Air Date: Jan. 25, 1972 (ABC Movie of the Week)
Production Companies: Paramount Television
Running Time: 74 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Rita Lakin
Directed by: Bernard L. Kowalski
Cast: Ida Lupino, Lois Nettleton, Jessica Walter, Belinda Montgomery, Penny Fuller, John Larch
Yes, that’s Ida Lupino, award-winning actress from the golden age of Hollywood, playing prison guard Claire Tyson and punching women in the stomach. This was, in fact, her 1970s television movie debut. During the following two years, she appeared in five more. She was no stranger to television, though, having appeared in many series throughout her career. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know her from her roles as Mrs. Preston in The Devil’s Rain (1975) and Mrs. Skinner in Food of the Gods (1976.)
Women in Chains is by no means a horror movie, unless you consider going undercover in a women’s prison to investigate murder, then getting stuck there because the only person you told is murdered while you’re there. It’s not so different from a lot of the TV horror movies I’ve been watching, barely straying from the formula of woman in peril. While Sandra Parker (Lois Nettleton) doesn’t see ghosts or monsters, no one believes her when she says she doesn’t belong there.
Women in Chains is about as average as a telefilm can be. I’m not terribly familiar with women in prison movies, but this one checks all the boxes on what I assume would be a checklist for them, especially with the character stereotypes. We have the wrongly convicted Melinda (Belinda Montgomery), the suck-up to the villain Dee Dee (Jessica Walter), and the older woman who’s been there forever and knows everything that happens, Billie (the wonderful Lucille Benson.)
Veteran director Bernard L. Kowalski, whose name has already been mentioned twice in this series (Terror in the Sky and Black Noon) tries to liven it up with some strange freeze frames and slow motion shots. However, instead of enhancing the action, these shots emphasize the silliness. The entire thing is then overly melodramatic. This is best demonstrated in Nettleton’s big moment when she confronts her cell mates. (How many women live in one cell, by the way?) She stands whipping her head back and forth as she begs any one of them to help her.
This is also a movie in which going to solitary confinement means you get to spend it with your best friend. The better to advance the story, I guess… Don’t get me wrong, Women in Chains is harmless and it is entertaining at the typical 74-minute running time. If Lupino had really let loose and pushed a movie over the edge that's already teetering on camp, it would have been something really special. Perhaps oddly, it was written by a woman, Rita Lakin. Then again, she’s probably the reason these characters are portrayed to be as strong as they are.