While it may seem a tad unfair, this behind bars picture that features a sadistic Ida Lupino as the edgy prison warden headed over the top is ripe for poking fun at. Was it in 1954? I have no idea, but after seeing more prison pics than I can even begin to recount, this one comes off as a cross between a country club getaway and a high school reunion gone bad where the chief bully is still having her way with those who are less likely to fight back.
Hold the fort. Is that Jan Sterling rallying the inmates with cries of Attica! Attica! before we even knew who Al Pacino was?
Our hard luck story begins with the narration device letting us all know that caged men are separated by a wall for caged women. It’s nearly a co-ed prison that sees Ida run the ladies side and Barry Kelley in charge of the wayward men that includes Warren Stevens who will be the key inmate from the men’s side as the plot progresses. Warren’s wife is incarcerated across the barrier in the women’s area. She’s played by Noir favorite Audrey Totter.
Into the prison comes the gentle Phyllis Thaxter. Charged vehicular manslaughter, she’s in no condition mentally to be placed behind bars and Ida sees her as an easy mark to torment. When confined to solitary confinement, prison doctor Howard Duff steps in to see that Thaxter is better cared for after nearly suffocating in a straightjacket. Duff sees Ida for what she is and enters into a war of wills with her despite having little authority.
Hold it, I think I just saw Juanita Moore as an inmate scrubbing the floors and singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” As a matter of fact Juanita along with three other ladies of color are in prison and have been noticeably segregated to a cell of their own.
When Thaxter arrived as the “new meat”, she was accompanied by sassy Jan Sterling who behaved as if she was returning to summer camp to see her old girlfriends. Just one big happy all girl party. She’ll get reacquainted with the old gang including the Marilyn Monroe tailored Cleo Moore, Vivian Marshall who has a talent for mimicry that will come in handy and even a name from Hollywood’s past, Mae Clarke as a Matron on duty. Too bad Jimmy Cagney wasn’t next door in the men’s prison. The pair could have renewed old memories over a grapefruit breakfast.
The psychotic Ida continues to make life a living hell for Thaxter and soon discovers that Totter is now expecting a child (yes Stevens paid her a visit and no this isn’t a divine pregnancy). Next up she begins to beat upon her charges and the rest of the gals begin to resent it when one of leading ladies is nearing death due to Ida’s monstrous behaviour. We’re headed for a full on uprising and eventual riot where the inmates are about to take over.
“They never get things right in prison pictures.” A laughable line considering it’s uttered between guards discussing what’s playing at the movie theater.
This Lewis Seiler picture is a black and white affair and while we might consider it a women’s picture with the lovely Miss Totter coming off best with Jan Sterling right behind her, it’s Howard Duff who shines the brightest for my money as the doctor who cares and wants to fight back against both Lupino and Kelley who have let crime and injustice become the norm under their watch. Yeah in movies far too often it’s the ones in power who are the villains while it’s the inmates who are the good ones. Cue that Al Pacino snippet once again.
Lupino is given the thankless role of the bitch warden. By the time the ending rolls around it’s almost as if she’s channeling Bogart’s Captain Queeg of The Caine Mutiny released a year prior to this Columbia “B” effort. Caine was a Columbia release as well. Coincidence? In all likelihood yes and maybe I’m reaching on this one. If you know the Bogart role then you can easily guess just how Ida will wind up at the fade out. Then again with all due respect to Ida, maybe she’s turning the clock back and looking to her own past for inspiration. Ever seen They Drive By Night? While I haven’t seen it, Ida revisited the genre in the 1972 film Women In Chains for TV.
Yes I’ve poked a bit of fun here but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this 80 minute flick that gives us Ida Lupino leading a cast of well known ladies. Not to your liking then perhaps for your women in prison flicks diet you’d rather check in on Pam Grier in The Big Bird Cage or Warden Sybil Danning in Reform School Girls. Those titles would work for me as well and maybe I’ll dust them off and give them a spin in the DVD player some time soon.
Thankfully Women’s Prison was released in a fun set of Noirs released a while back from Columbia in two volumes. This title in the Bad Girls of Film Noir Volume 2 set.