Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Killing the Hollywood Star: The Death Row in "I Want to Live!" (1958)


A late film noir – dating to the same year as Orson Welles’ era-closing Touch of EvilI Want to Live (1958) comes from an age of noir that has had the time to reflect upon itself, but hasn’t begun talking about itself yet, not in the way the neo-noir does. Like most film noir, I Want To Live! bridges more than one genre: in this case, the melodrama and the political or social problem film. The film’s political agenda comes even before the film’s noir: as oppose to the previously discussed Yield to the Night (1956), I Want to Live! insists on its factual origins. At the start (and end) of the film, we are grandly told, via panel, that we are about to see something that is more than a feature – a kind of document, a testament even, based on the documents gathered by a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and the letters of the actual Barbara Graham, the film’s protagonist. 


This gives the impression of the singularity of not only Barbara Graham’s case – which it certainly has, though Graham’s innocence is not debated in the film – but also of Graham’s demise. There is an uncomfortable emphasis on the innocence of the accused, as if her innocence were to make her eventual execution all the more unjust, bizarre, and nightmarish. It’s a different approach from Yield to the Night (with a heroine who is not only guilty of murder but also has no regrets), the kind that hints at corniness but becomes, probably unintentionally, all-emotion – manipulative and operatic. I found I Want to Live! almost frustrating after Yield to the Night’s sobriety and poetry. In hindsight, though, I Want to Live! feels oddly pure, maybe because of its age: in a life after Fassbinder, anything manipulative can be fondly, even willingly, revisited. There is glamour and morbidity in such a film. It’s good drama. Essentially, as my Grandpa used to say – it is “a good movie experience”, though its political potency has become just a little obsolete.




After asserting itself as something more than melodrama (a political action, an informative document, an orientation) the film deliciously slides into the murky world of noir. The first half hour of the film is steeped in dark jazz, crime, lies, and underworld. Its harsh, expressionist realism is mixed with the displaced old-artifice of Susan Hayward’s fierce, loud-yet-vulnerable performance as Graham, and the tough lines she delivers. Graham’s character is met after she has already fallen from grace. Ellipses and hints point to a biography in which she never even fell from grace, but was born far away from it. There is something mythic, even archaic about the depiction of Hayward as Graham. She becomes a reflection of the woman played. As a criminal, she is always in motion, always brassy, always snapping back; yet she gives in willingly and acknowledges that in a world of men, she doesn’t really stand a chance (the existential limits of life and justice, even, seem to be lined by men or women who serve men). As a prison inmate she covers the epitome of the Hollywood bad girl: having lost her way, she is now missing out on the “good life” (something all women in women’s prison films do – though as different as the women I have discussed till now might be, they all seem to long for the same kind of “good life”: romantic stability, a household and family, high esteem – be it as a conservative or simply to “be cool”), missing out on family life and conservative values, missing out on what’s “fun”. When Graham receives her final death row cell, she angers the matrons by playing records, smoking, and, most importantly, wearing “provocative” lingerie (“Oh boy,” says Graham, “Would I love to have somebody to provoke!”). Film being what it is, objects speak of life. In an occult fashion, they channel souls and dreams, even desire. They are the last remnant of normalcy in a system that stands apart from life. Even ritual, the organization of life, is parodied into an everlasting scene preparing Graham’s execution.

Women tend to be shed of their outside world fashion in Women’s Prison Films; Barbara Graham, the real woman, had a thing for her appearance (or rather, the outside world had a thing for her having a thing for appearances) and thereby becomes a perfect vehicle for a Hollywood actress (see the essay by Dennis Bingham).




A gruesome, provocatively feminist aspect of the film is the execution and what leads up to it. With its endless preparation, the finale is about twenty-seven minutes long and culminates in a sequence in which Hayward, wearing earrings and a black sleeping mask, is gassed in front of an absurdly large group of men watching through the windows of the gas chamber. Hayward’s physical beauty and attire, even the odd prettiness of the makeshift-sleeping mask, add to the perversion of the moment. Graham’s character doesn’t want to see the men staring and so she doesn’t seem to, but the viewer watches them stare. It becomes crucial that the scene is not a documentary, but a re-enactment, that the woman watched is not Graham, but Hayward. Of course the viewer is now sickeningly complicit: it is one of those uncomfortable and subversive things cinema does, making us witnesses and observers in the destruction of pretty things.



Recommended reading:

Dennis Bingham, "I Do Want to Live!": Female Voices, Male Discourse, and Hollywood Biopics,

Cinema Journal, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Spring, 1999), pp. 3-2.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Death Cell in “YIELD TO THE NIGHT” (1956)


 Yield to the Night is an astonishing film in several ways: from its first, explosive opening scene to the final shot of an extinguishing cigarette that might have lived a moment longer than its smoker, it is a film with an effective agenda that also happens to be intriguingly crafted. Here, the story-within-a-story premise of the Women’s Prison Film is reduced to the solitary drama of protagonist Mary Hilton (Diana Dors), a woman sentenced to death for murder. 


 
Hilton is supposed to be likeable while being unlikeable: she isn’t innocent and does not regret her crime, she bitterly rejects all those who love her, yet she still receives the viewer’s sympathy and emphatic horror over her fate.
Most of the film is set in a cell, a sun yard, and a visiting room. Lively and detailed flashbacks, starkly contrasting the cell scenes of the film, unroll the details to Hilton’s crime – her affair with a pianist, the pianist’s unhappy affair with another woman and subsequent suicide, and finally, Hilton’s murder of this other woman.
The rest of the film shows how Hilton’s character waits, unremorseful about her crime, remorseful about her heartbreak, constantly hoping for a repeal of her sentence. She seems less optimistic about this repeal than the other characters in the film who bring it up again and again – as survivors and prospective mourners, they have more urgency.
The hope of being acquitted plays into the terror of Hilton’s incarceration: uncertain whether the week might be her last, she is reluctant to over-read things, while simultaneously pondering her imminent death in what seems to be the most horrific form of boredom imaginable. With nothing to do, she watches the objects in the room:
“I know every mark and blemish in this cell; every crack in the walls, the scratches on the wooden chairs, the place where the paint has peeled off the ceiling, and the door at the foot of my bed … the door without a handle. I know it better than any room I’ve ever lived in.”










Her words are overlaid with the visuals of what she describes. Here is an expressive use of space in a Women’s Prison Film; or rather, lack of space and the detailed reading of its borders when there is nothing else to do.
The door without a handle of course is the door to the room in which Hilton will be hanged. Though the cell itself has no bars, as often seen in “prison films”, Hilton clings to the bars in her bedstead as if to quote the genre. The Smiths later used the still for the cover art of the iconic Singles Album
The portrayal of the matrons differs from other women’s prison drama films: though some matrons are at times depicted as sympathetic, they are usually portrayed as power-hungry and sadistic characters. The matrons in Yield to the Night are always two on duty, changing shifts. They, like Hilton, sit in the death cell all day long. At times they try to cheer her, at times they take on the viewer’s position: Hilton’s impending death depresses them as much as it depresses the protagonist. Like her, they are prisoners, similarly filled with dread at the thought of what awaits Hilton. Time is passed with distractions such as board games and card playing. Absurdly, their greatest worry seems to be Hilton’s health and wellbeing – there is always discussion about Hilton’s mealtimes and sleeping patterns. At times their concern and behavior becomes borderline ridiculous (and an effective criticism of the absurd brutality of death penalty): when Hilton develops a blister on her foot, she is delicately cared for, as if the body that is to be executed must be fully intact in order for the punishment to be carried out.




 
While Hilton shuns all characters from her former life (her mother, brother, and former husband) she becomes particularly close to of the matrons, portrayed by Yvonne Mitchell, who develops something of a guardian angel-like image.
While building a house of cards (building instable spaces within other, much-too-stable spaces) she opens up about her life story and how she became a person who spends her day in a death cell. She mentions her failed love life – which is a signifier for a failed life all together, not unlike Hilton’s; these scenes also illustrate the cultural and social situation in post war Britain. 


The film is coincidentally NOT based on an actual case, though it might seem so. Its screenplay was co-written by Joan Henry who also wrote the book on which the film is based. Henry herself went to prison for several months – her experiences play into her book and film The Weak and The Wicked (1954). The woman upon whom the film could be based, Ruth Ellis, coincidentally happened to appear in a cameo in one of Diana Dors films – her life was later turned into a film in Mike Newell’s Dance with a Stranger (1984).

Yield to the Night’s promotional material is indicative of the two sides of the Women’s Prison Film. It shows the two apparently different viewing approaches of this genre: its exploitative, sleazy side on the one hand and its “problem-themed”, “political” or blatantly socially critical side on the other (what might actually be the more politically progressive film of these two approaches is questionable yet won’t be discussed here). Yield to the Night in itself is most likely a film of the second half, its publicity however promised audiences a film of the first sort. Its second title, significantly, was Blonde Sinner.


Further reading:
Diana Dors: An Angry Young Woman – detailed Article in The Independent by Melanie Williams, June 30th 2006.
A Hanging, by George Orwell

Monday, June 2, 2014

Female criminal / lesbian spectator: Alex Vause, "demi"-potent lesbian antihero of "Orange is the New Black" (2013)





 An alluring member of the raunchy and often hilarious ensemble cast of women’s prison TV-series Orange is the New Black, drug smuggler Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) is introduced as a kind of villain to the show’s initial protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling).

Vause is among the first characters we actually get to see, right in the first seconds of the show. She is, however, only shown in flashback – like her femme fatale sisters of old, Vause is introduced as seen through the eyes of her former lover, Chapman. The viewer is therefore prepped to see Vause as a sultry and seductive antagonist who sets Chapman’s incarceration in motion. “I knew she wasn’t a good person, but…” Chapman whines after learning of her impending sentence. Immediately putting the blame on her ex for naming her to the feds, this is the start of the did-she-or-didn’t-she narrative that is mixed with the show’s handy will-they-or-won’t-they love story.

Vause herself doesn’t make her dramatic entrance until the very last seconds of the first episode. It is surrounded by so much emotional upheaval that for a few moments I, utterly un-spoilered upon the day of release of Season 1, thought Vause’s appearance might just be a figment of Chapman’s overtaxed imagination.


What fascinates me about Vause is how she is a fusion of two distinct film historical archetypes: while she is a femme fatale she is also the fatalistically melancholy (mostly male) film noir antihero. (After discovering that she and Chapman are stuck in the same prison, I half imagine Vause lingering about with a bottle of prison hooch or pretzels, muttering, “Of all the prison yards, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”; Like Rick in Casablanca, Vause calls Chapman “Kid” in moments of affection.) Though introduced into the story as an Ava Gardner of sorts – she even resembles Gardner a little at times in the flashback sequences – Vause is actually the wounded animal that is Burt Lancaster, waiting quietly up in his room, knowing he got what was coming to him. After being introduced to Vause as “not a good person”, we mistrust signals in the following episodes that show Vause actually being a, well, kind of good person: she is the one inmate who comes to Chapman’s aid (though not entirely heroically) in the second episode, thereby secretly risking her own well-being. She also claims not to have named Chapman to the feds, adding a convincing “fuck you for thinking it was.”

Very soon after that, the viewer (though crucially not Chapman) learns that Vause was in fact lying; whatever her agenda, keeping Chapman out of prison wasn’t part of it. While Vause blames Chapman for long ago leaving her brokenhearted and spiraling out of control, the viewer assesses that Vause is lying out of some pathetic wish to be regain Chapman’s love and affection. When Vause, after many twists and turns at the end of the season, admits to this, it is particularly heartbreaking for Vause because she seems to have gained neither – by lying and manipulating, she has merely gone back to being Chapman’s sultry seductress, a destructive femme fatale.


Unlike famous film noir criminals, even women, Vause never draws a gun or wields a weapon. Sexuality is Vause’s greatest asset. She brandishes it as means of persuasion, of power, threat, and revenge, even as an initiator of conversation (unlike other inmates, she never seems to use it as a currency). When Chapman refuses to communicate, Vause simply aggresses her.

Earlier in the show, Vause even threatens to rape and later sexually assaults a fellow inmate who has questioned Vause’s authority and Chapman’s safety (Vause later spins her revenge out more elaborately).

Her only consistent accessory is her attire – most prominently, her glasses. Vause shifts, lifts, and nudges her glasses in different moments of emotion, assertion, threat or vulnerability.

Like a cat, Vause flaunts and saunters through the background for most of the season, glancing over her shoulder, assessing information through observation, avoiding any sort of conflict or contact unless absolutely necessary.


In a show full of female criminals, Vause personifies the female criminal par excellence. For most of the season, her story and the origins of her antagonism remain a secret. We do know about her work for a drug cartel, her seduction of Chapman and the eventual persuasion of Chapman to smuggle drug money, though it is unclear who was manipulating whom.

With a penchant for camp, Vause likes to joke in comic-book style metaphors: “well, if it isn’t the invisible woman,” she calls out Chapman sarcastically. It later becomes clear, in a preview to Season 2, that the invisible woman is Vause herself – “maybe I should switch careers and become a jewel thief,” she quips, coating her insecurities over her under-representation in her then-girlfriend Chapman’s official life. Like many a film noir hero, Vause seems to dream of the “normal”, “good” life but mysteriously denies it to herself out of self-stigmatization or masochism.


What sets Vause apart from the show’s other incarcerated women and their story is her own agency and power in her criminal backdrop, her willingness, even pride, in her crimes and story, as well as her probable function as mastermind in her business. Her work in an international drug cartel seem less about making money than having power over others; the illegal aspect seems less about desperation than it is about attitude and a glee in risk taking. In fact, her skills as a businesswoman seem to rival only those of Red, the Russian cook with the unresolved shady mafia background. Red, however, is the terrifying matriarch and head of the prison family whereas Vause is a loner who sticks up only for herself and occasionally for her ex-girlfriend.

In a socially critical show, Vause’s criminality is attributed to her impoverished social background: “No mulla, I no schoolah,” is her explanation for lack of education. She is obviously a gifted businesswoman and very intelligent, but in order to gain the power and wealth that she needed, there was no other way for her to go but the drug ring.


Vause, a supporting character (though an extremely popular one) in an ensemble cast, has a story that almost resembles that of a main protagonist of a male-driven plot. Hers recalls iconic figures whose American Dream leads into an abysmal lonely nightmare.

Her background of abundant party-throwing and wealth, her desperation to win over the whimsical blonde square Chapman/Daisy Buchanan, even her lack of non-narrated screen time (that is not in flashback) in the first eight episodes of the season draws parallels with a character like “Jay Gatsby” (others have written about this).

A lot of Vause’s popularity stems from her snarky, scoundrel humor – her lone ranger ways, disdain for bullshit and pursuit of a princess make her a kind of “Han Solo” of the OitNB franchise.

Like Mad Men’s “Don Draper”, Vause is a bastard in childhood, raised by a single mother and bullied at school. She is talented and fiercely driven to make something of herself, become the envy of others, and gain power over them. Vause’s “coolness” is inherited as though it were in her bloodline: her father is an iconic rock star while her mother was his groupie. The idea that her father is a rock star – despite the fact that he is a washout and a drug addict, as we learn from Vause’s own tragicomic flashback – is part of her self-mythologyzation and self-glamorization (see Vause’s self-inflicted glamour: her tattoos, all bizarrely inconsistent yet nevertheless desirable, her rockabilly-librarian attire which also seems weirdly outdated.)

Like Draper, Vause is a womanizer and almost something of a lesbian chauvinist. Apart from flirtations, there is actually very little evidence of Vause’s sex drive for any other woman than Chapman, but the viewer just takes it as a given. There seems to be no end to her foul mouth and overall kinkiness – her replies or remarks are mostly sexual in nature. She visibly leers, stares, and checks out other inmates and prison staff (especially Chapman); her glasses only seem to double the potency of her gaze. She manages to turn everything she touches into a sexual attempt or innuendo of some kind. (“Want to play doctor instead?” Vause says to Chapman at a party she is hosting in a flashback scene. When Vause reluctantly confesses her love to Chapman in prison, she quickly diverts by chuckling: “say Pussy again.” Pressing Chapman into a conversation by means of a sexual assault, Vause mutters “the great thing about sex in an industrial kitchen is that there’s a ton of margarine in there,” leaving us with nothing but screaming questions.)

  Lesbian gaze: in a flashback sequence Vause (Laura Prepon), surrounded by objects fetishizing the female form, watches her girlfriend Chapman (Taylor Schilling) strip.


In a glimpse of Vause’s former life, we get to see some of her taste in interior decoration, which is ridiculously potent: her bedside lamps, for instance, are shaped like a female torso. A burlesque pin up is tattooed onto her upper arm. In this way, Vause asserts herself as the lover of women par excellence. No male character could express such a fetish of the female body; it would code their character as absurd or even horrific. Vause and her corny taste and ardor sometimes remind me of a reverse version of R.W. Fassbinder’s last film Querelle (1982): sailors are replaced by inmates while the phallic structures of the harbor are replaced by the feminine architecture that Vause surrounded herself with in her former life. Her shady, tragic story, her sexual aggression, her drag-queen antiques and dressing style, her obsession with a younger woman and close attachment to her mother all give her a Fassbinder-esque bone structure where her storyline is concerned. Querelle’s Oscar Wilde-ean theme song “each man kills the thing he loves” might just as well apply to Vause. When Vause’s Season 1 back-story is concluded, we know that her drug smuggling business had bereft her of Chapman as well as her mother, and that she faded into a drug addiction which eventually got her incarcerated. “I used to have grand plans,” she tells another inmate that she’d rather stay in prison than escape, “now I can’t even get past the swirling darkness in my brain long enough to land on anything.”
Vause, having lost it all, has no clear life motivations. While Chapman has an apparent life to go back to – remodeling her bathroom and having babies – Vause can only come up with doing “X on a beach in Cambodia with three strangers in drag.”


Though she seems to want to, Vause seems incapable of building close relationships within the prison system. She degrades other inmates with her callous humor, yet still shows up to be part of their socializing as if believing they will somehow validate her coolness – “Baby, High School is High School,” an inmate reminds her when Vause’s pathetic plea for a social life becomes too obvious.

 When former junkie Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), sharing a raunchy sense of humor and ease with Vause, approaches her in friendship, Vause at first shows her vulnerability and depression. Their friendship eventually leads to both inmates jokingly pointing out their true former association to each other: “demand and supply”. Nichols was the drug addict, Vause the dealer. Nichols comes from an affluent background; Vause abused girls like Nichols for her drug ring. At one point in the series, Vause even explains the details of her business to Nichols, built on “sniffing out girls like [Nichols] and turning them into mules”.

In their final sequence in Season 1, Nichols initiates sexual contact with Vause in a similar fashion – Nichols demands and Vause provides, clearly marking her need for dominance, even in friendship.


Even Vause’s love-hate rapport with Chapman has a shady, sadomasochistic edge to it. Though Vause believably claims heartbreak and love for Chapman, there is an uncomfortable power-struggle lining the relationship that might have little to do with Chapman and all to do with Vause’s troubled past and insecurities. As we learn from flashbacks, Vause spent her school years bullied by “rich bitches” – girls who most likely grew up to become WASPy women like Chapman. “They’re getting boring-ass lives,” Vause’s mother consoles her, “you are cool.”

Vause later points out to Chapman that their affair was only built on Chapman’s attempt at trying to be cool: “you were just this boring little girl from Connecticut…” – as if knowing that literally fucking Chapman is simply doing what her dear mother told her to do (after admitting to being bullied by other girls, prepubescent Vause’s mother snorts “so fuck ‘em!”)

Though haunted by her past, Vause is a painfully tough survivor. When her prison affair with Chapman twists and flounders, Vause quickly cuts her out of her life.

“I can’t survive another spin on her merry-go-round and clearly you’re still on it,” she later spitefully tells Chapman’s fiancĂ©, knowing the impression will only break off Chapman’s engagement and blast Chapman off the edge.


There is something cinematically iconic about the troubled lesbian rapport between a blonde and a brunette. Traditionally, hair color is linked to stereotypical female personality traits, and in literature history, a blonde and a brunette are often set against each other in a quarrel over a man who usually passes up the alluring brunette for the wholesome blonde. Film history – or, say, the vocalization of a “queer” reading – eventually eliminates the man, leaving us with the blonde and the brunette in an intense and sexually loaded power struggle (take, for instance, the titillating moments between Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner in Mogambo, 1953). There’s also the fusion of the blonde and the brunette into one character, as seen in Vertigo (1958), or, as seen in my favorite example, Mulholland Dr. (2001), a complex splitting as well as a fusion of the blonde/brunette pairing. In a final scene of this film, Diane Selwyn, the scorned protagonist, names her fickle ex-lover Camilla Rhodes to a hit man (in an act of cold-turkey desperation, the way Vause might have named Chapman). The women’s romance is recounted as a luxurious power struggle between observer and object of desire. It becomes a metaphor of the very essence of cinema. The object of desire and the tension oscillate; a character that is archetypically female and sweet (“Betty”, played by Naomi Watts) becomes the agent, obsessive anti-hero (“Diane Selwyn”); she cannot get over her seductress – the enigmatic amnesiac “Rita” (played by Laura Harring) who, in her helpless, suggestive “silence” is also all-powerful (the movie star, the silver screen, “Camilla Rhodes”). 
 Laura Harring and Naomi Watts in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001)

OitNB’s Alex Vause is a troubled “loser”; stuck in her own mind like Diane Selwyn, who seems literally imprisoned in her own corpse. Vause is haunted by her former glory days as a character that mirrors Camilla Rhodes – potent, sexual, overly confident: a brunette that can do with the blonde however she wants, who can supply her with “jobs” (mediocre film roles in Mulholland Dr., illicit drug smuggling in OitNB) and come to for sex.

Of course, OitNB in the end is simply a fine TV-show: it isn’t “meta” or a Film noir and it aptly uses comedy to address what is particularly dark.


On the advent of OitNB's Season 2 I can’t help but wonder how the writers of OitNB will resolve the conflict of Vause’s character. Hopefully they will draw her idiosyncrasies out instead of molding her according to “what we want”– if Vause doesn’t get back with Chapman, it will anguish thousands of crazed Vauseman fans (including myself), if she does, the wonderfully multi-layered, troubled, loveable and seedy aspect of her character might fade. I’m hoping for neither.

(Well, of course I’m hoping for Vauseman. I can’t help it. But whatever, y’know? Let’s throw some pie for them) 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The penitentiary in "LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT" (1933)



 A distilled genre film fossil, there are scenes in this pre-code era picture that parade the generic summary of what the Women’s Prison Film is.

1933 is the year of two Barbara Stanwyck-driven productions bearing Stanwyck as a female anti-heroine involved in crime. She plays a criminal in Ladies They Talk About; her character in Baby Face (the majestic film that spawned this majestic gifset) starts out in the speakeasy scene and, after Stanwyck’s character catches up on some Nietzsche, goes on to become a 20th century Manon Lescaut minus the fatal end.

In Ladies They Talk About Stanwyck plays a hustler/bank robber and actually is incarcerated in a women’s penitentiary for a good stretch of the film. The most generic, undiluted genre moments are the raunchy scenes in which Nan (Stanwyck) first enters the prison. They are everything a Women’s Prison Film calls for.
Wide shots of the bustling daily grind of prison life are followed by an introduction to typical Women in Prison Film archetypes. We witness two women fighting over a chair, one in Spanish and the other in English; we later learn that the English speaker is “Aunt Maggie”, who “watches out for the girls” (archetype of the Mama character). Stanwyck’s character upon entering this fishbowl of a world is called “New Fish”. Though tougher than the usual WPF’s protagonist, she subsequently makes her mandatory faux-pas by impulsively changing the channel on the radio.
The scene is effectively underscored by a tune that we assume is non-diegetic but suddenly realize to be coming from a radio, throwing the shallow attempt at normalcy in prison life right in the viewer’s face. 
 
 
 
 
 


Nan is tough, and she makes friends just as quickly as she makes enemies (unlike most protagonists of WPF’s melodramas). She is quickly shown around the prison by a fellow inmate: the sunyard -“You’ll have a nickname for every blade of grass before you get out.”
cells, smoking/bathroom, matrons (“Second matron: okay if you are but don’t cross ‘er.”) - the sense of threat is supposed to linger.
 We see women of various ages, races, and social backgrounds; for some of them, we receive an anecdote of their former lives (a narrative perk we’ve since, and most prominently, seen employed in 2013 streaming phenomenon Orange is the New Black):

“Dear Mrs Arlington was a little jealous of a certain Mrs Banks, so she gave her dinner in Mrs Banks’ honor and ground up some of her finest glassware in Mrs Banks’ caviar, hah hah oh dear.”
or
“This little cream puff met a guy for dinner one night and wanted to know what his name was, so she shot him and read it in the morning papers.”

Being a pre-code film, we get to hear Aunt Maggie talking about a policeman getting a “manicure” in her former “beauty parlor”. There is even a butch character – another archetype - smoking in the bathroom: “watch out for her, she likes to wrestle.”

The appeal of the genre is immediately understood:
1.     Women, everywhere – you will never see a more diverse crowd of women as large as this in any movie but the women’s prison film and that’s just how it is.
The criminal angle to every story behind every character amplifies the suspense and allure of these women, and it is probably one of the most interesting assets of the WPF: crime is what makes a narrative interesting; I’d even like to say: crime is always interesting.
2.     The allure of the microcosmic guarded alternative world with its own rules and regulations. This can be applied to anything. It’s the simple reason why the Harry Potter books are so addictive.
3.     The closer the space, the more exciting it gets. Sparse interiors and scenery of prison also give rise to interesting detail, invention, and character.
4.     The satisfaction of watching a female protagonist go through alienation and toughen up or deal with the toughness thrown at her. Power struggles and underdogs are essential to excitement.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The jailhouse scene in Samuel Fuller's "THE NAKED KISS" (1964)




The Naked Kiss might not fall into the category of the women’s prison film per se. There are merely a series of scenes in which the female protagonist Kelly (Constance Towers) is locked up in a county jail.

The scene is an unforgettable one: it almost offers a summary of the film. Outside of her cell, Kelly spots a little girl whose testimony is crucial to her case. In an almost dream-like state (recalling the traumatic incidences in "solitary" of other Women's Prison Films) she calls out to the girl, frightening her away. 
See how Towers’ face, through the bars, goes from a mouth-less speechlessness - an iron mask of sorts - to something that resembles a human skull.











What, in the end, is the definition of a women’s prison film? How many scenes of this film must be set in prison? How many women must it contain?
Must there even be a prison, and if so, how visible must this prison be?
(There must certainly be a woman.)

To me, The Naked Kiss is a women’s prison film for this scene alone. But there is also the rest of the film, in which Kelly, a former prostitute, struggles to live a "normal", “good” life. The jail scenes are a cynical metaphor for Kelly’s overall plight – the ever-inescapable past, the very distillation of existentialist Film noir.