Sunday, August 19, 2012

Noir Watch: Women's Prison (1955)

I think we're all friends here, and so it's in that spirit that I confess to a great love of the film Reform School Girls (1986).  It's high 80's cheese, completely self-aware, and has one of the most satisfying conclusions in cinema history.  If you haven't seen it, you likely believe it's some sort of pay cable late night hoo-hah, but it's a pretty straight up prison movie played for camp and some (intentionally) cheap thrills.

Man, someone was trying to sell a much racier movie than the one delivered.

Neither prison movies nor women's prison movies are something I seek out, and I was surprised that Eddie Muller had included a whole section on prison flicks in his book, Dark City.  I'm not going to argue with Muller over how or why prison films are considered part of the genre, so there you are.  And as this film was included in a set of "Bad Girls of Film Noir", I'm just going to deal.

Women's Prison (1955) is maybe the platonic ideal of the women's prison film, and I'm not really sure how many women-behind-bars movies there were before this one.  But this one features:

  • the psychotic warden convinced they know how to fix these women with cruel and unusual treatment
  • the unquestioning guards
  • the too-fragile-for-prison girl who cracks
  • the street smart veteran
  • the wacky one
  • the black one
  • the staff member who sees what's going on and is marginalized when they speak up
  • the death that pushes everyone over the edge
  • the riot
  • the failed appeal to reason
  • the comeuppance of the psychotic warden
  • the successful appeal to reason and justice
  • the last shot of someone leaving prison with a smile

It also features film great Ida Lupino as the 37 year old, and, therefore, over-the-hill psychotic warden.  Also Audrey Totter, Phyllis Thaxter and other name actors.  It's not played for laughs, and I suspect someone probably felt they were exposing something about the cruelty of women's prison in the telling of the tale.  Or at least the misuse of power within a system intended for rehabilitation.

Prison feels a bit like camp with a particularly awful head counselor and drone-like cabin counselors.  But the story does manage to explore what women of the era might have cared about and what would push both wardens and prisoners to the breaking point.

It's a formula you seen in both men and women's prison films, but I couldn't help but notice the parallels to Reform School Girls, even if it was missing the breakout performances of Wendy O. Williams and Pat Ast.  At some point I need to watch Roger Corman's Caged Heat (1974) to connect the dots.

Apparently this film predates the original 1957 Reform School Girl, which may also be added to the list and the 1994 remake of same.  But probably not.  Life is short.

Anyway, I can't recommend against the movie, especially with both Ida Lupino and Audrey Totter in key roles, both committing pretty darn well.  And it's interesting to see Totter cast as the good girl (I mean, good as you get as a prisoner) without being the one so meek she's going to crack.

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