Women Behind Bars
France - Belgium | 1975
Directed by Jess Franco
Lina Romay
Martine Stedil
Jess Franco
Color | 80 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD(R0 - NTSC)
Blue Underground
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    5   10 = Highest Rating  
SNEAK PREVIEW | DVD Release Date: Aug. 28, 2007
In the interview featurette on Blue Underground's new DVD, Jess Franco hails Women Behind Bars as his personal favorite of the many WIP (Women in Prison) movies he directed over the years. For the life of me I can't understand why. It's not a good film, nor is it entertainingly cheesy. Euro-sleaze aficionados aren't going to see anything they haven't seen a couple of hundred times before. Other than some nice location shooting in the south of France (subbing for an unnamed Central American country) the production is conspicuously impoverished-looking. The performances, for the most part, range from wooden to just plain awful, while the story a melding of heist melodrama and standard WIP conventions (no shower scene, though!) isn't especially interesting. For lack of a better term, Women Behind Bars is just... blah.
The film at least features Franco muse Lina Romay (Doriana Grey, Barbed Wire Dolls) in the central role, back when she was still the svelte young hottie. She plays Shirley Fields, a woman sentenced to six years in prison for the killing of her boyfriend Perry Mendoza. Shirley claims she caught Mendoza cheating on her and in the heat of the moment accidentally shot him to death. The truth is quite a different story. Mendoza was the leader of a criminal gang that stormed aboard a millionaire's yacht and made off with a fortune in uncut diamonds. During the getaway he turned on his comrades and murdered them so as to avoid having to split the take. Shirley, who was in on the scheme, then did the same to him. (No honor among thieves, as the saying goes.) She alone knows where the gems are hidden.
    The police, unable to pin the heist on the dead boyfriend, have to take Shirley's word for what happened. She freely admits to killing Mendoza in a jealous rage but claims to know nothing about any missing diamonds. On the day she's transported to the prison to begin serving her sentence, insurance investigator Milton Warren (Roger Darton) arrives in town, keen to talk with her. Sent to get a lead on the diamonds by the company that insured them, Warren firmly believes that she killed Mendoza to keep the loot for herself. But the brief interview he's able to arrange with Shirley produces nothing since she sticks doggedly to her original story.
    The insurance dick isn't the only person interested in her. The prison's urbane but sinister warden, Colonel de Bries (Ronald Weiss), is aware of Shirley's case and he, too, suspects her complicity in the robbery. He wants the diamonds, of course, but adding the sultry brunette to his roster of sexual playthings is an additional incentive. To this end he employs his main squeeze among the inmates, Martine (Martine Stedil), to gain Shirley's confidence by any means necessary. Meanwhile, on the outside, a ruthless troubleshooter named Bill (Franco himself, billed as "Clifford Brown") plots a way for Shirley to escape. Hired by the millionaire who was robbed, Bill wants her out so she can lead him to the diamonds, after which she is to be killed...
    Although Women Behind Bars actually has a plot to work with Franco seems completely disinterested in it tension and suspense are virtually nil. Strangely, he doesn't really ramp up the sleaze factor either. There's the de rigeur lesbian sex scene and plenty of nudity to be sure (the inmates all just happen to sleep buck naked on top of the blankets), but not near as much as found in Franco's other '70s WIP pics. The sadism that goes hand-in-glove with the genre is limited to just two scenes: the protracted whipping of a tangential character (one of Shirley's cellmates) and Romay's torture by Gestapo-style electroshock to the genitalia. These are effectively staged even if the latter does go on a bit too long but won't be enough to satiate anyone looking to this film expressly for sexploitative grindhouse excess.
    If you have a problem with Franco's penchant for zoom shots then this movie definitely isn't for you it might send you into fits of apoplexy. It also suffers noticeably from a malnourished budget, a familiar problem the inventive Franco was usually able to work around or even occasionally turn to his advantage. Not so in this case. Since Women Behind Bars does not fall into the realm of so-bad-it's-good cheese (no rubber monsters, toy spaceships, goofy dialog or spastic fight scenes/dance numbers to laugh at), it merely looks tacky and poorly improvised. The location used as the prison, for example, isn't believable for a minute; the perimeter wall is just a chain link fence with sheet metal clamped onto it. (With all of two guards patrolling the place.) Yet another woe is the dreadful, mostly inappropriate score by frequent Franco composer Daniel White. It seems to belong in another film altogether.
    Since the majority of his work is an acquired taste, the phrase "for completists only" applies to many of Jess Franco's nearly 200 films. Women Behind Bars fits squarely into that category. Admirers of the sexy Romay, or people who just like to watch naked chicks smoking, will probably get the most out of the experience.

As to be expected, Blue Underground delivers a clean and colorful anamorphic transfer of the film (in its original 2.35 AR) complimented by a satisfactory (dubbed) English mono audio track unsullied by static, distortion or dropouts. Generally one can't ask for much better in regard to super-obscure European titles; from its very inception BU has been a consistent leader in this field.
Extras consist of the subtitled French theatrical trailer and yet another excellent interview featurette with the iconoclastic Franco. In the 17-minute Back Behind Bars, the elderly director omnipresent cigarette in hand proves that his memory remains sharp and his opinions even sharper. He discusses not only Women Behind Bars but WIP films in general (referencing some of his notable contributions to the genre), his first meeting with Lina Romay, and his thoughts on hardcore pornography vs. softcore eroticism. He also defends his frequent use of the zoom lens and dispels the rumor that Women Behind Bars is partially composed of trims from Barbed Wire Dolls (also made in 1975, for Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich). Subtitles are helpfully provided even though Franco speaks in English (his accent is very thick); clips from the film plus "then and now" location comparisons are woven throughout. 8/09/07