Overlooked & Underseen: Dance with a Stranger (1985)
For the last installment of my look at post-war British crime, I’m featuring a movie about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England. Directed by Mike Newell, Dance with a Stranger looks at Ellis’ relationship with David Blakeley and what led up to the crime she commits that lands her in the noose.
Ruth Ellis (the criminally underappreciated Miranda Richardson) manages a nightclub in London in the 1950s. This club caters to rich men where they’re able to get drinks and women at the same time. Ruth lives above the bar with her 10 year old son, and above them, is a “knocking shop” where the men go with their female escorts. Desmond Cussen (Ian Holm) is a regular at the bar. He's totally in love with Ruth and will do anything for her. Including giving her money to send her son off to boarding school. Ellis does not love Cussen but does string him along. One night, Cussen brings in a group from the racing club he belongs to and in this group is David Blakely (Rupert Everett), a dashing young race car driver. Ellis is smitten right away. Blakely seems to be into Ruth, too, and eventually they begin to see each other.
Their relationship is volatile to say the least. Blakely comes from a rich family but they won’t support his failed racing career so he’s constantly taking money from Ellis. She wants him to marry her but, really, he’s embarrassed by her being “common” so he refused to introduce her to his mother. He disappears for days at a time, he sees other women, and basically treats Ellis like trash. Ruth, for her part, becomes obsessed with him. She loves him and allows him to hit her or sleep with other women just as long as he stays in her life.
Eventually, Ellis gets fired from the club because Blakely keeps coming in drunk and causing trouble. She decides to move in with Cussen. She tries to make herself believe she likes Cussen in “that” way but it’s clear she’s still in love with Blakely. Cussen knows she doesn’t love him but he continues to take care of her anyway. Ellis ends up pregnant by Blakely but he doesn’t care. He abandons Ellis when she needs him most. She begins to stalk him around London.
One night, she waits for him outside of a house party, having been there watching him for hours. He finally emerges to go get cigarettes down the pub a few blocks away. She follows him there. He comes out of the pub and as he starts to get in his car, Ellis steps up to him and shoots him in the stomach. He falls to the ground where she then shoots him again, emptying her gun. She tells someone to call the police and stands there over the body waiting for the police to arrive.
The movie stops there and just gives you a graphic about Ellis’ trial and execution. For the story about her trial and death sentence, I advise you to watch Murder Maps, available on Netflix, with her story being the very last episode. It’s the show that inspired this three movie installment of Overlooked and Underseen. Should Ellis have been convicted of murder and hanged for a crime of passion? The case caused a lot of people to wonder if should the death penalty be abolished.
Miranda Richardson is terrific as Ruth Ellis. I always wonder why she didn’t become a huge star. I know she’s still working to this day but I just wish she would’ve had a bigger career. Her work as Mrs. Victor in Empire of the Sun as Jamie’s “surrogate mother” while they’re in that Japanese prisoner of war camp is amazing. Ian Holm is always great and his work as Cussen just further proves this. Rupert Everett is not just an amazingly gorgeous face, this man can act too. He and Richardson embody their characters and it’s hard to watch them go at each other. They’re so obsessed with one another and their relationship is so volatile, it’s all they can do to not explode when they're together. These two characters are so codependent on each other. Ellis seems to not be able to function without Blakely, even when he’s beating her in a drunken rage.
Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) manages to turn this film into a tight little noir. It feels very claustrophobic at times which is how the Ellis/Blakely relationship feels as well. There’s nothing flashy about this production, yet he does well showing the underbelly of London in the 1950s. Newell is very much like Stephen Frears to me. The films they work on are so varied and different, it’s hard to say that they have a particular style. I’m not knocking their work, mind you, I adore Donnie Brasco and many of the works of Stephen Frears. I can’t look at a film from either of them and say “That’s a Newell film” like I can a film by say the Coen Brothers. It’s almost like Newell and Frears are journeyman directors. They take on different kinds of projects and turn out some incredible work.
And so my three part journey into post-war British crime comes to a close. Again, if you’re looking for something to watch, apart from the three movies I’ve talked about (Dance with a Stranger, Let Him Have It, and 10 Rillington Place), please check out Murder Maps. The show is terrific and not only do they showcase the crimes from these three films, they show you other British crimes starting in the late 1800s up through the Ellis case. It’s available on Netflix.
Dance with a Stranger is sadly not available on Blu-ray, only DVD. It’s probably the hardest to film to find among the three films I’ve discussed for this series, but do yourself a favor and seek it out, though. It’s worth your time.