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…”


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 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.

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

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:

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 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.

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

Coming soon to The Last Drive-In “Ida Lupino:The Iron Maiden – “Women’s Prison (1955) & Women in Chains (1972)

Who doesn’t love a good teeth grinding ‘Women in Prison’ movie! I know I can’t resist. And so I thought I’d pay a little tribute to two fabulous guilty pleasures of mine starring actress/director Ida Lupino!

The incredible Ida Lupino

I’ll go further in depth as to Ida Lupino’s extraordinary contributions to film and television when I do the full post!

The first film Women’s Prison 1955 is a taut Prison Film Noir piece starring the ineffable Ida Lupino who gives a stunning portrayal of a brutally sadistic prison warden Amelia van Zandt who holds sway over these chained women, slowly exposing herself to be a psychotic, as she institutes her savage brand of rehabilitation!

The film stars Jan Sterling as Brenda Martin

 Cleo Moore

Audrey Totter as Joan Burton

Phyllis Thaxter  (One of my favorite character actresses)as Helene Jensen a nice girl in prison on the verge of an irreversible nervous breakdown!

Juanita Moore as Polly Jones

Mae Clarke as Matron Saunders

and Lupino’s real life  husband Howard Duff as the sympathetic Dr. Crane and Warren Stevens as Glen Burton the man who can’t keep his mitts off his fellow inmate wife!

“Sensational scandal rocks women’s prison!

Women’s Prison (1955)

Then once again…now in that glorious made for tv color!!!!!!

Lupino reprises her role as the equally brutal Claire Tyson in THE ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK !!!!!!!

The film stars 70s tv and drama staples Lois Nettleton , Jessica Walter, and Belinda Montgomery

Lois Nettleton plays parole officer Sally Porter who goes undercover to expose prison brutality at the hands of the vicious matron Clair Tyson! The film also stars Neile Adams, Hazel Medina, Kathy Cannon, BarBara Luna and the great Lucille Benson.

Women in Chains (1972) tv movie

Also coming here at the Drive-In Part 2 of Screaming Mimi and MonsterGirl Asks Film Scholar Aviva Briefel

A trailer a day keeps the Boogeyman away! ABC Movie of the Week special promo

If you’re like me and remember fondly looking forward to the offerings of The ABC Movie of the Week, which was a feast of great 70s directors, writers, film stars and character actors. Stories of mystery, suspense and often the supernatural. Even a few ground breaking stories that featured taboo narratives for it’s day. Here’s a little taste of yesterday…!

ABC Movie of the Week featuring clips from

Run Simon Run 1970

Women In Chains 1972

Ida Lupino revising her role as yet another psychotic iron maiden warden of a women’s prison!

And No One Could Save Her 1973

The Longest Night 1972

Duel 1971

Snatched 1973

Howard Duff and Christopher George in 1973s Snatched

Divorce His Divorce Hers 1973

Happy Trailers MonsterGirl