Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Women Behind Bars (Jess Franco, 1975)

The first, and hopefully the last, women in prison film ever to be narrated by the general manager of an insurance company, Women Behind Bars (a.k.a. Des diamants pour l'enfer) is her to enlighten, horrify, titillate and entertain that thankfully small segment of the population who like to watch movies that feature women who are forcibly confined to a single location for extended period of time. And, of course, as everyone knows, the location best suited to show ladies in this state is a hellish correctional facility on the outskirts of a syphilitic nightmare; one that is preferable run by a corrupt sadist or a lustful lesbian. While I would much rather the warden to be the latter (according to my sources, lustful lesbians are the cat's pajamas), I'd be willing to watch just about anyone degrade female inmates over the course of a sleazy undertaking such as this. Which just goes to show you that maybe I've gotten to a point where I've endured way too many of these flicks; so much so that I can't even seem to muster the energy to protest the fact this film, which is, of course, directed by Jess Franco (Faceless), doesn't even have a lumpy butch lesbian as its villain. But for some strange reason, I can't seem to stop. The allure of the incarcerated female is stronger than ever. You could call it a sickness, but the only problem with that is, I don't feel sick. If you wanna know the real reason why  I keep coming back to this morally repugnant genre, all you have to do is look into the eyes of actress Lina Romay, the frequent star of Jess Franco's WIP output, and I'm sure you'll come to the exact same conclusion I did. What do you mean you didn't come that conclusion?!? Stare longer, dammit! Whether you come to it or not, if you peer deep into Lina's dark eyes for hours on end like I have, you will find all sorts of unexpected riches. And this film showcases those riches in a manner that was both profound and exhilarating.
Now, I've seen Lina Romay with long black hair (Lorna The Exorcist), I've seen her with short black hair (Ilsa, The Wicked Warden - "Lick my culo!"), and I've even seen her sport a blonde bob (Macumba Sexual), but the black bob hairstyle she dons during the period when she made Women Behind Bars has to be my all-time favourite Lina Romay look. The reason the black bob is my preferred Lina hairdo is that it frames her angelic face perfectly. Whereas the long hairstyle makes her look naive, the short do is a tad too boyish, and the blonde bob is just plain awkward, the black bob gives her a sophisticated aura; which is something she desperately needs if she expects to survive a session of genital electrocution in the prison's notorious punishment cell.
It's the 15th of May, 1975, and a group of thieves have just made off with a suitcase of uncut diamonds that were locked in a safe on a Chinese junk (owned by Rufus Hackerman, a wealthy businessman) floating in the harbour of an unnamed city in South America (the beautiful city of Nice, France subs for this unnamed city). After the lead thief, Perry Mendoza (Raymond Hardy), dispatches his accomplices (he shoots them on a rocky beach), he meets his girlfriend, Shirley Fields (Lina Romay) in the basement of a closed casino. When Perry discovers the suitcase is empty, Shirley pulls out a gun and kills him. Immediately after she does this Shirley places a phone call to the police, and confesses to Perry's murder.
However, the reason she states for killing him has nothing to do with diamonds. No, she tells them it was strictly a crime of passion. Receiving a sentence of six years in prison, Shirley is sent to a prison run by Colonel Carlos (Ronald Weiss), a bearded fella in a black Nero jacket with hardly any charisma; how someone so unappealing ended up becoming the warden of an all ladies correctional facility is beyond my comprehension. Anyway, if you thought Shirley's trip to the big house happened rather quickly, that's because I skipped over the part where Milton Warden (Roger Darton), the general manager of an international insurance company, arrives in town and gets a hotel room. Oh, sure, his scenes are semi-important as far as moving the plot forward went. But in terms of entertainment value goes, he's a bit of a dud when it comes to, well, just about everything.
Even though they both take place in a woman's prison and share some the same cast members, that's where the similarities between Barbed Wire Dolls and Women Behind Bars end. Boasting an unnecessarily complex narrative structure (the former had none whatsoever), the latter overwhelms the viewer with its storytelling devices, that you often get the impression that you're watching a real movie at times; a sensation, I'll admit, that has become somewhat foreign to me.
Speaking of similarities, you'll notice that Lina Romay is wearing the exact outfit she wore when she arrived at the prison in Barbed Wire Dolls; a pair of tight peach-colured trousers with a matching vest. The only difference here being, she shows a little more cleavage and doesn't enter the prison alone. Well, she doesn't enter the prison right away, she first arrives at Colonel Carlos's lavish villa. Along with an ethnically diverse trio of fellow inmates, a black chick named Laurel (six month sentence), a Latino gal named Rosa (two year sentence), and a Filipino woman in mirror shades named Maria (life in prison). Whoa, life in prison?!? I wonder what she could have done that justify her getting such a stiff sentence; Shirley murdered her boyfriend and she only got six years.
I liked conversation between Colonel Carlos and Shirley Fields that occurs after he dismisses the other girls, as it's obvious that he knows she's up to something. You see, he's not buying this whole "crime of passion" nonsense. He thinks Shirley knows the location of the missing diamonds (they were never recovered) and is determined to find out where they are. The same goes for Bill (Jess Franco), a shady associate of Rufus Hackerman working alongside Milton, the insurance guy. At any rate, the exchange - Colonel Carlos: "I'm afraid you seem a bit racist." Shirley: "Only idiots are racist" - is, in my mind, legendary.
Unable to win her over with cigarettes, Colonel Carlos sends Shirley to her cell along with the other new fish. And you know what that means? That's right, it's time to see what our shapely inmates will be wearing over the course of this surprisingly tame entreprise. As most of you know, my all-time favourite WiP ensemble were the one's worn by the ladies in Bruno Mattei's Women's Prison Massacre (a drab gray shirt dress paired with charcoal gray hold-up stockings). Okay, so, were the outfits worn by the Women Behind Bars cast able to usurp Ursula Flores and co.? What are you kidding? Nothing will top the drearily dull allure of a bunch of ambiguously European women in charcoal gray hold-up stockings. That being said, the prison uniforms featured in this movie were still pretty impressive. Check this shit out: Each inmate is a given a black shirt dress and a pair of chunky platform heels, and that's it.
Oh, and, yeah, you heard right, platform heels. Go back and peruse all the pieces I've written on women in prison movies, and I guarantee the words "platform heels" aren't mentioned once. Okay, maybe I can't exactly "guarantee" that, but there's a good chance they have never been mentioned.
It's at this point in the film when Colonel Carlos decides to unleash a WiP classic, and that is, the stoolie. Telling a prisoner named Martine (Martine Stedil), while she lies seductively on his bed (her inexplicable tan lines from a bikini she doesn't have lighting up the room like a Christmas tree), that it would be in her best interest to spy on Shirley. I was mildly amused by how Colonel Carlos attempts to butter his snitch up by informing her that he "prefers cute little blondes with sexy asses," as it came off as desperate and sad. 
When the Filipino serving a life sentence says, "stoolies make me want to puke," you know Martine is going to have work cut out for her, as the ethnically diverse inmates who were processed with Shirley make it clear that they intend to protect her from the forces that wish to harm her. But if there's anyone who can convince Shirley to spill the proverbial beans, it's Martine and her sexy ass; and, not to mention, a pack of cigarettes. As you would expect, cigarettes are the prison's primary currency, and the best way to make friends.
Sooner than you can say, "Dang, your thigh's are soft," Shirley and Martine are lesbian gal pals. Speaking of lesbians, you know how I said there were no lesbian authority figures in this film? Well, I think better back track from that statement as Miss Shapiro, the prison mistress, had a definite sappho vibe about her. Unfortunately, she only appears in a couple of scenes. The one where she catches Shirley reading a note in the prison's mess hall is her best, as it does an excellent job of showcasing her harsh yet delicate features. I also dug the white blouse she wears in the mess hall scene, it flattered her neck in a way you don't often see in the neck-adjacent world of blouses.
Despite the fact that I initially chalked up her appeal in this film to the shape of her hair, I'd to clarify that there's much more to Lina Romay's loveliness in Women Behind Bars than simply a well-coiffed haircut.
It's hard to believe, but you're gonna have to wait until at least the forty minute mark to see any cruelty in this film. Now, I'm not saying I was craving cruelty or anything like that. I'm just saying forty minutes is a pretty long time to wait to see some cruelty in a women in prison film, especially one that is directed by Jess Franco (if you remember, it's takes one whole minute for the cruelty to kick in in Barbed Wire Dolls). Anyway, an inmate, one who was caught starting a fight in the yard, is whipped by the male guard we normally see escorting prisoners and visitors alike through the long, dark tunnel that connects the prison to the outside world.
Evidence that Women Behind Bars isn't your average chicks in prison flick, I was quite taken with the aforementioned tunnel. You were what? Yeah, that's right, the tunnel was awesome. Sure, the irregular footwear, the genital torture, the lesbianism, the zoom lens shots (I like way Jess Franco's camera has a tendency to zoom in on both nature and hairy vaginas), and Jess's ridiculous accent were all highlights, but there was something about that tunnel. In fact, if you watch the featurette that comes with the Blue Underground DVD, you will notice that the tunnel is still there, so, make sure to drop on by the next time you're in Nice. And tell them Jess and Lina sent you.


  1. Reading our blog has helped me live through the interminable, dreadry night shifts at the call center where I am currently working. Love your Franco reviews, each and every one! No one but noone approaches a Jess film the way you do. My compliments!

  2. Thanks. I'm glad my Jess Franco reviews are bringing you so much solace.