The Unholy Wife

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

The film begins with Phyllis (Diana Dors) telling her story in flashbacks. It begins how she meets rich vintner Paul Hochen (Rod Steiger) from Napa Valley in a bar and marries him soon after.

Not long after the marriage, Phyllis begins having an affair with a local rodeo rider, San Sanford (Tom Tryon), seeing him every time her husband is away, which is frequently. One night, her elderly mother-in-law (Beulah Bondi) thinks a burglar is breaking into the house, so she calls the police. Phyllis sees this as an opportunity to kill her husband and blame the burglar for the crime. The plan backfires a day later when she instead kills her husband’s best friend. Not wanting to go to jail, she convinces her husband to confess to the killing and they concoct a story that would set him free after the trial.

Unfortunately for her husband, Phyllis lies at the trial and he is put away for murder. The “unholy” wife finally gets the punishment she deserves when her mother-in-law dies of poisoning and the blame goes to Phyllis, who is sent to prison—for a crime she had nothing to do with. Later, she faces her execution in the gas chamber. The film ends with Paul showing their son Michael (Gary Hunley) the vineyard that will someday be his.


I bet the first question on your mind is where in the world did I get the inkling to watch an unknown flick such as The Unholy Wife, right? Well, the answer to that is simple. On Facebook, I am a member of a group called “Lost Pinups”. This weekend, someone posted a picture of Diana Dors and the poster for this film. Naturally, curiosity took hold and here we are. Have I found an underrated gem? Or is this just another film that puts an attractive blonde in the starring role, regardless of her talent (or lack thereof).

What is this about?

Wealthy vintner Paul Hochen meets blonde bombshell Phyllis in a bar…and marries her. In due course, Phyllis is bored by Paul, and finds an exciting new lover in rodeo rider San. To adjust matters, she forms a murderous scheme, which seems to be going wrong…or is it? Will irony intervene in time to thwart a seemingly perfect crime?

What did I like?

Similar, but different. Here in America, we had the blonde bombshells Marilyn Monroe and the goddess, Jayne Mansfield. Not to mention other visions of grace, elegance, beauty, and whether we want to admit it or not, lust, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Mamie van Doren, Raquel Welch, etc. Across the pond, I guess they didn’t feed those girls the same stuff, but one of the bombshells to come from over there was Diana Dors. Diana is blonde, curvy, and can easily be mistaken for Jayne sometime, but moreso as Marilyn in pictures. However, on-screen, at least in this film, she is far from the bubble headed bimbo-type characters those two ladies seemed to portray for most of their careers. A nice change of pace. I’ll have to check out more of her films to know for sure, though.

Noir. This is labeled as a film noir. For me, while I prefer my noir to be in black and white and involve cops and some saxophone music playing in the background, I can totally get behind that categorization. The mystery element, as well as the criminal intent and hint at sexualization, all of which define the genre, are quite present. Having said that, this story could easily have been told in the 30s or 40s with gangsters, but that’s just my personal preference.

Hey, kid! With everything that is going on in this flick, it wouldn’t be hard to forget that the Dors’ character and her husband have a kid. Luckily, he isn’t forgotten. Every now and then, he is brought into the conversation or onto the screen, as if to remind the audience that he does exist and he ramifications of their actions will affect more than just them, but him as well. Nice to see a film do that, as so many forget to do so.

What didn’t I like?

Strings attached. It seems there was a lot of focus on the score, especially early on in the film. Everytime a character would monologue, the strings would swell. The musician side of me wants to praise the composer, but the film buff in me has to take issue as this was highly unnecessary, or at the very least too much and inconsistent. Those same strings don’t do much in the later half of the film. It was almost as if they got paid for half a film and left after lunch!

Love triangle. So, Dors’ character is unhappy in her marriage and seeks companionship in this rodeo jock she has met. Common sense tells us that this should lead to a love triangle, right? The problem is that it never happens as the murder plot takes center stage, as well it should. However, I felt as if the two could/should have been mutually exclusive. As it is, the triangle almost doesn’t exist to anyone except Dors and the old lady who happens to hear them while she is in her stroke induced state of invalidity.

Accident? Speaking of the old woman, the whole reason Dors is in prison isn’t because she killed her husband. She’s there because she inadvertently poisoned the old bitty. I’m not sure if this funny, a cruel twist of fate, or something else, but it is interesting that the filmmakers chose that coupled with prior history as the reason she gets jailtime, and what appears to be the death sentence, if one can infer from the final scene. Seems a bit much for just an accidental killing…or was it?

As someone who has never seen a Diana Dors film, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised with what she is able to do on-screen. No, she isn’t the greatest actress in the world, but I think she has more of a hold on the acting thing than the bombshells we had over here. The Unholy Wife, as I’ve read on various sites, was a departure for Dors. She was more the comedic actress. The rest of the cast is a bit outshined by her. Partially because I was focused on her and partially because they weren’t really given anything to do. Rod Steiger’s character was such a dullard that I was literally falling asleep every time he came on the screen. All that said, do I recommend this flick? Well, I don’t believe this is for everyone. I can see cinefiles, fans of Dors, and those that enjoy classic films enjoying it, but everyone else…not so much.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars


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