy Wife marked the American feature film debut of British actress Diana Dors. The ^NYT review noted that this film bore striking similarity to Dors's 1957 film Blonde Sinner, in which she also played a convicted murderer.
Released in United States Fall October 1957
First US film for Diana Dors.
Released in United States Fall October 1957