For this year’s Noirvember, I am going to explore four-film noirs from the 1940s and 1950s that exclusively take place in prisons in Noirvember: Noir Behind Bars. While these films may miss some significant recurring plotlines and characters that define noirs, such as the private investigator, the femme fatale or the law-abiding citizen who finds themselves in the middle of a crime – it is interesting to examine how these films still encapsulate the style of the genre. In this article, I am going to explore Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947), Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) and two female-led movies, including John Cromwell’s Caged (1950) and Lewis Seiler’s Women’s Prison (1955).
Prison seems like a perfect place to portray the dark and hopeless themes and bleak atmosphere of the classic noir due to the secluded environment and often violent inhabitants. It is also apparent that the recurring themes and plots are heavily influenced by whether the films revolve around male or female inmates. Ask anyone about prison films, and they will tell you that their premise almost always consists of a carefully planned breakout that is full of suspense yet rarely finds success. Yet, given our four films, this narrative path is restricted to only two.
Brute Force and Riot in Cell Block 11 occur in male prisons, emphasising the inhumane and brutal conditions for the inmates. Here the darkness of the prison eventually drives the inmates to plot an escape or organise a riot. The former film is notable for some extremely violent and brutal imagery, including crushing one of the inmates under a stamping machine and beating a chair-bound man with straps. It is also based on the real-life events of the Battle of Alcatraz, an unsuccessful escape attempt in 1946.
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On the other hand, Riot in Cell Block 11 is unique in its almost docu-style introduction and realistic social commentary on the state and condition of American prisons. The film goes beyond simple storytelling, with many contemporary critics noting how it managed to speak to the much-needed reforms of the country’s penal system. Having been shot on location in Folsom State Prison, the film used real inmates and guards in roles, making it an incredibly unique example of creativity in a 50s studio-based filmmaking environment.
Both films ensure the audience root for the inmates by portraying the awful conditions they riot against, such as brutal guards, overcrowding and substandard food. Siegel’s film also emphasises the request of the convicts to relocate mentally ill inmates to an asylum to receive proper healthcare.
To further highlight the differences between the two sides, both films have either unreasonably sadistic guards or uncooperative prison officials and state politicians. Played brilliantly by Hume Cronyn, Brute Force’s Captain Munsey is one of the most despicable characters in cinema history. His despise towards the inmates and enjoyment of their torture is heavily reminiscent of Nazism. This is understandable given that the film is Dassin’s first post-war noir, coming just two years after World War II.
Interestingly, all four films feature at least one sympathetic figure from the authority who cooperates with and understands the inmates. These include a prison doctor (Brute Force, Women’s Prison), a sympathetic superintendent (Caged) and a liberal-minded warden (Riot in Cell Block 11). This represents a clear need to ensure the “morally right” side has at least one figure who represents law and morals in the state institutions represented.
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However, when we look at our two female-led films, the first significant difference is the narrative arc, with neither Cromwell’s nor Seiler’s film revolving around attempted escape. Instead, both are centred on the cut-throat world of the female prison through the eyes of a naive newcomer, Marie (Eleanor Parker) Caged and Helene (Phyllis Thaxter) Women’s Prison. For both women, the hardships they endure are only elevated by the sadistic matron in control (Emerson Hope and Ida Lupino). Meanwhile, both films heavily emphasise the strong female community of the prison in fighting against the totalitarian directorate that runs the establishment.
These female-dominated films also emphasise character development as Caged’s Marie slowly sheds her innocence before transforming into a hardened convict, while Women’s Prison portrays the female inmates as a small society while placing its emphasis on Ida Lupino’s character, Amelia and her mental deterioration. At one point, the prison doctor confronts her with the hard truth that her ruthless nature, rigid rules and disdain are nothing more than jealousy of the close-knit community of female inmates she sits above.
ELEANOR PARKER CAGED (1950)
Pregnancy, vulnerability and the need for a man are also recurring plot points in both films, almost as if it was a mandatory storyline in any female-dominated narrative. In Caged, Marie happens to be pregnant when taken into prison, her journey leading her to give the child up for adoption when her own mother refuses to help. Meanwhile, in Women’s Prison, Joan (Audrey Totter) indulges in illicit conjugal relations with her husband, who sneaks in from the building where the male prisoners live. While it could be argued both plots increase the dramatic foundations of the films, they also highlight a belief that no woman can survive without the support of a man.
But when we look at Brute Force, the role of women is portrayed differently. Here we have several flashbacks detailing how each man ended up in prison. All these short stories end up having a woman, or more precisely, a femme fatale, as the reason for their crime and subsequent punishment. While the flashbacks undoubtedly add some extra backstories to our characters, it’s interesting that all members of cell R17 are behind bars, thanks to a woman.
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Both of our female-led movies contain moments of violence, yet neither can live up to the brutal finale of Brute Force. Caged, for example, features an inmate killing herself while another one stabs the ruthless matron to death, and Women’s Prison includes an off-screen scene where Ida Lupino’s character beats up the pregnant Joan. However, it is within the male-led prison dramas that violence is not only embraced but expected. These gender differences have continued to dominate the prison drama, only recently finding challenge and review.
But what makes each of these selections a film noir and not just a prison drama? Noir is often described as “the conventions of narrative structure, characterisation and themes”; with a visual style that is characterised by low-key chiaroscuro lighting, unbalanced compositions, claustrophobic/dark interiors and off-angle, deep-focus shots.
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Within each of our films, fatalistic overtones and a sense of doom are present – the very essence of noir. Here noir styling is apparent from the beginning of all four movies to different degrees, making it clear that these are not stories that embody classic Hollywood twists or last-minute miracles. While there are clearly no happy endings in any of our movies, they each deliver a form of poetic justice. This is especially the case in Brute Force and Riot in Cell Block 11, both of which make the main characters’ sacrifice worth the horror. Meanwhile, Caged implies that Marie will soon be back in prison, with her personality drastically changed by her experience. Women’s Prison is the exception, as our main character, Helene, is gifted a happy Hollywood ending.
Prison noirs significantly differ from the best-known and most famous examples of the genre, whether they be The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) or Out of the Past (1947) in the narrative sense. But despite this, they are the most noir-Esque films when it comes to visuals. The recurring images of the shadows cast by the cell bars, the deep focus shots of the bleak, empty corridors and the claustrophobic interiors prove that the prison setting ultimately has everything that makes film noir so iconic.
Noirvember: Noir Behind Bars forms part of our annual Noirvember content.