Ida Lupino: Actress/Director – The Iron Maiden of Prison Noir
“State’s prison, all prisons look alike from outside, but inside each has a different character. In this one… caged men… separated only by a thick wall. From caged women…
The system is wrong but it goes on and on and on…”
Ida Lupino plays Amelia van Zandt the sadistic borderline, psychotic Warden/Matron of a co-ed women’s prison. She is a total institutionalist, exerting strict regulations, with no gray area for sentimentalism. For van Zandt it’s about the cold hard road to rehabilitation… her way… the hard way.
Lupino has described herself as “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” Ida Lupino moved to Hollywood from England, after filming I Lived with You starring the beautiful Ivor Novello. (The Lodger 1927). She started to make some noise as the hard-edged dame in the 40s, starring in 2 powerful Noir films They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941), both starring opposite one of my all-time favorites, Humphrey Bogart.
She starred in two other memorable films which are great contributions to classic Film Noir, Road House 1948 and On Dangerous Ground 1952. For more info about Ida Lupino, the actress, and how she got started as a prolific director of film and television you can read more about her here.
Lupino, while a uniquely beautiful woman, has a face that can convey heartlessness, a hollow shell of a woman, and a militant spinster. ‘The Iron Maiden’, is what I’ve dubbed Lupino for these two particular interchangeable roles.
There’s also the wonderful Juanita Moore, Vivian Marshall, Mae Clarke, Gertrude Micheal as Chief Matron Sturgess, and one of my favorites, Phyllis Thaxter as the ‘nice girl’ thrust into a ‘bad situation’ who almost loses her mind from the claustrophobic and oppressive iron grip van Zandt keeps on her and the rabid choke hold she keeps on the jugulars of the other female inmates.
And don’t let Thaxter’s role fool you, I’ve seen her play ruthless psychotics in her own right on Boris Karloff’s Thriller episode air date Nov. 6th, 1961 The Last of The Sommervilles as the conniving sociopath Ursula Sommerville. Interesting connection…Ida Lupino not only wrote the script for the episode but directed it as well!
Although a gritty Noir ‘women in prison film… could easily sway into the campy territory, Lewis Seller’s Women’s Prison stays very steady on a course of lensing the social implications of a corrupt and brutal institution that extols credit for keeping the female riff-raff out of the community while perpetuating the hard line, and struggle that many of these women face on the outside. Beating them down, and objectifying them as sexless social misfits who need to be kept away from ‘men’ and out of a ‘decent’ society.
Amelia van Zandt is the hyper-exemplification of what can happen when too much power is given agency and allowed to culminate into a destructive force. van Zandt is the linchpin of brute force, and the submission required in order to control a group or perpetuate an ideal. The fact that she is female illustrates that it does not only have to be a patriarchal institution that can break a women’s spirit. It is here that elements of class and social capital come into focus and play a role in predetermining their fate.
Lupino’s character is similar to Hume Cronyn’s sadistic and unempathetic Capt. Munsey in Jule’s Dassin’s Brilliant Brute Force 1947:
In a way, van Zandt is just another ‘Boogeyman‘ created by an institution that dehumanizes its individuals.
Women’s Prison illustrates what happens when absolute control is given to a person or persons and that control goes unchecked, allowing their private or misguided motivations, mental health, ability to lead, and quite simply the lack of understanding about the human equation to dictate the terms of the human condition in/of an isolated/insulated environment.
Lupino herself such a versatile actress/director, is quite perfect as this sterile unfeeling, unswerving moral mercenary who could actually beat a pregnant woman into a coma, for not giving up a small piece of information that she truly doesn’t have.
I read that Lupino took this acting role as she needed the work, coming off the collapse of her independent production company. Perhaps she might have thought it sensationalist fodder to do women in prison flick, but she somehow brought that edgy arrogant quality that elevated it to a finer socially conscious Noir film. Sensationalist B Movie, hell yeah, but within the constructs of the film, there are some hardcore truths about a system that is broken.
There are so many memorable film roles that come to mind with Lupino. Directing herself in, The Bigamist 1953 she plays Phyllis Martin opposite Joan Fontaine. In Nicholas Ray’s Noir thriller On Dangerous Ground 1952 Lupino plays the gentle yet stoic Mary Malden across Robert Ryan.
And not to be forgotten, her moving performance as Marie in Raoul Walsh’s pivotal Noir film for Bogart, High Sierra 1941. She also directed a strikingly harsh noir film with barely any female cast, with Frank Lovejoy as the one-eye-open sleeping psychopath!
Whether she’s directing behind the scenes, or putting forth that vital fervent control of hers, Lupino always has the leverage to carry any project she touches. You always get the sense that whatever Lupino is doing… acting or directing, it is about ‘the work’ and not ‘stardom’
The thing about actresses like Ida Lupino, Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Shelley Winters, Kim Hunter, Susan Hayward, and Vera Miles, is that these women are interesting and genuinely emotional to their core. They have that wonderful paradoxical range of hysterical anger to raw vulnerability, an honesty that they aren’t afraid to bring to the screen and share with the audience. Women like Lupino are complex human beings, on and off screen it’s what I love about them!
I’m focusing on these two films, because a) I love Ida Lupino so much… especially when she’s wound too tight and meaner than spit, and b) I admit it, I have a guilty pleasure for watching sassy ladies thrown together behind the iron bars of a broken justice system…
Is van Zandt a coded Lesbian character in Women’s Prison? I think not. I can see why some people might perceive her to be a repressed self-hating lesbian, who resents the female inmates for their own sexual freedom, in addition, the beating that Joan receives could be taken as symbolic or a sexually sadistic release for van Zandt.
Honing in, particularly on Joan, because she has become pregnant, which exploits her position as not only a sexually active female but one who has elevated herself now to the social status of ‘motherhood’, a hierarchical position that might set van Zandt, loveless and childless off into a blind rage.
This would be an easy explanation and not uncommon for the 50s to portray a self-loathing coded homosexual whose mental instability would drive them toward committing horrible acts on other people, or self-destructing themselves.
There have been truly great figures in past films that fit this criterion, Judith Anderson as the wicked Mrs. Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940) or the murderous Clifton Webb as Hardy Cathcart in 1946 The Dark Corner.
Yet it’s Amelia van Zandt’s absolute lack of any sexuality, or empathy that makes me believe she is an’a-sexual being’ in this role. She has an icy refrain that is almost sickening. A lack of empathy or emotion that is absolutely chilling.
Sexless yes, by choice as she is a type-A workaholic and repressed moral fanatic.
Not by some secret fear that she knows the love that dare not speak its name. I’m not rigid on this though. I’d love to know your opinion on this character. I could be totally wrong, and she is intended as a repressed, jealous angry closeted lesbian.
Still…van Zandt is the figure piece for obsessive power that subsumes one’s identity, negating all requisite 1950s American ideals, be it, the perceived 50s homemaker, dutiful housewife, professional woman in a man’s milieu, ideal mother, mother hen, or mentor. van Zandt is not meant to have a ‘sexuality’, she is every bit a ward of the state, the cog in the wheel of a total institution. There isn’t any female weakness projected, or an overt ‘hysterical women’s syndrome’ at play (that’s Phyllis Thaxter’s stereotypical role as Helene.)
Van Zandt doesn’t feed off women’s intuition, there is no expectation of compassion or maternal instinct built into her code of conduct. She is not a devouring mother figure, nor is she a femme fatale. Amelia van Zandt is sheer blind law and a ruthless psychotic who insists on the inmates following her rules.
I’m also very content NOT to think of Lupino’s role as an angry dyke, though it is clear to some that she IS a repressed lesbian. She’s framed more as ‘ultimate authority’ dispensing of justice, sexless and soulless, therefor desire does not play into her logic. If we do consider her to be yet another demented closet case then…
It only adds more fuel to the bodies burning on the sacrificial pyre of homosexual or lesbian film characters up until recently who were either portrayed as crazy, pathetic, or preposterously over-exaggerated, stale, and vintage stereotypes… devils and madwomen…
Characters who a) Killed other people b) Were mean-spirited enough or twisted and jealous enough to commit murder c) Are weak or tragically flawed in some emotional way, or d) Symbolically had to be destroyed by either committing suicide, killed by a freak accident, beaten, sent to prison or a mental asylum for the criminally insane, far away from normal society.
[NOTE: Perhaps some things haven’t changed all that much. Just finished the episode of The Sopranos where Vito Spatafore (Joe Gannascoligets) is beaten to a pulp for “taking it up the ass” or being a ‘fanook’ (the Italian slang for being a gay man). It’s still not too safe to be gay in Hollywood or anywhere else for that matter!]
So I say let the brutal Amelia van Zandt be one less film character depicting the misconception about gay people, and perpetuating the idea that it somehow correlates with mental illness, violence, depravity, instability, and abnormal behavior.
The film is more focused on the corruption of power and inherent flaws in the justice system and manifested prison culture. How the system actually reinforces a criminal code, in effect creating a lifestyle and dependency supported singularly by the penal system itself, where the prisoners come to rely on that framework and can not function normally outside of it. Which flies in the face of van Zandt’s rehabilitation, ironically producing the opposite effect entirely. That said, I know the film is also a romp on the wild side for moviegoers in a rigid 50s culture.
Having that extra flair of sensationalist titillation of dames closed in together, sharing bars of soap in the shower, and being punished for being ‘bad girls’!
I don’t get any strong whiffs of van Zandt resenting the women’s sexuality or their attractiveness. She, however, does look down on them as useless fodder from society’s output of human garbage. Whether they are married, mothers, or barely out of high school. Once incarcerated, they need to learn the rules and keep their noses clean and their attitudes straight. Which means complying at all costs, even growing old and dying in prison if that is your sentence. Even lose your parole regardless as to whether you’re black, white young, or even an old woman, who’s spent most of her life incarcerated. When van Zandt is on the warpath, everyone suffers.