Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #19: Behind Bars (Opening Scene of Caged)

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-- Why is this opening appropriate for a film about females at a women's state prison? In what ways has the design of this scene made the audience as "caged" as these characters in this opening sequence?

 

This particular opening does not indicate right away just who is in that van. It seems that the first assumption the audience would make would be either men are in the van, or it is empty (but then why the siren?). We don’t even know if anyone (let alone women) is in the van until the door is opened and the guard says, "Pile out, you tramps, it's the end of the line." Then we see Eleanor Parker (she doesn’t even have a character name yet), who cringes, is scared and, by the way she is looking around (dazed & confused), you can see she is completely naïve. Then we see the “Womens State Prison” sign and have the “Ah Ha” moment. Eleanor Parker is last off the van, and the driver/guard has to grab her arm and pull her out. As the women line up, one of the women turns to Eleanor Parker and says “Grab your last look at free side, kid” – as they turn to look over their shoulders at the street traffic (now rather noiseless) and city outside the heavy iron gates of the prison. I couldn’t help but notice Eleanor Parkers’ oxfords and socks – an indication of youth (the bobby soxers of the Forties) and normalcy – something that hints she doesn’t belong here with these other women. The other women are dressed as you’d expect – cheap furs, heavy make-up, that rather sleazy, street worn look. Eleanor Parker is clean, fresh, with little or no make-up, dressed like a regular young girl but who is not very well off.

 

As to the second question, the scene starts with a tiny window with bars taking up a small portion of the movie screen surrounded by darkness. That window is the view of the outside world as the van (is that the van’s siren or another car’s siren?) travels rather fast to its destination. There are no other sounds other than traffic noises, the siren and other diegetic sounds which put you right in the scene (I can imagine the impact sitting in a dark movie theatre!). These sounds are unsettling, jarring and frightening as you “sit in the dark” of the van, wondering where you’re headed, knowing it can’t be good.

 

-- What about this opening reminds you of the Warner Bros. house style? And why is that appropriate for this subject matter?

 

The WB house style is the “harsh urban reality” as mentioned by the Curator. The realistic sounds and limited visuals through the tiny window of industrial or manufacturing buildings and main boulevards, not residential streets, set this scene in an area outside a comfort zone -- that is, outside residential neighborhoods with quiet streets. Manufacturing and Industrial areas are a staple of film noir locations because they are isolated, disorienting and can be intimidating by their size (the storage drums in White Heat, empty manufacturing building in D.O.A.).

 

-- Just based on this opening, how do you think film noir will influence this film's realism about life behind bars? In other words, why is the "substance of noir" appropriate for a story set inside a women's prison?

 

The main character, Marie (Eleanor Parker), is sent to prison charged as an accessory, has done nothing basically wrong except be in the car with her husband during a robbery. So we have her whole range of emotions from what has happened to her so far, including the pregnancy, and her situation now of being in prison. The other women on the van with Marie appear to be “seasoned veterans”. She is thrown into a world teeming with raw emotion, as every woman in that prison has her own story, a degree of guilt and has been hardened (some more than others) by the prison system. Even the Warden and matrons have stories. The Warden wants prison reform. The matrons run their wards like little fiefdoms. The fact that Marie’s innocence will not survive this brutal world becomes obvious and we must watch while Marie and the other inmates suffer their inevitable fates, some at the hands of the brutal matron who has a fate of her own as well.

 

I’ve seen this movie a couple times (despite being no fan of Eleanor Parker’s acting – but she is good in this early role) and to me it is dated in its reflection of the strict Fifties morality code for women and its borderline preachiness of same through it condemnation of the women inmates in the prison. But, the characterizations of the inmates are good, some are better than others, and some are very stereotyped. Despite this, it is still an entertaining movie, though it offers no solution(s) at all (a typical film noir characteristic) especially for Marie and little hope for the future of prison system reform. Here is another movie pointing the spotlight on injustice and corruption in the Fifties post-war, cold war, paranoid world.

I like your assessment and made the same note of Parker's attire when she exited the truck. She is in for quite a transformation. She did not appear to fit in clothing wise, demeanor and most certainly as no doubt was she afraid to be in the van, she would obviously prefer to remain there than step outside. The ride with its darkness, confinement and tiny view through the screen coupled with the realization that this is likely going to be the best day she will have for a very long time conveys the desperation, gloom and misery to come. Little does she know that one day, she too will be a hard cynical old hand herself.

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If freedom is among Porfirio's defining terms of the positive aspects of existentialism how much deeper would one go into the negative aspects of loneliness, dread, and nausea when freedom is forcibly taken away? This clip evokes all of these emotions through a masterful combination of sight and sound. The limited and quavering viewpoint immediately makes one feel disoriented and fraught with claustrophobia. The score inextricably woven with the sounds of the siren add to the increasing apprehension. And when the protagonist is revealed she is set apart from the other women, fearful, alone and obviously ignorant of what the future has in store for her. She has no choice but to blindly follow the others taking her leap of faith (into the absurd).

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-- What about this opening reminds you of the Warner Bros. house style? And why is that appropriate for this subject matter?

 

Cage reminds us of the darker themed movies that Warner Bros. became known for, and it taking place in a prison also is appropriate since their house style includes an urban setting.

 

In one of our reading assignments earlier, I remember W.B. being singled out for their social conscience themed films. Life and conditions in a women’s prison fits that bill.

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Viewers get a claustrophobic feeling right away as they are being whisked down a road in the back of some kind of vehicle with a siren . . . an ambulance, a police car, prison van? The tiny caged window leads to the feeling of being closed in.

 

I feel sorry for the woman in the close up - she is obviously so afraid and she's wearing two-tone saddle shoes, a bit young for a woman's prison. And what's up with the rest? Going to prison with style..furs, suits, stockings, hats, and purses.

 

"Take a last look" shot through a gate where the world is just passing them by definitely gives the viewer the feeling of being caged.

 

 

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Prison pictures lend themselves to noir due to the confinement of men (and women), their clashing emotions, longing for freedom and the collision with fate that has brought them to this stage of their lives. CAGED ups the ante of previous Warners jail epics like 20,000 YEARS IN SIGN SING and LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT (both 1933, remade by the studio, respectively, as CASTLE ON THE HUDSON, 1940, and LADY GANGSTER, 1942) with a post-World War II sensibility. Instead of prisoners being escorted to the big house by train and joking about it (as Spencer Tracy does in 20,000 YEARS... and John Garfield in CASTLE ON THE HUDSON), expressing a more brash attitude of the characters of the '30s, the trip in CAGED is in a confined van, as dark as a tomb, silent except for the gears and brakes on the van being engaged, and our only appreciation of an outside world being the view through the small window into the front of the van, itself crossed by small bars. When the women exit the van, they're seen in what seems to be a kind of pre-dawn light. It's in that kind of daylight Ellen Corby (if I'm correct -- it sure looked like her) advises the "tramps" to take one long, last look at freedom, and even that sight of the prison gates and a clear if wintry sky isn't all that memorable or reassuring. For the veterans of the system in the group, it's a return to the familiar; abject terror for the newcomers like Marie (Eleanor Parker) whose face mirrors the fright and uncertainty that awaits her inside the prison's walls. In the scenes that follow this opening, we learn of the unfortunate circumstances caused by pitiable Marie's innocent behavior that has landed her in the jug. As pointed out by Professor Edwards, the Production Code prevented an all-out examination of prison life on the women but hints at a lot of the issues inherent in such a situation. In other words, you can make what you will of the rivalry between the impressively built and grim characters portrayed by Hope Emerson and Betty Garde; in that day, it just wasn't going to be discussed out loud, at least not in a Hollywood production. But issues spoken and unspoken here lend a new dimension to noir and how, as some scholars believe, it eventually fractured and settled into all kinds of '50s films, from westerns to musicals to social problem movies, of which CAGED is considered an example. It is interesting to note that the screenplay was co-written by Virginia Kellogg, who had a hand in the script of WHITE HEAT (1949) that partly involved a prison setting.

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Speaking of remakes, Warners did another version of CAGED in 1962 entitled HOUSE OF WOMEN, with Shirley Knight in the Eleanor Parker role. Haven't seen it, but (no offense) the presence of Ms. Knight is worth the price of admission for me.

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We've noticed before than a vehicle can be the perfect claustrophobic setting in a film noir, and this opening scene proves it in the most convincing way.

 

I haven't seen the film, but now I'm very curious to watch it as a noir with mostly female stars, contradicing to the usual male dominance occuring in these films. Although criminals appear in almost every film noir, prison noirs are relatively rare (Brute Force, one good example), and women's prison noirs even more rare. The opening scene, however, shows us that being in a women's prison is not a better fate than being in a man's, in fact, Eleanor Parker's frightened face when the vehicle stops proves it's gonna be like hell on earth for her.

 

The scene is full of shadows, darkness, claustrophobia, all emphasized by the intense music composed by Max Steiner, the man who composed the music for Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, among others. It's pure Warner Bros. noir; no hope, no optimism, only fear and a long way ahead. The "social-conscience" thing that Warner Bros. developed better than any other Golden Age studio appears once more in the most dramatic fashion.

 

The women in the scene are "caged" but, in fact, every single character in a film noir is caged in a way, trapped in a surreal, violent world, often with no way out. The scene promises much for the rest of the film, and its possible influence in noir philosophy.

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By having all the action take place in a cage, caged vehicle, we are seeing what is in store for these women.  The vehicle also imparts a claustrophobic feeling and shows what little freedom these women will have. 

 

The social realism of Warner Bros. works for this film because it really shows what a women's prison is really like. Nothing glamourous, far from it, these ladies are just trying to survive each day.  It also shows all the injustices going on behind bars.

 

The substance of noir is appropriate has it is depicting a film dealing with the worst out of people, looking to take advantage of each other. Also, by being in such a closed envronment set design and lighting can be used to optimal effect.

 

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The biggest thing I take away from this scene is that it shows us something that not many Noir films show us, and that's women in prison. When I think of femme fatales, some of them may end up getting arrested (Virginia Mayo in White Heat), but we never actually see it. Now, it doesn't seem like this woman is a femme fatale, but they can be so deceiving that I can't say for sure. With the opening shots being inside the police van, where the audience sees as much light as the prisoners, we're placed right in there with them. 

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You really feel caged and claustrophobic in that opening sequence. Very naturalistic in how it uses the siren and other sounds to set ten mood. One thing that struck me was the different styles of clothing the women were wearing as they came out, from furs to bobby socks. Not quite Orange is the New Black but you can be sure that these ladies aren't going to a picnic or a church social.

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Hi Canvas People, The poor image quality and size of the "You Tube" clip did the opening sequence of "Caged" no favors. There are times when the entire screen went dark, whether intentional or not. Being raised on heavily censored entertainment media, and then slowly watching as almost all of the previous visual and dialog taboos were lifted by both Hollywood and major PPV providers like HBO and Showtime, I am very jaded. It would take a lot to get my riveted attention to a film like this, knowing full well that topics such as female homosexual activity could only be hinted at. I suppose it could be a nice comparison piece, tracing the evolution of what was deemed acceptable in 1950 as to what is considered so now. I am leaving out of this of course the subject of pornography, which has been with us on screens since the very first moving pictures were made. Seeing a prison drama, without a stream of incredibly vulgar language, graphic scenes of intense violence, intimidation, cruelty, even rape would seem almost foreign to me at this point. There are few places remaining where shows like "True Detective" (2014/15 fim noir, IMO) dare not tread with unambigious, graphic images and words. Very little is left to inference, or audience interpretation. Which, in the long run, may be a loss in a way. Perhaps the best of both worlds would be a hybrid of "Caged" and HBO's "OZ". I do prefer a stroy line that demands the viewer's attention, and deserves it. I find it much more sexually alluring to see Lauren Bacall in the basement surgery sequence in "To Have And Have Not", with just the first two buttons of her blouse undone, to Megan Fox spawled across a motorcycle with her glutes and breasts on full display in the beginning of her last "Transformers" movie. I digress, but have one last observation: How many film noirs did Max Steiner NOT provide the music for? I know he is very highly regarded, with "Gone With The Wind" among his many huge triumphs.  He was a very busy man, indeed.  The score for my four favorite noirs, all Bogie/Bacall films, were split evenly between Steiner and Waxman, if I recall. Niether IMO outdid the other on any of the four, of course Hoagy Carmichael's "Am I Blue" puts "T.H.A.H.N." over the top for me, plus it was Lauren's debut. Apologies, more digression.   RJM

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don't know if you have seen the women, but that film has an all female cast too. not a man on the screen. they just talk about them the whole time. i never saw caged either. but hopefully its just as good as ladies they talk about with barbara stanwyk. not a noir  but a good women's prison film. i loved the darkened screen.

I was trying to remember the name of that Stanwyck one - Ladies They Talk About.   In that one Stanwyck is a street-wise hustler who has been in and out of jail, so she's right at home.  Caged is darker, starker.  There is also Jean Harlow's  I think it's - Hold Your Man - again, very different and not noir, but another female prison movie. 

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thanks for reminding me of hold your man, i watched it once years ago. I'll look that one up again

I was trying to remember the name of that Stanwyck one - Ladies They Talk About.   In that one Stanwyck is a street-wise hustler who has been in and out of jail, so she's right at home.  Caged is darker, starker.  There is also Jean Harlow's  I think it's - Hold Your Man - again, very different and not noir, but another female prison movie. 

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Right from the beginning we feel caged in that dark van, the rest of the world, brightly lit,  seen only through a tiny screened window.  At first we don't know who is in the van but then the doors open and we see the women and the sign identifying this huge stark edifice as the women's state prison.  Eleanor Parker's face shows her horror, shock, disbelief.  Her identity is starting to be stripped away; having been labeled along with the others as a tramp.  She is now just another prisoner.

 

The prison is in an urban setting, part of the community and yet apart from it, surrounded by the iron fence.  The "free world" is visible in the distance down the driveway and through that fence.  The guard's statement about this being the end of the line emphasizes the women's  being ostracized, having no hope.  No stranger in a sports car coming along here to help out!! 

 

The movie focuses on women as criminals instead of men taking the fall for a femme fatale. Prison life is harsh, stark and brutal and this is no less so in a women's prison.  Film noir style is already in evidence by the use of light and shadows, stark settings, bars being echoed even in the very brick construction of the building.  The separation from the rest of the world, the sense of hoplessness, is already there.  There will undoubtedly be twisted, antagonistic relationships as the pecking order in the prison is shown as the movie goes along.  There will most likely be hardened career criminals and prisioners who are basically good women who went down the wrong path for whatever reason, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time...

 

I've never seen this film and am looking forward to seeing it and how the more violent aspects of prison life are portrayed without being portrayed (because of the code) so that the audience gets the full picture.

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Can't add anything to the posted descriptions of how the prison van ride, shot in near-darkness except for the view out of the tiny front window, perfectly illustrates the concept of being "caged". One more thing I noticed is how when the van halts, the back door is opened and lights only Eleanor Parker's distressed figure. She appears very large and very frightened in the frame, so we immediately know who to identify with. Only then do we meet her fellow captives.

 

Another thing that reinforces the sense that we're watching a gritty, realistic WB social-issue noir is the absence of canted angles. The camera movement is pretty straightforward in this scene. The composition does work alot with light and shadow, particularly inside the van.

 

CAGED is a terrific movie. Come Friday, I would like to urge anyone who may have bad memories or apprehension about the kitten to try, if you can, to watch the movie anyway. IMO if you can watch BRUTE FORCE, you can watch this one. And it's just as worthwhile. When things get too intense, remember what Hitchcock said: "It's just a movie!" :P

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The film appropriately introduces us to the main character by beginning when the police van is still in the outside world.  The van passes through the gate.  We hear the gate open.  The van moves into the prison world and the gate closes.  A sign on the wall informs us that it is a women's prison.  The main character is caged first in the van and secondly within the walls of the prison.  We as the audience are transported along with her, into the series of cages.  The lighting emphasizes first the small, barred hole of a window in the van--the main character's limited view, and then the view of the outside window through the expanded front gate of the prison yard.  The outside world disappears and the character is alone in a new world populated by prisoners.  We have the feeling, from the main character's expression when the van's door opens, that she is innocent and aware of a bleak future.

 

I've watched all of the TCM Friday films so far, so I've seen many of the Warner Brothers films, among them Bogart's films, notably "Dark Passage," and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.  I am not able to define a "house style" yet for Warner Brothers, but I suppose that they have a larger budget than most others since they are in the top tier of film producers at that time.  The notes from Richard Edwards speak of "social realism" and the "urban-oriented house style" of Warner Brothers.  "Dark Passage" begins with a prisoner thrown out into the free world.  "Caged" begins with a prisoner thrown into the caged world of a prison.  Prisons are a real part of our urban culture and landscape.

 

Life behind bars imposes a world of aloneness within a world of prisoners.  The prisoner is isolated with their own story of guilt or innocence.  It is an existential world.  It is a world in which Camus' Sysyphus is fated to roll the rock uphill only to have the rock roll down again--with no way out.  I suppose, from the beginning of this film, that the woman's innocence ultimately will be revealed and her injustice exposed.

 

 

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How can anyone think that a girl wearing saddle shoes is a hardened criminal? We're lead to believe, at the outset, that Eleanor Parker has no idea what awaits her behind the walls of a prison! The lighting of her face...bright sunlight...showing a youthful face...full of fear! 

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It's always great to see the Warner Brothers logo.  It's the Superman of studios.

 

We're disoriented during the initial run of titles and theme music although we can see from the crispness of the title "Caged" we're watching an A film.  As we progress it becomes clear we're in a dark place, moving, looking through chicken wire, going somewhere by force.

 

Cut to the wagon doors opening and a medium shot of an attractive frightened woman seated at the front of the van.  "Pile out your tramps.  End of the line"  A powerful opening and the cruel description contrasts sharply with the well groomed frightened woman.

 

The contradiction continues as the women pile out.  They aren't high society, but they are well dressed middle class looking women.  Back to a close up of the protagonist's face.  She looks to be on the verge of tears.  Medium close up of stone walls and barred windows.  Medium close-up of "Women's State Prison" sign.  Okay.  We have a definite place.  You have to be convicted of something serious to be here.  Still contradictory with the appearance of the protagonist.

 

She's the last one to leave the van.  Maybe clinging to the hope she won't have to get out.  Maybe not facing it's really happening.  No matter.  The guard pulls her out and flings her into the pack. 

 

She's in experienced company though.  One of the women says "Take a last look at free-world." She speaks with the voice of experience.  This heightens the feeling of threat vis-a vis the protagonist.  We end on her turning and facing imprisonment and it's unknown dangers.

 

Warner Brothers gangster films were always sympathetic with the gangster.  They were generally people trapped in impoverished circumstances with crime their only path to freedom.  Temporary as that freedom may be.  

 

While this film is sympathetic with the woman going to prison we as an audience don't know why she's there.  We're starting at the downfall.  Did she do something criminal?  She looks as fearful as a child.

What fate has led her to this cage?

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I definitely agree with what everyone has posted about the claustrophobic nature of the opening.

 

I do like that the women who get out of the van just look like . . . .women. They aren't speaking like overly tough gansters' molls, and their clothing is what you might see on anyone walking around the city streets.

 

The way that the officer speaks to the main character, and the way that he manhandles her, shows the lack of control that she has over her life at this point. It makes me wonder how much control she had before she was put in prison. While noir loves the idea of the femme fatale pulling the doomed male protagonist into a world of sin, in reality there are a lot of women in prison because their male partners involved them (sometimes without their knowledge) in criminal acts--women who are convicted for possessing weapons or drugs that weren't theirs in the first place.

 

On a random sidenote: Agnes Moorehead!!!! My main association with her is the Twilight Znoe episode "The Invaders", so the idea of her talking is blowing my mind right now.

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-- Why is this opening appropriate for a film about females at a women's state prison? In what ways has the design of this scene made the audience as "caged" as these characters in this opening sequence?

 

We see the POV from inside the paddy wagon the only light is filtering through the mesh of the locked door, a cage so to speak..

 

-- What about this opening reminds you of the Warner Bros. house style? And why is that appropriate for this subject matter?

 

It's just gritty and realistic.

 

-- Just based on this opening, how do you think film noir will influence this film's realism about life behind bars? In other words, why is the "substance of noir" appropriate for a story set inside a women's prison?

 

You get the impression that its going to be a straight forward "you are there" approach to a woman's correctional facility, though since its a prison picture you also expect to see the same clichés, and the lighting and symbolisms of bars, cages, cells,

  after all its noir-ish by default for most prison based pictures. 

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  • Why is this opening appropriate for a film about females at a women's state prison? In what ways has the design of this scene made the audience as "caged" as these characters in this opening sequence?   

In the opening scene as the credits roll, we are looking ​through a small screened opening in a van going through town with siren wailing. It is dark inside the van except for that small opening. The audience is caged too because the screened opening is so small. The van backs into the women's state prison , the van door opens and the guard yells, "come out you tramps, it's the end of the line." We see the face of one of the women with an expression, 'it can't be, it can't be' as she looks up at the bars on the prison windows. There is no hope, this is film noir.

  • What about this opening reminds you of the Warner Bros. house style? And why is that appropriate for this subject matter? 

Warner Brothers is famous for gangster movies.  Also it had a social conscience and so maybe Caged will be an expose of women's prison life like it really is. Thus it should be perfect for Warner Brothers house style.

 

  • Just based on this opening, how do you think film noir will influence this film's realism about life behind bars? In other words, why is the "substance of noir" appropriate for a story set inside a women's prison?

​We can see and hear in the opening scene of Caged that the women will get no respect and no hope for the future. The guard says, "come out you tramps, it's the end of the line." For the women with a long sentence, it is the end of the line, no hope, nothing to look forward to, this is the film noir mental mind set.

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Usually we see men in prison.  The darkness and enclosed feeling from this opening scene allowing us to see the rest of the world as we are taken away from it through only the small, screened window and hearing the shrieking siren tells us we are in for a horrible experience.  The look of anguish, fear, curiosity and helplessness on the woman's face as she looks at the building helps us to understand what we may never (hopefully) feel about her present existence.  We expect to see men - rough and tough - scowling at the building and putting up a gruff exterior but now in this changed world we will see it through a woman's eyes.

 

Then we turn to look at the road we left behind.  Filled with fast, moving vehicles coming and going and going on with their lives.  We are about to enter a different world.

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As for the Warner Brothers house style.  I hope TCM does a Warner Brothers film marathon of the their films of the 30s.  Films like this remind me of Warner Brothers crime, ganster movies like The Public Enemy, Little Ceaser, I am Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Made Me a Crimina, Invisible Stripes, and King of the Underworld.  Could be wrong, but I get the feeling this is going to be the woman's version of the Warner Brother's men prison movies.

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At first I had no idea where I was. The credits were actually distracting;I would have rather seen them presented differently. When we see our protagonist, she looks completely out of place and scared to death. As the other women disembark from the paddywagon they faceless - almost irrelevant. Moorehead, however, seems to know the routine inside and out. I can see her possibly takibg our heroine under her wing. The women all turn around in unison to take the one last look. I feel this bonds them together as a unit.

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