Monday, August 15, 2011

Not exactly arresting, but still worth seeing

Women's Prison (1955)
Starring: Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, Phyllis Thaxter, Howard Duff, Barry Kelley, Warren Stevens, Mae Clarke, Gertrude Michael, and Cleo Moore
Director: Lewis Seiler
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Amelia Van Zandt (Lupino) is the warden of a women's prison who runs her institution with an iron fist, dominating the lives of both prisoners and prison matrons. Her fiercely controlled world starts coming unraveled when her abuses of a delicate housewife incarcerated for involuntary manslaughter (Thaxter) and a prisoner who becomes pregnant (Totter) when her husband (Stevens)--who is incarcerated in the male side of the prison--breaks into the women's prison to an illicit rendezvous provokes both the anger of the prison doctor (Duff) and the prisoners.

Compared to the "women in prison" movies that followed in the 1970s, this is very, very tame stuff, even if the publicity campaign at the time if its release tried to position the film as if it wasn't. The still I chose to illustrate the film implies atmosphere and situations that are nowhere to be found in the film (while demonstrating that Cleo Moore was literally the poster-girl for Columbia Picture's marketing department when it came to "sexing things up"--her part in the film is very small, yet she is the subject of a publicity still). The prisoners here seem more like members of a professional association on a retreat than hardened criminals worthy of being locked away, the guards are all professional and appropriately concerned with the well-being of prisoners, the prison is neat and clean and well-lit. If not for the hell-beast of a warden, the prison in this film and the people in it are nicer than some places I've been on vacation at.

In fact, the prisoners are so nice that the over-the-top hysterics of the poor housewife who is sent up for killing a child with her car become very irritating after a while. While she doesn't deserve to be straight-jacketed or thrown in solitary for being frightened, it's a mystery where her over-reaction to normal prison procedures came from, since every prisoner she meets is nice and chatty and no different than the girls at the hair salon or in the grocery store checkout line. Hell, one prisoner could even find work as a tour guide, I'm certain, given how quickly she steps up to show the "new kid" ropes.

Although the strangely gentile nature of the inmates seemed a bit odd to me, I did appreciate the fact that the film didn't try to paint them as victims of the justice system like some other prison movies I've watched. Most of the inmates are exactly where they belong, and they make no bones about it. I also liked the fact that the matrons and guards were shown as decent human beings who were just doing their jobs.

I also liked the fact that the decency and professionalism of the prison's staff was contrasted with the indifference of the men's prison warden (Barry Kelley)--who may have worked his way up through the system, but who somewhere along the way forgot that the inmates and those working under him are human beings--and the calculated cruelty of women's prison warden, the aforementioned Ida Lupino. In fact, Lupino does such a great job at portraying a sociopathic cast-iron bitch that I almost wished her end had been a little less predictable and pathetic... I wanted her to get a "top o' the world, ma!" sort-of memorable exit, even if the way the film does dispatch her is adequate and dramatically fitting.

Well-acted, well-scripted, and effectively paced, "Women's Prison" is worth a look if you're a fan of Ida Lupino and have a high tolerance for melodrama. But this is not the place to look if you have a hankering for a Roger Corman or Jess Franco "birds in cages"-type sleaze.