Ida Lupino: The Iron Maiden of Prison Noir: Part One ‘Women’s Prison’ (1955)

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…”

WOMEN’S PRISON 1955

Directed by Lewis Seller,and written Crane Wilbur, (He Walked By Night 1948, The Bat 1959, House of Wax 1953) with the screenplay and story by Jack DeWitt.

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 her here.

Lupino, while a uniquely beautiful woman, has a face that can convey a heartlessness, a hollow shell of a woman, a militant spinster. ‘The Iron Maiden’, is what I’ve dubbed Lupino for these two particular inter changeable roles.

Women’s Prison is swathed with an ensemble of various Noir Femmes as the rough and weathered inmates. Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, and Hugo Haas regular Cleo Moore.

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!

Thaxter as the cunning Ursula with Martita Hunt as the eccentric Celia Summerville.

Although a gritty Noir ‘women in prison’ film…  could easily sway into campy territory, Lewis Seller’s Women’s Prison stays very steady on a course of lensing the social implications of a corrupt and a 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 un-empathetic Capt. Munsey in Jule’s Dassin’s brilliant Brute Force 1947:

Is that a lead pipe Captain Munsey or are you just REALLY happy to see me!

In a way, van Zandt is just another Boogeyman created by an institution that dehumanizes it’s 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 a 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.

On Dangerous Ground 1952

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!

High Sierra 1941

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, 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!

A young Ida Lupino… beautiful!


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…

From the vast range of characters Lupino has performed , from Noir to Melodramas… these two roles quite suit her complex hard edged quality, yet do not risk pigeon holing her versatility.
Her acerbic tone and combative swagger, pack quite a jolt to the solar plexus, she isn’t afraid to take risks and get ‘bad ass ugly’ on screen. Like Shelley Winters or Geraldine Page. These are courageous actresses, and let us not forget my all time favorite Bette Davis!

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 who’s mental instability would drive them toward committing horrible acts on other people, or self destructing themselves.

Dame Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers taunting Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)

There have been truly great figures in past films that fit this criteria, 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.

Clifton Webb as the arrogant Hardy Cathcart in The Dark Corner. His wife Mari Cathcart (Cathy Downs) is the symbol of his unhealthy obsession. She is an “objet d′art” not a wife in the true sense of the word. Cathcart is a possessively violent man and the perfect example of the coded gay character. Again… Hollywood attributing psychosis with repressed homosexuality.

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 morals fanatic.

Not by some secret fear that she knows the love that dare not speak it’s 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, perceived 50s homemaker, dutiful housewife, professional woman in a man’s millieu, 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.)

Post hysterics… now isolated… truly framed in.

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 shear 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 freak accident, beaten, sent to prison or a mental asylum for the criminally insane, far away from a normal society.

[NOTE: Perhaps some things haven’t changed all that much. Just having 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 life style 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 Zandts rehabilitation, ironically producing the opposite effect entirely. That said, I know the film is also a romp on the wild side for movie goers 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 punished for being ‘bad girls’!

The women have a bond that is forged by the fault lines between the powerful and the powerless

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 comply at all costs, even grow old and die 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.

To humanize the prison a little more for the interred ladies, there are guards who bare more of a clearly defined gendered role as ‘woman’ second to being a ‘guard’ first. Some, even entering into a gray area of caretaker, or overseer, definitely not the relentless iron myopic world view of the neutered van Zandt. Toward the end, the rigid Matron Sturgess begins to come around, once she gets a belly full of van Zandt’s sadism.
There’s a lighter moment toward the end of the film where two female prison guards (one played by Mae Clarke, -(Matron Saunders) from the grapefruit-in-the-face scene in Public Enemy), chats before going on break. There’s clearly a certain level of normalcy amongst the matrons. Some have lives outside the prison and do a straight forward job of watching over the women responsibly and respectfully.

“I want to catch the last show at the Bijou.”
“That prison movie?”
“Yeah.”
“They never get things right in prison pictures.”
“I know, but I like to pick out the flaws.”

Some matrons look like they could eat you for midnight snack

The dames in this prison are there for various reasons. One is a stripper who’s got ’10 to life’ One of the new girls asks her ‘You got 10 to life for taking off your clothes?” The stripper says, ‘No, I also shot my agent!” This brings out a burst of laughter amongst the girls, who form a bond inside the joint.

One of the girls is in for forging checks again. Seeing a pretty dress and not being able to resist! Jan Sterling who plays Brenda has big doe eyes is in for ‘paper hanging.’

Brenda meets Helene the first day of her incarceration. When they first arrive at the prison together- She tells the scared Helene “You won’t like it at first, but once you get used to it, you’ll really hate it!”

Brenda is a type of local celebrity at the prison. The guards are familiar with her, amiable almost affectionately antagonistic- Matron Sturgess greets her, “She’s paroled a brunette and comes back a blonde!”

Brenda jovially matches Sturgess’ dig,  and before she can complete her “Well… well… well”, Brenda wide eyed and smiles says, “Hello Sturgess, You’ve put on a little weight!”

Sturgess comes back, “I’ll lose some of it now that you’re back on our hands” Sturgess looks her up and down.

Phyllis Thaxter’s character Helene Jensen is in for involuntary manslaughter. She accidentally ran over a little girl while trying to pass a car on the right. The confines of the prison and the guilt of the accident drive Helene toward a major mental break down, bringing the attentions of the prison doctor, the kindly and compassionate Dr Crane played by Howard Duff.

Dr Crane (Howard Duff) The incessant pipe smoking calm sea of psychoanalytic reason.

Not all the guards are stone cold gatekeepers. Brenda jokes with her about her ‘date’ that she’s heading out for! This moment bridges the gap between inmate and outsider, woman and non-entity.

Another of the girls was involved in armed robbery. Most of these girls are criminals, but they aren’t hard edged anti social types who need to be treated like dangerous offenders or untamed animals.

These women are tough, and because the prison inherently sets up a dynamic where the inmates must distinguish themselves as outsiders and miscreants, naturally the environment becomes one of ‘us against them.’

The prison creates an atmosphere where the women will form alliances which appear more like a sorority with lots of camaraderie even though they are in a maximum security jail. This elevates them to a level of human connection that the system is trying to strip away from them, and it disallows the institutional bonds that perforate the environment, which is otherwise claustrophobic and demoralizing. The bonds that the women form, are a necessary micro society of women who will transcend class and race at times, because their need for self preservation is their greatest imperative.

Of course this goes against the grain of the strict foundation van Zandt is trying to set up. No socializing, no happiness, no identity and no idea that freedom is possible. Pay your debt quietly, no questions, no trouble, until or if you ever get paroled or til you die in there.

These women have all made mistakes. They also have a certain class consciousness that have made them world weary and mistrustful of authority. They also have insight into their own flaws, making them likable, and more human than the authority figures who are in charge of their internment.

Jan Sterling who plays Brenda Martin, writes some bad checks again, and so winds back inside. As if she knew it was not only inevitable, but actually a welcomed relief to come home again. Being met with great cheers from her friends, even though she has blown her parole. “Our old friend’s back!” Brenda is the heroine of the film.

One of the flaws of the film is the stereotyping of Juanita Moore’s character Polyclinic ‘Polly’ Jones. We first meet Polly , one of the black prisoners, on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor singing “Swing low sweet Chariot”

Is this lax script writing, stereotyping the black woman yet again as ‘servant/slave’ amongst the white prisoners?, the one who is closest to doing the dirty work, all the while singing a negro spiritual, yet  jolly in her social and institutional captivity. It is suggestive of her being the iconic ‘Aunt Jemima’ character for a reason, playing a lower role even in the hierarchy of the prison system. Showing the inequity of racial status within the hierarchy of prison life is either a sociological statement or pure stereotyping on the part of the script.

Though… Polly is not wearing a rag on her head, and the white prisoner is mopping the floor standing up using a handled mop, Polly is on the floor scrubbing the grime and the filth clean whilst on her knees.

Polly on hands and knees scrubbing the prison floor, while the other white prisoners sit and chat.

The camera frames Polly on her knees with the wash bucket, looking from her perspective/vantage point at white legs in, nice shoes, dress and purse of the newly arrived, re offender Brenda. The juxtaposition is striking.

At times, I have discovered certain deeper narratives, by singling out one frame and studying it’s composition, aside from experiencing the film as it rolls by.

Polly asks Brenda “what happened”, Brenda tells her “never mind” Polly smiles,  ‘I’m sure glad you came home’ Transcending race, the bond forged by these institutionalized women is strong. They refer to it as ‘home’. They seem comfortable there. Even some of the guards actually respond amiably toward Brenda as if she is a celebrity of a sort.

Polly ‘clinic’ Jones, ‘My mama named me after the hospital where I was born.’

Polly gets introduced to Helene. She tells her that she doesn’t look like she belongs in a place that this. ‘What happened was it a man?’ Brenda steps in and says it’s a long story. She’s taking a nurturing role to Helene. Watching over her like a guardian angel.

If there is one particular class issue that the film likes to make it’s that these hardened women, prisoners though they may be, are wiser in the ways of life and love, friendship and struggle, than any of the women in positions of power over them. Being a prisoner, being locked up, can give you a very subjective view of the world. van Zandt is a prisoner of her inner hatred, pent up rage and myopic view of the world she lives completely outside of.

Joan’s (Audrey Totter) husband Glen (Warren Stevens) is caught forging work papers to try and get over to the women’s cell block, and is sent to the Warden’s office. The male prisoners too, are faced with intolerance and corruption. Dr. Crane begins to hate the system. Egomaniacs in positions of power… A cigar smoking bully and an erudite pipe smoker… The opposition/confrontation narrative is set up early on in the film.

What’s unusual, and perhaps problematic, is that the women’s prison sits adjacent to the men’s prison. The State won’t devote money to building separate prisons. This leaves a level of anxiety for the guards and the warden, to prevent the problem of men sneaking over onto the women’s ward. The worry of Men-Smuggling!

Women’s Prison only focuses on one particular man making it over to the women’s side. The husband Glen Burton played by Warren Stevens who is desperate to see his wife Joan (Audrey Totter).

The men aren’t running rampant trying to seduce their co-ed inmates or carrying on clandestine debaucheries in secret underground tunnels dug out with dull spoons. It’s just Glen who wants to see his Joan to let her know where the money is hidden, so that she’ll be taken care of when she gets out of jail. Joan who got time for being in possession of guns used in the hold up, though she was not complicate in the robbery.

Dottie LaRose (Vivian Marshall) holds up a pair of men’s pants in the laundry room. Oh how they miss their men. The infusion of identity and sexuality, to showcase that these ‘are’ sentient women with ties to another life.

Brenda burns her hand on the press, to distract the matrons from going into the linen closet where Glen and Joan are sneaking in a little marital merging. Brenda is the hero of the film.

Problem is, they love each other so much, that when Glen finally manages to sneak into the laundry room one afternoon to spend some time with his wife, she winds up pregnant!, And that sets the warden and van Zandt on a witch hunt to try and find out the leak between the men’s prison and the women’s. The Warden and van Zandt are more concerned about how it appears, so the pressure is on to find out how Glen got over, so they can put an end to their embarrassment.

Van Zandt is so under pressure from her male boss to make this debacle right, that she becomes a ferocious meat eater and beats Glen’s wife Joan unconscious and she loses the baby.

Van Zandt also suffers from a form of megalomania where she believes that only she can see the right road of rehabilitation, “She knows these women better than anyone, and she knows what she needs to do to ‘reform’ them.”

That would be, lets say, taking a traumatized newcomer who isn’t a criminal, and juicing her with so much tranquilizers, then forcing her into a straight jacket, and placing her into solitary confinement for several days, until she barely has a pulse. Then take a pregnant woman, who is already pretty weak and beat her senseless.

Now that’s rehabilitation !!!!

Butting heads with Crane, he has taken Helene Jensen out of solitary confinement against her orders! But van Zandt’s will is strong, and she will not be disobeyed.

The film showcases a very brutal scene, bearing a realism that some films of the mid to late 50s might not have dared to do, where after having been dragged out of her cell, Joan who is obviously ill from the pregnancy, sleep deprived and worn out, is thrown to van Zandt for one immortal beating, screaming as she is whacked around, all the time begging that she knows nothing about how her husband got across to the women’s side of the prison.

She is telling the truth, but van Zandt wants her pound of flesh, revenge and wants someone to take the blame for the breech that made her look weak to Warden Brock. Her brutal unforgiving punishment toward this listless, pregnant girl, is quite breathtaking in it’s sadism. Lupino is unrelenting as her inward rage turns outward at Joan.

Brenda and Joan chatting just before the matrons come and drag her off to van Zandt

Joan pleads with van Zandt to believe that she doesn’t know how her husband made it over to the women’s side!

While the one matron stands erect… motionless like a stone gargoyle outside, Sturgess begins to see the brutality up close, she is starting to believe that Joan is telling the truth, much too late, unfortunately.

Dr. Crane has a much different philosophy about the female inmates, he believes that van Zandt truly hates the women prisoners, and it’s because of her resentment that ‘every broken wreck in here has some experience with love.’

Dr Crane– You enjoy your power don’t you Amelia?
van Zandt – I enjoy my work if that’s what you mean…after all I’m rebuilding human beings…the lives of women committed to my care. You know I’m a student of psychology doctor.
Dr Crane– so am I….

Dr Crane -May I tell you what’s wrong with you
van Zandt– Well do by all means
Dr Crane- You dislike most of the women here…because…deep down…you’re jealous of them
van Zandt- that’s absurd

Dr Crane –You’re feminine, attractive, you must have had opportunities to marry. Maybe you even cared for somebody once. in your cold way.
van Zandt (rising from the table, taking off her glasses) How dare you!
Dr Crane – But possibly he turned to somebody who could give him what he really wanted…warmth, understanding… love) There’s hardly a woman inside these walls that doesn’t know what love is.
van Zandt – Yes and that’s why most of them are here
Dr Crane-Exactly… Even the broken wrecks have known some kind of love,,,,and that’s why you hate them
van Zandt- What you call hate… is complete understanding doctor… knowledge gained by years of study and hard work. I know these women…all of them…. and only a strong mind can control them. And if you had any real understand you know what I’m doing to rehabilitate them, yes even the psychopath.
Dr Crane– You’re the psychopath Amelia, believe me!
van Zandt – Get out of here!!!

Perhaps Dr Crane is the ‘explainer’ of the film, yet It’s too easy to assume that Amelia van Zandt exerts her venomous rage on the other matrons and female inmates, because most or all have husbands or fellas of their own on the outside. She is a driven workaholic who’s work ethic and obstinate moralizing have skewed her world to the point of fanaticism.

Also to consider is the fact that Crane’s view is skewed by his male gaze. He assumes, that he has the omnipotent psychological edge of reasoning as there is an inherent legacy that men are more intellectually superior and women naturally are prone to emotionalism, jealousy, weakness and lack of leadership. As compassionate as Dr. Crane appears, it is still not surprising that he is playing the gender card regarding van Zandt’s motivations, in particular that they are founded in emotional psychosis and a flawed yet intellectually rooted belief system.

It’s actually Brenda who’s opinion I validate about van Zandts jealousy. When she tells Sturgess who comes by the cell, “I suppose the crummier we look the more it makes van Zandt seem like the Queen of Sheba in her clothes”

While I do believe that a small part of her rage may be motivated by jealousy, the more pervasive interpretation of her animosity toward the inmates stems from a manifested psychosis of a god complex, like that of the puritanical ministers who were able to burn people at the stake for being witches and godless, when they were merely ordinary people, perhaps of less means, misunderstood, or struggling. van Zandt is a dangerous figure head of conservative power out of control, in a society where people are not perfect, and the American dream is not attainable for all.

The film builds slowly, intentionally as van Zandt and her phallus giant key ring, that remains clasped to her belt at all times, moves stealthily around the prison, keeping an eye on the inmates, tamping down any sign of joy or human experience the women might be exchanging. She grows more paranoid, and Dr Crane sees this pressure cooker that’s about to explode. When he tries to suggest or intervene on Helene Johnson’s behalf, after her solitary confinement locked into a straight jacket just for being frightened and shocked by her new surroundings, driving her into a catatonic state, van Zandt becomes even more combative at being challenged by this liberal doctor.

Crane and van Zandt clash once again.
The nasty old matron takes away Helene’s visiting time with her husband, the moment her hands touched the grating between them. Helene gets hysterical again.

Van Zandt tells Helene’s husband that his wife is a psychotic and a danger!

Dr Crane takes a special interest in Helene after her initial breakdown when she first arrives, trying to encourage her he tells her “you’ll get parole” Then he gives her a sedative. Unfortunately Helene is so traumatized by her first night in prison. Helene’s psyche is much too fragile and freaks out with the guards so against Dr Crane’s orders, she is thrown into solitary, while he huffs on his pipe and broods.

Crane refers to van Zandt as ‘borderline psychopath’ without much support, which again during the time period of Women’s Prison with much obsession and emphasis on psychiatric therapy, it brings to light another question,

Are ‘The inmates running the asylum’…? Are the jailers any more equip to govern, or are they just as dangerous as those in captivity? It’s an honest question…

Okay, so I’ve analyzed the film and haven’t gone the other route and exploited all the campy B-movie sensationalist enjoyment I also got out of watching a fabulous ensemble cast of bleached blonde beauties, beating their fists against concrete walls one minute or slinking around the starched, stiff backed guards in white rubber shoes. Dames showing off their curves and sucking on a cigarette like it was a penis.

I’m not blind to the pure joyful pleasures of boob watching, especially when the ensemble is part of the set decoration from a sweaty laundry room scene where Brenda (Jan Sterling) purposely burns her hand on the iron press, just so Glen and Joan Burton can do their conjugal thing in the linen closet, after Glen sneaks out of the mens’ side of the prison. To the close quarters of the cells, where the women dream about their last good time, whispering to their sweethearts in their sleep!

Unfortunately for Helene, there are no pillows and blankets in solitary. Only the cold floor and the tight straight jacket to hug you close.

It is the same wisecracking platinum blonde Brenda (Jan Sterling) who takes Helene under her wing, and helps her get adjusted to her new life on the inside. Brenda is a gentle soul, but not opposed to becoming aggressive or protective of her friends. She becomes roused by the mistreatment at the climax and is the strong voice for the group of women, shouting at van Zandt “People need to know what’s going on in here.”

‘People need to know what’s going on here…and what happened to Joan’
Someday the tables will turn on van Zandt!

Sterling’s character acts as sort of the heart and soul of the film. The human face that speaks for all the women inside. Cleo Moore, another veteran ‘bad girl’ from the Noir realm plays platinum blonde Mae, Brenda’s good friend who’s been trying to improve Mae’s grammar while in prison. Their relationship is solid and adds humor to the film. At one point Mae starts snapping at an adversary saying ‘One squawk out of you and I’ll punch a hole right in your diagram’ Brenda surrounded by chaos quietly corrects Mae,  ‘Diaphragm honey.’

Audrey Totter another Noir staple is terrific as Joan Burton, the woman whose husband just can’t stop trying to sneak over to the women’s side of the prison to see his wife. I recently saw Totter play a much older paunchy nurse with one line per episode in the 1970s television drama Medical Center, starring Chad Everett. It made me sad to see her delegated to inane lines like ‘phone call for you Dr Gannon on line 3’

Playing the non essential middle aged nurse, when once she commanded the screen as ‘femme fatale’ ‘dish or dame’, ‘bad girl’ or even vivacious tramp.’ Now she’s just a lady in a starched white uniform and comfortable shoes, changing bed pans, taking phone messages for a gorgeous male doctor that wouldn’t give her a second look. Irony.

While Brenda plays the heart of the film, it’s Totter’s character Joan who is the conscience of the film. She forges the connection between right and wrong and the measure of how far reaching the hand of justice should play in the role of managing the lives of people in a set system of rules. Even while serving time for a conceivably punishable crime, like accomplice to a bank robbery. Joan is the counterweight to van Zandt’s sterile and unyielding hold on her strident truth of a black and white moral code.

Whereas, married sweethearts, Joan and Glen while criminals are perceived as very human, loving and not just ‘all bad’, without consideration of their circumstances. As it is with Helene who was a perfectly upright citizen who happened to make a bad choice which changed the trajectory of her life, and created the child victim she accidentally killed with her car. Helene’s own conscious, guilt and isolation creates an environment where she has no other direction to go but ‘crash’ emotionally. Van Zandt and the other matrons, treat her like a hysterical woman instead of getting her the psychiatric care she needs, while she is serving her time for manslaughter. Fighting Dr.Crane while he tries to help Helene adjust to her new environment.

The culmination, the fevered climax comes from Glen’s sneaking out to see Joan while in a coma, carrying his child, van Zandt having beaten her into unconsciousness. The inmates being pushed to the brink of mutiny against the cruel and vicious van Zandt, and Dr Crane having had enough puffing on his pipe and watching these women being treated like animals.

Crane, finally sheds his weakly perfunctory moral objections, takes the pipe out of his flaccid mouth, loses his soft bed side impotence and finally heats up, threatening van Zandt with disciplinary action, if Joan dies, and that there’ll be ‘2 murders’ on her hands and Warden Brock’s.

The Matrons curiously looking more imprisoned behind these steel bars than in control. Is this framed purposely to show us that the system traps everyone in a set of rules that confine and restrain our humanity?

Dr Crane –“You are a borderline psychopath, Warden. And you are very close to the border.”

Amelia van Zandt- “Aren’t we all, doc.”

End of part one. Coming soon Part Two Ida Lupino in Women in Chains 1972

5 thoughts on “Ida Lupino: The Iron Maiden of Prison Noir: Part One ‘Women’s Prison’ (1955)

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