Wednesday 2 September 2009

Women's Prison (1955)

Director: Lewis Seiler
Stars: Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore, Audrey Totter, Phyllis Thaxter and Howard Duff

Starting as it means to go on with some salacious opening narration, this is an early example of the women in prison sexploitation genre though being 1955 it doesn't have any Nazis, nudity or whipping. It certainly has moments that resonate through to fans of the future genre though, not least Phyllis Thaxter's wild screaming. It isn't even entirely a women's prison, the title notwithstanding, having both men and women, though they're separated into completely separate sections. 'Men and women behind the same wall with only concrete and rifle bullets keeping them apart!' as the narration would have us.

It seems to alternate between the exploitational and the serious. Into the women's half of this prison come an unlikely couple. Helene Jensen is a housewife, brought in to do one to ten years for manslaughter because she killed a young girl when overtaking on the wrong side. As is pointed out, she's utterly out of place with criminals. With her is the awesomely sassy Brenda Martin, in the awesomely sassy form of Jan Sterling, who has been there before. She was paroled a brunette and comes back a blonde. 'You won't like it at first, but when you get used to it you'll really hate it,' She does too, screaming herself silly in isolation the first night, getting thrown into a straightjacket and a padded cell and coming out in a coma.

Out of everyone in authority, only Dr Crane seems to care and he doesn't just care about her. He handles both sides of that concrete wall, and after Glen Burton gets caught doctoring his work card to get onto the paint detail working in the women's side just so he could see his wife, he wonders aloud to the warden why they don't have a separate prison for the women. That little subplot builds wonderfully, as Burton doesn't give up and even finds a way to get through to his wife and back without anyone noticing. Of course it's pretty hard to hide that he did it when she turns up pregnant after being inside for two months. Joan Burton is played by Audrey Totter and this sort of apparent immaculate conception is something even someone as talented as her can't quite manage.

Every women's prison movie, or WIP films to the connoisseur, has to have a dominant bitch to focus everyone's anger on and here it's Amelia van Zandt, who runs the women's side of the prison. She's played by no less a dominant actress than Ida Lupino, the only woman to thrive in the testosterone fuelled classic era of Hollywood not just as an actress but as a writer and director too. She's superb here as van Zandt, tough as nails and willing to go to any lengths to achieve what she wants, even if it's as far as beating pregnant Joan Burton to find out how her husband found his way over to her, but still retaining an air of fear and vulnerability when appropriate.

She even fancies herself as a psychologist, overruling the doc's orders on how to deal with Helene Jensen. Even though Jensen is nothing but a fish out of water, van Zandt calls her a borderline psychopath and treats her like one. Her airs of superiority are a little hurt when Dr Crane points out that she's the psychopath, though given that Howard Duff was Ida Lupino's husband, those must have been joyous scenes to film. She gets plenty of opportunity to prove her instability to herself and everyone else when she takes out her frustrations on pregnant Joan Burton. What happens from then on won't be a surprise to anyone, but it's well orchestrated at least.

Inevitably the film fails because of what it is and when it was. As a serious prison drama it has some fair points to make but it thrives on exploitation which makes it great fun to watch but lessens its impact as social comment. As a proto-WIP film it's tame and unsatisfying, free of most of the elements that fans of the genre crave. It's too schizophrenic to really work as either. Only as a slice of fifties Hollywood can it really succeed and it does do that, through solid writing and solid performances from people like Lupino, Sterling and Totter, none of whom are minor names, along with Duff.

Lupino was riding high in 1955 after films like On Dangerous Ground and The Bigamist, the latter of which she also directed. She'd go on to The Big Knife and While the City Sleeps within the year. She was never a star, but she was a recognisable name across a few decades of film and she could always be relied upon to give a solid performance. She called herself 'the poor man's Bette Davis' but then nobody in Hollywood really got beyond that status, even the stars. Her description rings true because like Bette she was unafraid to play villains or damaged characters. Most actresses wouldn't have been seen dead in her final scene here, for instance.

One who would is Jan Sterling, who thrived in the fifties with films like The Human Jungle, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and The Female Animal, not to mention High School Confidential! Every now and again she landed a really prominent role, like playing Bogart's wife in The Harder They Fall but roles like that couldn't match the sassy parts like the one she had here as Brenda Martin or another early WIP movie, 1950's Caged, even when she was Oscar nominated as she was for the John Wayne disaster flick The High and the Mighty in 1954. Like Lupino and Audrey Totter, when she was good, she was very very good but when she was bad, she was better.

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