Friday, 13 June 2008

Diario segreto da un carcere femminile / Love and Death in a Women's Prison / Women in Cell Block 7

This 1973 women in prison / poliziotto / whatever marked the writing and directorial debut of Rino De Silvestro of Naked Werewolf Woman infamy. Those who've seen that 1976 oddity will pretty much know what to expect: quality sleaze trash that can't quite seem to make up its mind about what sort of film its trying to be.

The two New York mafiosi

And their assassin

We open at full tilt, with a wealth of plot information thrown at us via voice-over in the space of a few minutes: Interpol agents had planned to intercept some American mafioso as they picked up a heroin shipment from their Rome counterparts. Unfortunately another gangster unexpectedly gunned down the mafioso and made off with the drugs. And, before he could be brought in and made to divulge who had informed him of Interpol's plans, he was involved in a fatal car accident. His moll / girlfriend Daniela Vinci (Jenny Tamburi) survived the crash and is jailed as an accomplice despite professing to know nothing about the now-vanished drugs. Seeking to clear up the mystery and her father's name, as the gangster's contact and the suspected mastermind behind the scheme, Hilda (Anita Strindberg) – who is herself an Interpol agent, unbeknownst to her father – goes undercover in the same women's prison. Meanwhile, the mob closes in on her father...

You want realistic sleaze? You've got it – Tamburi undergoes a cavity search

What ensues is an entertaining if not terribly coherent mish-mash of beatings, shoot outs, car chases and prison intrigues, including the obligatory lesbian, shower and catfight sequences and all the stock characters like the sadistic warden, the inmate running the show and not taking kindly to any newcomer challenging her position, and the crazy one.

The stunts are surprisingly decent

Tamburi and Strindberg are certainly game and do the best they can with the material given them, but the actorly pickings are definitely somewhat slim in comparison with their roles in Smile Before Death and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.

This said, the writing is difficult to judge anyway in that much of the dialogue sounds as if it has been substantially rewritten for the English dub by the film's US distributors, Terry Levene's Aquarius, with this also providing some presumably unintentional laughs through frequent dubiously macho references to the inmates balls' and ball-busting one another.

Classic WIP images

There are some moments of inspiration like a crane shot which takes us over one prison wall to reveal another, larger structure behind it; the mournful 99 Women / Caged Heat style blues vocal number that is unexpectedly positioned as diegetic as one prisoner tells another, admittedly positioned offscreen, to shut up, which can probably be attributed to Levene and company; or a shot of Hilda's father, mirrored upside down in a pool of water curiously reminiscent of David Hemmings at the end of Deep Red. The locales for the action sequences are also well chosen in the main, with the prison interiors and bit players also looking authentically lived in and world-weary.

Prisoners like these disappear whenever there's a shower scene

Cue Peter North jokes...

But in general there remains something of the feel of different films and tones battling against each other for dominance – now wanting to be serious and hard-hitting, now schlocky and sleazy. Without wanting to make any claims for De Silvestro as some kind of undiscovered auteur, its worth noting here that Naked Werewolf Woman and Red Light Girls had something of the same distinctive sensibility to them, with the latter offering a curious amalgam of giallo thrills and mondo-esque prostitution expose.

In keeping with the rest of the film, the music is also somewhat schizophrenic, mixing funky action themes with mood music, but even so works well to provide the emotional cues and glue required, particularly during a long dialogue-free sequence of girl-on-girl frottage.

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