AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
The Unholy Wife
Alternate Title: The Lady and the Prowler
Director: John Farrow (Dir)
Release Date:   Oct 1957
Production Date:   early Sep--mid-Oct 1956
Duration (in mins):   94
Print this page
Display Movie Summary

Cast:   Diana Dors (Phyllis Hochen)  
    Rod Steiger (Paul Hochen)  
    Tom Tryon (San Sanford)  
    Beulah Bondi (Emma Hochen)  
    Marie Windsor (Gwen)  
    Arthur Franz (Rev. Stephen Hochen)  
    Luis Van Rooten (Ezra Benton)  
    Joe DeSantis (Gino Verdugo)  
    Argentina Brunetti (Theresa)  
    Steve Pendleton (Deputy Watkins)  
    Douglas Spencer (Judge)  
    Gary Hunley (Michael)  
    James Burke (Sheriff Wattling)  
    Tol Avery (Carl Kramer)  
    Francis De Sales (John Hayward)  
    Maurice Manson (Mr. Brown)  
    Tony Travers (Accordian player)  
    Mabel Rea (Beauty operator)  
    Dawn Richard (Beauty operator)  
    Marilyn Lindsey (Beauty operator)  
    Rex Lease (Mr. White)  
    Nelson Leigh (Chemist)  
    Mike Lally (Bartender)  
    Herb Lytton (Dr. Barnes)  
    Frank Yaconnelli (Thomasso)  
    Babe London (Customer)  
    Lovyss Bradley (Customer)  
    Don Harvey (Rodeo announcer)  
    Clegg Hoyt (Locksmith)  
    Maxine Gates (Blues singer)  
    Dorothy Abbott (Waitress)  
    Don Avalier (Headwaiter)  
    Dan Bernaducci (Wine steward)  
    Chuck Hayward (Hazer)  
    Jack Carry (Contestant)  
    Jerry Ambler (Contestant)  
    Frosty Royse (Contestant)  
    Wilmer Ellis (Clown)  
    Stanley Farrar (Warden)  
    Hal Smith (Doctor)  
    Kay English (Police matron)  
    Helen Jay (Girl)  
    Theodore Von Eltz (Fingerprint expert)  
    Gwen Caldwell    
    Jacqueline Park    
    Lida Piazza    

Summary: From her jail cell, Phyllis Hochen recounts how she almost executed the perfect crime: One night in Napa Valley, California, Phyllis, who is married to vineyard owner Paul Hochen, disdainfully responds to her mother-in-law Emma's fear of prowlers by shooting a gun to scare them off. Still fearful, Emma calls the sheriff, and after Phyllis hears her young son Michael stirring, she warns them both to return to bed. What Emma has actually heard is the arrival of Phyllis’s new lover, rodeo star San Sanford, who hides in the kitchen as Deputy Watkins and Paul’s brother, Rev. Stephen Hochen, arrive. Stephen, who remains suspicious of the seductive Phyllis despite her assurances that Emma was merely imagining noises, advises her to ignore Paul’s well-known practice of keeping his doors unlocked. The next morning, Paul shows wine merchant Ezra Benton around the winery, explaining that the business has been handed down through generations of Hochens. During lunch, Gino Verdugo, Paul’s best friend and grape supplier, quietly informs Paul that a Fresno businessman has offered to buy his grapes, infuriating Paul, who believes that the sale will ruin the grape market. Watching Paul, an irritable Phyllis remembers how they met: Phyllis and her friend Gwen are flashy party girls in Los Angeles when Paul and Gino offer to buy them dinner. While Paul and Phyllis dance, she explains that she moved from London with an Air Force sergeant who has since disappeared. When Paul hears that Phyllis has a six-year-old son named Michael, he takes them all to the beach the next day, and after Michael sees Paul kiss Phyllis and becomes upset, Paul hugs the boy and gives him a seashell, explaining that it carries the sound of the sea to ward off loneliness. After their weekend, Phyllis is surprised that Paul still wants to see her, and although she tries to reveal her sordid past and her inability to love her son, Paul proposes, insisting that she is like a vineyard that has not been tended to properly. Coming out of her reverie, Phyllis, hoping to break her tie to San, tells Paul that she is sending Michael back to boarding school and wants to go on a vacation, but he explains that he cannot leave his business. Paul then informs a forlorn Michael that he can stay, and although the boy begins to reveal what he saw the previous night, Phyllis interrupts them. Later, they attend the annual vineyard fair, where Gino reveals to Paul that he plans to sell out to the Fresno buyer, prompting Paul to punch him. A crowd gathers and the men are separated, after which Paul berates himself for his temper. Mistaking Phyllis’ apathy for kindhearted tolerance, Paul agrees to her suggestion that he apologize to Gino before going home. She then rushes to the estate to meet San, who is growing impatient with her lack of availability. Hoping to run away with San, Phyllis plans to shoot Paul when he comes in the front door, but when Gino arrives, she kills him accidentally. Paul enters soon after and, believing Phyllis’ story that she thought Gino was a prowler, prepares to call the sheriff. Knowing that San will leave her if she does not have the Hochen money and name, Phyllis decides to pin the murder on Paul. To that end, she lies to him that she is breaking parole and will be imprisoned and deported if questioned. As she has planned, Paul offers to take the blame, and they race to make it look as if Gino burst into a locked home and Paul mistook him for a burglar. In secret, however, Phyllis slips a note into the dead man’s pocket that asks him to meet her at the house and mentions Paul’s terrible temper. The police accept Paul’s story about the break-in until they discover the note, after which he is arrested. Although Paul is indicted for murder, Stephen later tells Phyllis that the sheriff plans to acquit him at the trial. While her husband is in jail, she sends Michael back to school and carries out her secret tryst with San, who plans to leave town soon. Desperate, she tells him that Paul killed Gino in a jealous rage, and begs him to wait until the trial. To prevent Paul's acquittal, Phyllis takes the stand on the final day of the trial and claims that she killed Gino. When she is on the witness stand, however, she purposely makes vague, unconvincing statements, and as she has planned, the prosecutor makes it look as if she is protecting her husband. Paul is sentenced to death, and although he agrees with Stephen that Phyllis had ulterior motives, he confesses that he took the blame in order to protect his beloved Michael, adding that a war wound prevents him from having children of his own. Meanwhile, in the wine cellar of the estate, Phyllis brags about her scheme to San, and when Emma overhears, she suffers a simultaneous heart attack and stroke. With only hours left until Paul’s execution, Stephen tricks Phyllis into admitting that she is not on parole. While the doctor orders Phyllis to administer strong medication to Emma every four hours, Stephen asks Paul’s judge to reconsider the case, but is told that he must uncover new evidence. Stephen visits Emma and discerns from the movements of her fingers that she heard Phyllis say she killed Gino. Phyllis interrupts him, and while they quarrel, Emma manages to swallow two of her pills. When Phyllis gives her the scheduled pill, Emma dies of an overdose, and Phyllis is accused of murder. Stephen calls the sheriff, judge and lawyer, and although Phyllis begs them to believe she is innocent, she is jailed and Paul is freed. In the present, Phyllis finishes telling her tale to Stephen, and asks only for last rites before her execution. As she is led to the electric chair, Paul shows Michael around the vineyard that will one day be his. 

Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.  
Distribution Company: Universal Pictures Co., Inc.  
Director: John Farrow (Dir)
  Emmett Emerson (Asst dir)
Producer: John Farrow (Prod)
Writer: Jonathan Latimer (Scr)
Photography: Lucien Ballard (Dir of photog)
Art Direction: Albert D'Agostino (Art dir)
  Franz Bachelin (Art dir)
Film Editor: Eda Warren (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Ross Dowd (Set dec)
Costumes: Howard Shoup (Gowns des)
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof (Mus comp and cond)
Sound: Jean L. Speak (Sd)
  Terry Kellum (Sd)
Make Up: Harry Maret Jr. (Makeup supv)
  Larry Germain (Hairstylist)
Country: United States
Language: English

Songs: "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer.
Composer: Harold Arlen
  Johnny Mercer
Source Text: Based on the teleplay "The Prowlers" by William Durkee on Climax! (CBS, 5 Jan 1956).
Authors: William Durkee

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
RKO Teleradio Pictures, Inc. 25/9/1957 dd/mm/yyyy LP9086

PCA NO: 18262
Physical Properties: Sd: RCA Sound System
  col: Technicolor
  Widescreen/ratio: 1.85:1

Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: Crime
Subjects (Major): False accusations
Subjects (Minor): Deportation
  Drug overdose
  English in foreign countries
  Fathers and sons
  Mothers and sons
  Napa Valley (CA)
  Wine cellars

Note: The working titles of this film were The Lady and the Prowler and The Prowler . The Unholy Wife was based on William Durkee’s television play “The Prowlers,” which was broadcast on the CBS series Climax! on 5 Jan 1956. According to a Jan 1956 DV article, RKO production head William Dozier purchased the story when it aired, at which time Dozier was the director of network programming for CBS. According to a Feb 1956 LAT item, Dozier considered Shelley Winters and Anthony Franciosa as stars, and a Mar 1956 “Rambling Reporter” item in HR reported that John Farrow was considering Ernest Borgnine for a starring role.
       A Jul 1956 article in LAEx noted that although the story closely resembled the case of William Woodward, Jr., a society figure shot by his wife Ann after she claimed to hear a burglar in their house, it was written a few weeks prior to the Woodward shooting. According to the Var review, some scenes were shot on location in northern California. The Unholy Wife marked the American feature film debut of British actress Diana Dors. The ^NYT review noted that this film bore striking similarity to Dors's 1957 film Blonde Sinner, (see above) in which she also played a convicted murderer. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   7 Sep 1957.   
Daily Variety   9 Jan 1956.   
Daily Variety   30 Aug 57   p. 3.
Film Daily   5 Sep 57   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   9 Mar 1956   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Mar 1956   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   7 Sep 1956   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Oct 1956   p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter   7 Jan 1957   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   30 Aug 57   p. 3.
Los Angeles Examiner   19 Jul 1956.   
Los Angeles Times   4 Feb 1956.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   31 Aug 57   p. 513.
New York Times   7 Mar 58   p. 17.
Variety   4 Sep 57   p. 6.

Display Movie Summary
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
Advanced Search
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2017 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.