'Dance with a Stranger' is based on the case of Ruth Ellis. In an atmosphere thick with sexual scandal, sensationalism and prurience, she was hanged 30 years ago for shooting her lover David Blakeley. Prurience-lit interest and sensationalism have dogged the case ever since.
Ruth Ellis was the last woman to hang in Britain.
Soon after her death a film was made about her starring Britain's then top "sex symbol", Dianna Dors, centering heavily on her last days in the death cell waiting for the servants of the civilised British government to come at the appointed time and break her neck. "Dance with a Stranger" is the second film about Ruth Ellis - played by the deservedly much-praised Amanda Richardson - and it is altogether a better one, made from a script by Sheilah Delaney.
In fact, the Ellis-Blakeley case wasn't in itself a particularly remarkable murder. True it was a type of killing recognised and extenuated in most other European countries as a "crime of passion". When she shot Blakeley, Ellis was depressed after a miscarriage and half-deranged by drink and a year of bad treatment by him.
She was hanged in England, whereas in France, Ellis would have drawn a short prison sentence, if that.
The case achieved its notoriety because she was a young woman with two children and it attracted the attention of the prurient and the Sunday "newspapers" because she was a "blond night-club hostess”, “a tart". The circumstances of the killing won her sympathy - a ripple of applause swept through the cinema when she shot him.
A strtong movement against hanging Ellis came alive in marches and petitions in the weeks before her death. Leading Labour politicians - Aneurin Bevan, for instance - took part in demonstrations and pickets. The case is credited with having boosted the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment.
(Two years later, it was abolished, except for the killing of police and prison officers, and in 1967 it was abolished altogether).
What "Dance with a Stranger" does with this pretty sordid story is to reconstruct it with great realism and depth. The centre of it is naturally the relationship between Ellis and Blakeley.
Blakeley is an upper class semi-wastrel trying to be a racing-car driver. Flckle and sometimes childishly dependent, he is frequently drunk and violent to Ellis and he comes and goes as he pleases. Ellis puts up feeble resistances; but she always has him back.
The core of it is a strong sexual dependency. It draws them together and, time after time, re-knits the destructive relationship.,
The film counterpoints the relationship between Ellis and Blakeley by exploring Ellis's relationship with her well off, doggedly faithful and undemanding benefactor and occasional lover. She gives him at least as bad a time as Blakeley gives her.
The story of the events that led to the state-licensed and decreed killing of Ruth Ellis is unavoidably political, and the film is political too. But it is subtle and implied, as it should be, or humorous, as when Ellis responds to Blakeley saying he wants her to marry him with: "Why? Are you pregnant?" The sexually repressive atmosphere of the '50s, like the snobbery of Blakeley's friends and Britain's class stratification, are essential parts of the story.,
But the politics is no more than the implied framework. "Dance with a Stranger" is about the tragic, tormented relationship which Ellis tried to free herself from with a gun, failing even in that. She never appealed against her sentence and, apparently, went to the gallows declaring her abiding love for Blakeley, and believing it was right that she should hang. "Dance with a Stranger" is a very fine film.
SO 225 AP 24, 1985