Follow up to :
Now, it’s 1972 and IDA LUPINO reprises her role as brutal chief matron of her cell block, the new distinction is that of Claire Tyson. Tyson is a modern transformation from her original role as Amelia van Zandt in Women’s Prison 1955. She is as wicked as her last incarnation as cruel prison Matron, possessing that reptilian stare that could smack down the orneriest of Glory Stompers, Cycle Savage, Devil’s Angel, or Mini Skirt Mobber, on a rampage, with just one look from those cold-blooded eyes.
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski (Attack of The Giant Leeches 1959), produced by Edward K Milkiand, and written by Rita Lakin (Peyton Place, Mod Squad) With a collection of 7os actresses to fill up the septic green environs of the prison system with their archetypal guises, The sage, and kindly old timer, the tough loner black female outsider, a woman, but a ‘black woman’ doing time for her old man, in the pecking order there’s also the disturbed sylph who wanders aimlessly until provoked by any random act, and of course, let us not forget the essential queen bee who has a direct pipeline to the savage Claire Tyson. New in the mix is the bewildered new fish who has to learn the ropes fast if she’s to survive, and the renegade newcomer undercover, who dares to challenge the system’s status quo.
This ABC Movie of the Week entry stars the great Lois Nettleton as Sandra Parker an employee of the parole department who decides to go undercover as Sally Porter, so she can infiltrate Tyson’s den of maltreatment and sadistic foreplay that she wages over and engenders in the inmates of her cell block. After witnessing the result of a brutal beating death of one of Sandra’s parolees a returning inmate at the prison, Sandra plants herself undercover to try and unearth the prison brutality and bring it to light. She wants Claire Tyson prosecuted for the death of Ginger Stratton.
The supporting cast includes Jessica Walters as the jaded and calculating Dee Dee who you do not cross. Belinda Montgomery plays Melinda Carr, a young fish accused of shooting her ‘old man’ but is innocent. Niele Adams (Steve McQueen’s wife ) plays Connie.
Hazel Medina is Althea doing time for pulling tricks and using H, Katherine Cannon is the damaged Alice, Lucille Benson plays old timer, Billie, Joyce Jameson plays Simpson and Judy Strangis plays Maggie. Barbara Luna is Dee Dee’s ‘pet’ Leila. Translation of ‘pet’, meaning the one who scrubs Dee Dee’s back in the shower.
The woman in prison theme of the noir 50s is suddenly transformed into a much more 70s psychotronic cult vibe. We lose the moody shadows of Women’s Prison ’55, the contrast of darkly lit frames, and stark white-hot scenes of the prison Institution in B&W. Now there’s a vintage wavelength of colors, the boundaries are pushed a bit further in terms of dialogue and subject matter, and the acting becomes part of a sub-genre that springs from the noir cannon and leaps into Cult Exploitation via the new vehicle of the socially conscious made for tv movie, wearing socially conscious themed clothes, but set forth to titillate just as much.
The film still concerns itself with the same social commentary about reforming the dysfunctional prison system, but the moody nuances of light and dark are left behind for more vivid voyeurism and unintentional camp that evolved out of the sub-genre. While Women’s Prisons’ use of shadow was stark and refined stemming from the contribution of the Prison Noir cannon, Women in Chains feels more like the vintage pop culture of that day, endemic with anti-establishment consciousness, which was a tasty morsel of the late 1960s and early 70s.
This ABC’s Movie of The Week offers starring veteran television actress Louis Nettleton is a hoot to watch for any genre fan and nostalgist of the made-for-tv movie experience, namely ME and any number of my genre fan pals.
The mood and music open up with such a typically appropriate vibe of the television 70s soundtrack by Charles Fox whose music works so well to create an atmosphere that’s claustrophobic, isolating, and cruel. There’s a dripping sense of enclosure and dread.
A female inmate runs through the prison halls, the camera frames her in obscurification. there’s a sense of urgency as she drastically runs away from an unseen danger. There is a forceful clang of the iron bars as the doors slam shut and Lupino now incarnated as Claire Tyson, dressed in officer blues dangles keys, smirks to herself, and inwardly loves the sound of iron meeting rusty iron bars.
The music torments the inmate who is writhing in a cell trying with futility to get beyond her bars. There stands Dee Dee (Jessica Walters) with an odd look on her face, as the girl flailing her arms in slow motion set to the simple piano chords and guitar notes that remind me of an old western showdown, drawn out, dusty, and waiting for death to take one of the duelers, as she grabs the bars, spins around and sweats and screams to no avail.
Suddenly, there is a percussive sound like that of a snake hissing, as Matron Tyson becomes prominently framed.
The claustrophobic melody, mournful, enclosing desolation, affecting and dripping with soulful ruination, the sound of condemnation and certitude. A few timpani rolls, like quiet thunder on the plains as Matron Tyson walks closer. Off-screen, we hear a woman’s blood-curdling screams. Now we see it is the inmate, who is gripping the bars as the malevolent Tyson approaches closer ever, closer. The girl is trying desperately to get out, yet it is futile.
Now she is frozen in fear, whimpering, she turns back grabbing at the bars that shut her in. The frame switches to a shot of Dee Dee looking on, is she worried or is she Tyson’s flunky?
The camera pans back to a close-up of Tyson, distorting her visage, giving her a look that is monstrous. The halls wash green, institutional, blur and sway behind her… sterile and blurry. Tyson raises her hands in a gesture and signals the other inmates to grab the poor girl. The sadistic look tightens her face into a grimace of authority and grotesque ascendancy, a powerful gratification comes over her.
It’s the trope of any good woman-in-prison flick, to have the brutal mother in command sway her female minions to do her bloodthirsty bidding, and that usually means some kind of sadistic punishment for something the girl tattled about or didn’t conform to as the inner mechanisms, the sub-rules of that institution are more clandestine than the official ones.
As they restrain her Tyson herself inflicts the mortal blow across the face. A SLAP as loudly pronounced as the slamming of the iron doors.
Charles Fox’s (Barbarella 1968, The Love Boat theme music) music augments the moment in a high-pitched percussive stab of whistle and strings..
The scene cuts away to the cell key inserting itself in close-up into the iron door. We’re locked in.
Now two women are walking down a corridor, with a nurse stationed at a desk.
We’re on a hospital ward, and Sandra and Helen parole officers are walking down the hall passing a nurse seated at the desk.
Sandra calls out to the nurse, “Hi Betty, where do you have Ginger Stratton?”
“She’s in 2 Sandra”
Sandra accompanied by her associate Helen walked down the glaucous halls and passed nurse Betty.
The echo of their heels on the cold tile floor reverberates through the halls, there is a sense of rhythm from the women being on a mission, of a quiet duty to see this Ginger Stratton.
Nurse Betty asks the other woman, “Working late Helen?”
“Would you believe on her case, and on a Sunday yet?”
As both women enter the hospital room, Ginger lies unconscious on a bed hooked up to life support. The attending doctors tell them, “She hasn’t even regained consciousness, there’s much more damage than the prison report indicated” Sandra wastes no time replying, ” I’ll bet.”
Sandra asks the doctor who “signed it?”
“The chief matron on her cell block, Claire Tyson.”
Ginger Stratton dies from the brutal beating, the doctor walks out into the hall and lets both Sandra and Helen know.
“What will the cause of death be, officially?”, Sandra looks at him point blank.
“Well, you could start with a ruptured spleen.” Sandra interrupts.
“No doctor, the cause of death”
“You heard the same report I did, she fell” -He walks away.
The scene changes and now the two women are having coffee in Sandra’s kitchen.
“Put’ yourself in prison?”, Helen exclaims in shock.
“That is not only the craziest idea I’ve ever heard, but I had to get up and come over a half hour early to hear it– Helen looks at her watch.- you must be out of your mind. “
Sandra takes a deep breath in, “Nope, I just can’t stop thinking about Ginger, dying like that…it’s just senseless”
“You’ve got to stop blaming yourself”
“yeah, she’s dead… and Claire Tyson killed her”
“Now you don’t know that for sure Sandy”
“Well, I’m going to find out, I am going to do it.”
“Do me one favor, when you get in there, don’t let the prison psychiatrist examine you, you may never come out.”
“Hey listen, I don’t like the idea of going to prison, are you kidding, but I’ve worked with enough of these girls, to know what it’s like.”
“You know but you don’t really KNOW”- she grips her hands, closing to her chest, clenching her teeth. ” It’s one thing to sit at a desk and rap to a parolee about prison and it’s something’ else to see those big doors shut behind you.”
“Well, what other way is there?… I mean can you go on counseling these girls and sending them back knowing what people like Tyson can do to them.”
“Well the prison system isn’t all Tyson’s”
“It doesn’t take many, she’s got to be stopped”
“Stopped…you mean convicted of Ginger’s murder? or kicked out of the penal system?”
“Good luck you’ll need a whole case, documentation, witnesses, and one other small detail… you’ll have to stay alive long enough to get it.”
Once inside, Sandra now Sally Porter with a cover story that she’s been convicted of drug use, starts to get the big picture of how Tyson runs the cell block. She instigates cruel mind games and physical altercations. Tyson’s character in this film differs from Women’s Prison in the sense that Amelia Van Zandt, while viciously psychopathic, had an odd sense of her own staunch moral code that she ran her ward with. Claire Tyson is merely a savage and wicked sadist who likes control.
Matron Claire Tyson walks into the cell block like a referee about to set down the ground rules of a boxing match-“Welcome ladies, you’ve been assigned to my block. The name is Tyson. Miss Tyson. Now the cell doors within this block will remain open for two hours each day following your work detail during this period you are free to do, personal things, such as showering, letter writing, or laundry. This two-hour period is a privilege that is earned by following the rules. Do not abuse it…Alright…”-She shakes her head, grits her teeth, and walks away from the women, having delivered her warning.
As Tyson walks passed a row of women in their cells, chanting, she staunchly struts by them, unmoved by the din of their disquieted spirits, the voices of caged women, serenading their oppressor in blue, not a woman but a monstrous guard in uniform. The women are also shouting at the new ‘fish’ coming down the pike. Hands held outward as if to grab at them. This is the first initiation into the new environment of incarceration.
The frightened and bewildered Melinda asks Tyson to please be put with Sally. Tyson responds “If that’s what you want.”
Once in the cell, the group of characters get to introduce their personal dynamic to us, by setting forth a show of their individual idiosyncrasies, stating their boundaries, a little bit of the background motives that put them in that cell to begin with, and shades of their own breadth of principles, unified or self-serving.
Billie the oldest of the inmates announces “Welcome to the State Ritz, hot and cold running Matrons.” Althea’s harmonica serenades the introductions.
Dee Dee walks up to them and asks Sally, “Hi there, you done time?”
Sally/Sandra answers “Some”
“How bout you cupcake?” Melinda just shakes her head no.
“Okay you got your choice of cots, now this one gets all the traffic and the noise, and this one is not much better”
“Where are the sheets?” Melinda naively asks
“They’re in the laundry cupcake being pressed and perfumed,” says Leila.
The silent Alice walks over to Sally sitting on her cot.
Sally asks “What’s your problem?”
Billie tells Sally, “Leave er alone…she ain’t right.”
Billie is played by wonderful character actor Lucille Benson who was busy appearing in a slew of films, and television series and made for tv movies including The Fugitive Kind 1960, Little Fauss and Big Halsey 1970, Slaughterhouse-Five 1972, Private Parts 1972, and the tv movie Duel 1971 and The Devil’s Daughter 1973 which starred Belinda Montgomery.
Dee Dee asks “Name?”
“Sally” “ Melinda”
“Melinda…” Dee Dee pauses with a little snide in her tone.
“You two fish better get the rules down, You don’t stool, you don’t steal, you don’t bring in trouble.”
“I recognize this chic, I saw her picture in the newspaper. She did her old man in with a shotgun”
” I did not, the newspapers are wrong” Sally looks on concerned for Melinda’s obvious vulnerability.
Dee Dee chimes in, “Hey you and me Melinda, birds of a feather, I’m in for Murder One.”
“I didn’t, it was circumstantial evidence you know but I didn’t do it, I really didn’t do it”
Dee Dee replies with sarcasm, “You know that’s what I said too.”
“Well as soon as my appeal is set”
” I wouldn’t hold my breath if I was you”
“Took nine months last time for me to get to court”
Melinda exposes her ignorance, “Oh they wouldn’t make me stay here that long.”
Althea starts playing harmonica, the blues of Melinda, a poor disillusioned girl about to be swallowed up by the system.
Dee Dee asks “Sally what’s your story?”
She answers, “Using, broke parole.”
“Althea, you got company.”
“It was my old man’s fault, he’s the one who got me strung out”
“Sure he did” Dee Dee looks at her sideways.“And you turned gold because he made you.”
“Hey man…we need the bread.”
“To buy more H, round, and round she goes and where she stops, everybody knows right here”
“Yeah, But I’m gonna get out, and I ain’t comin’ back here no more.”
“You’ll be busted in a week, it’s the only place you know where you can get a bed and three squares.”
Suddenly a signal like a deafening buzzer sounds throughout the halls.
Billies says, “It’s lunchtime, our shift.”
The women all pile out of the cell and into the corridor and walk to the mess hall to eat.
THE GRATUITOUS GIRL FIGHT, EVERY WOMEN’S PRISON FILM NEEDS ONE!
While there Dee Dee gets into a fight with a fellow inmate named Simpson, whom she purposely knocks her tray onto the floor. Tyson watches the altercation with her arms folded. The other guards stand around and allow Dee Dee to attack the inmate pinning her to a lunch table and trying to smash her head in with a metal plate. The two women struggle, chaos ensues, and the room becomes riotous, still, the guards do not intervene. Melinda and Sally sitting at a table, look on horrified.
Finally, Tyson grabs hold of Dee Dee before she can punch the woman in the face.
She holds her, “Simpson, you are on report for instigating a fight.”
‘what’d ya gonna do arrest me?”
Sally watches curious to see Tyson’s next move. Tyson’s eyes open wide glaring at Dee Dee waiting for the cue, for a ceremonial nod to continue.
Tyson then walks Simpson toward Dee Dee who then lands a gut buster to the solar plexus.
As Sally starts to rise up, Billie warns her, “Porter” letting her know to stay clear of trouble.
Back in the cell, Sally asks “Where’s Dee Dee?”
“She’ll be along,” Billie tells her.
“The night bell rang” Sally quizzes
“She gets privileges and Leila here’s her, uh…pet” Althea comments. Ah finally, the lesbian subtext emerges.
As Leila fixes her face with a compact mirror she tells Sally “You could say she does little jobs for Tyson.”
“Any big ones,” Sally asks.
“Yeah, for bigger privileges.”
Billie interjects, “Well there was Angie, and Angie had a big mouth. Tyson wanted it closed.
And Dee Dee did the closing.”
“What did Dee Dee do to Angie”
Suddenly Leila springs up from her cot and approached Billie before she can finish her sentence.
“Talk about a big mouth.”
Melinda voices a need for something totally basic taking herself out of the conversation, “I wish I had some toothpaste.”
Leila walks over to Melinda, “Hey cupcake, you got any money?”
“Then honey you’re out of luck” Althea chimes in.
“Now what are you talking’ about?”
“I was talking to Melinda about trading.”
“Well cool it, I’ll break them in when I’m ready.”
The two women get onto their cots, Sally is standing and watching both of them.
“Hey, you break us in for what?” She asks.
“Oh,” Dee Dee says animatedly coy, a little flirtatious “whatever…”
Sally walks slowly, confidentially over to Dee Dee’s cot.
“How do you get all those ah….privileges?… oh maybe I’ll just ask Tyson about it.”
” I guarantee it’ll be the last question you’ll ever ask.”
Just then Tyson off camera slithers over to the cell door and says “Well now…”
As she stands there, she asks “How are my new fish doing?”
Dee Dee answers, “They’re doing fine Miss Tyson, Just fine.”
Tyson jingles her keys, walks into the cell, and tells Dee Dee that she didn’t ask her.
“I said how is my new fish doing?”
Melinda stares dumbfounded and struck still by her austere presence.
“That was a direct question. Direct questions, get answered around here.”
Sally says “Okay”
“Try, Okay Miss Tyson”
Sally chews on the words and spits them out “Okay…Miss Tyson.”
Taking a paused breath she tells Tyson that she has a question.
“What is your question, Porter?”
“Are we always to address you as Miss Tyson?”
She chuckles, “As long as I’m single.”
The girls in the cell laugh, Melinda looks worried, panicked.
After a short pause, Tyson turns to Melinda and says “Oh yes, I have a present for you” She is holding Melinda’s glasses. Melinda thanks her.
“Alice dear” Tyson summons the disturbed pretty blond woman child to come over.
“Come on” Tyson strokes Alice’s hair, pushing it away from her face, and begins to tell her ” Now these, belong to her” She points with the glasses toward Melinda. “You understand?” Tyson knowingly is giving this disturbed young woman a sort of command to react. A game she is playing to shake things up. Assert her authority, create a disconnect within the group, and maintain power over them, by keeping them fighting each other.
She hands the glasses to Alice who looks at first bemused and then puts them on. Sally watches on. Child-like music box notes begin to play, They are the signifier that underscores Alice’s mental disturbance. She is like a wild child, uncontrollable and infantile. She does not belong in prison. She is mentally unbalanced, most likely a victim of severe abuse and neglect. The only motif, or fetish she is missing is the obligatory rag dolly that a girl in one of these films would be perpetually carrying around with her.
As Alice begins to wear Melinda’s thick-framed glasses the music of fracture and demented musings starts to stir. At first, she smiles. Tyson watches and waits. Sally is in the foreground. It’s as if Tyson has handed Alice a loaded weapon.
Alice moves toward Melinda on the bed.
The percussion, acts like a buzz saw, with chimes and bells, it distorts and alarms.
In a mechanism that could be considered a symbolic nod to a frame of a classic noir, we momentarily see the silhouette of Alice on the wall in shadow.
Now, the percussive buzz saw augments till there is no other place to go…
Alice takes the glasses off and begins to smash them against the bars and then onto the floor of the cell. Melinda gets up in a hurry.
Tyson then reprimands Alice half-heartedly with the consternation of a distracted passionless mother, “Alice” and then a sadist’s smile washes over her face. Melinda looks at her glasses as Sally has picked them up off the floor for her.
Sally explodes, “That was a filthy thing to do… she can’t see without those glasses.”
“Porter, I’m giving you this one, but I wouldn’t talk to me that way again if I were you.”
Walking over to Sally, she pushes her hand holding the sharp keys into Sally’s stomach making her double over in pain. Tyson walks out, and closes the iron doors, leaving her mess behind.
The musical motif of the cult western movie plays its melody once again, creating the feeling of desolation, guitar notes playing a theme of inward struggle and alienation come back to underscore the film.
Sally walks hunched over to the wall and supports herself there for a bit. The percussive sushing, the snake rattle noise inserts itself into the moment. Is this symbolic of The Snake Pit? The snake is Claire Tyson. Does it denote the bite of the present struggle to break free? Sally is now trapped. Helen warned her.
The rest of the women stay to themselves in their cots. A few coughs, assorted noises, and asides under blankets, No one says a word.
As Sally rests her head against the wall, a woman from another cell screams, startling her, Sally turns around…the screams and cries continue. Melinda springs up in her cot.
Without even getting up, remaining lying on her side, her head comfortably on her pillow Dee Dee informs Melinda of a bit of significant wisdom.
“YOU AFRAID OF THAT CUPCAKE…YOU HAVEN’T HEARD ANYTHING YET”