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Weak and the Wicked, The (1954)


Main image of Weak and the Wicked, The (1954)
35mm, black and white, 88 mins
Directed byJ. Lee-Thompson
Production CompanyAssociated British;
 Marble Arch Productions
ProducerVictor Skutezky
ScreenplayJ. Lee-Thompson
 Anne Burnaby
CinematographyGilbert Taylor

Cast: Jean Raymond (Glynis Johns); Betty Brown (Diana Dors); Babs (Jane Hylton); Syd Baden (Sidney James); Harry Wicks (A.E. Matthews); Mabel (Sybil Thorndike)

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A young woman is framed for fraud, and given a prison sentence.

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Based on Who Lie in Gaol, Joan Henry's memoir of her prison sentence, The Weak and the Wicked offers an ostensibly straightforward plea for the benefits of the then-new concept of the 'prison without bars', in contrast to more old-fashioned penal methods. The bucolic open prison The Grange (based on Askham Grange in Yorkshire), with its programme of hard work and focus on the rehabilitation of inmates, is shown to work more effectively than the traditional regime represented by Blackdown (based on Holloway prison), in which prisoners are confined to their cells for long periods of time. However, the sharp critique of the original book had to be blunted in order to placate the censors, and at least one critic thought the "vice, squalor, sex and life" of Henry's text had been usurped by "a pale cloying 'niceness'" in its film adaptation.

Critical opinion differed widely over other aspects of the film, such as the decision to introduce more comedic elements into the film, especially in the flashback sequences where prisoners recount their stories of how they ended up in prison (featuring Olive Sloane as a career shoplifter, and Athene Seyler as a blackmailer). While Monthly Film Bulletin thought this was "in dubious taste" and The Times had misgivings about "sudden somersaults from tragedy into farce", Picturegoer magazine saw this generic mix much more positively, arguing that "some of the characters are figures of tragedy; but others, equally, are figures of fun. That's life. And that is the film's strength."

The upbeat story of Jean Raymond, the upper-middle-class girl gone to the bad because of her gambling habit, but rescued by the love of a good man, lies at the centre of the film, but at the margins there are some more hard-hitting images: the mother forcibly separated from her nine-month-old child, to be given up for adoption and never seen again - a scene that cultural commentator Michael Bracewell described as alive with "tragedy and brutality" - and the plight of single mother Babs, who misguidedly leaves her child 'home alone' for one night, only to find him dead when she returns.

Two years later, Joan Henry and director Lee Thompson would work together on another prison drama - this time without a happy ending - Yield to the Night (1956), starring Diana Dors, who plays Jean's sardonic best friend Betty in this film.

Melanie Williams

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Video Clips
1. H. M. Prison. Blackdown (3:06)
2. The little family (1:28)
3. Unforgiven tragedy (2:00)
4. H.M.Prison. The Grange (2:56)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Yield to the Night (1956)
Best, Richard (1916-2004)
Dors, Diana (1931-1984)
Handl, Irene (1901-1987)
James, Sidney (1913-1976)
Johns, Glynis (1923-)
Lee Thompson, J. (1914-2002)
Roberts, Rachel (1927-1980)
Taylor, Gilbert (1914-)
Thorndike, Sybil (1882-1976)
Female Protagonists