Unholy Wife, The (1957): John Farrow’s Film Noir in Color, Starring Diana Dors and Rod Steiger

A crime film noir in color, The Unholy Wife was produced and directed by John Farrow at RKO, but released by Universal when the former studio was in the process of being demised.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

The Unholy Wife
The Unholy Wife.JPG

Theatrical release poster

The film features British sex symbol Diana Dors, who gets top billing, Rod Steiger, Tom Tryon and Beulah Bondi.

Written by William Durkee and Jonathan Latimer, the script is based on the TV play “The Prowler,” which was presented on the TV show Climax! starring Claire Trevor, Pat O’Brien and Cameron Mitchell.

The tale is narrated by Phyllis (Diana Dors), who recalls in flashbacks the sordid story from her prison cell (her brown hair pulled back)

The melodrama begins with her meeting the rich vintner Paul Hochen (Rod Steiger) from Napa Valley and marrying him soon after.  Not long after the marriage, Phyllis begins an affair with local rodeo rider San Sanford (Tom Tryon), when husband is away.

One night, her elderly mother-in-law (Beulah Bondi) thinks a burglar broke into the house and calls the police.  Phyllis sees this as an opportunity to kill her husband and blame the burglar for the crime, but the plan backfires 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 together they concoct a story that would set him free after the trial.

Phyllis lies at the trial and Paul is put away for murder. The “unholy” wife finally gets the punishment she deserves when her mother-in-law dies of poisoning and Phyllis is blamed and sent to prison for a crime she did not commit. Later on, she faces her execution in the gas chamber.

The story ends with Paul showing their son Michael (Gary Hunley) the vineyard that one day will belong to him.

When William Dozier became head of RKO he purchased the film rights. Dozier bought two other Climax scripts for filming by RKO – Public Pigeon Number 1 to star Red Skelton, and Deal a Blow written by Dozier’s son Robert, films that were never made.

The movie was made by John Farrow as the second in his contract with RKO, after “Back from Eternity” (1956).

Thus was Dors’ second American film, after making the comedy “I Married a Woman,” whose released was delayed by two years.

Dors, who made no more films for RKO, later sued the studio for character defamation, claiming $1,275,000 but settling out of court for $200,000.

Diana Dors as Phyllis Hochen
Rod Steiger as Paul Hochen
Tom Tryon as San Sanders
Beulah Bondi as Emma Hochen
Marie Windsor as Gwen
Arthur Franz as Father Stephen Hochen
Luis Van Rooten as Ezra Benton
Joe De Santis as Gino Verdugo
Argentina Brunetti as Theresa
Steve Pendleton as Deputy Bob Watkins
Douglas Spencer as Judge
Gary Hunley as Michael
James Burke as Sheriff Tom Watling
Tol Avery as Dist. Atty. Carl Kramer


Produced, directed by John Farrow
Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, based on the teleplay “The Prowlers on Climax!” by William Durkee
Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Edited by Eda Warren

Production company: RKO Radio Pictures, John Farrow Productions

Distributed by Universal Pictures

Release date: October 1957

Running time: 94 minutes


TCM showed the movie on August 21, 2020.