For Reel

Condemned Women (1938)
February 9, 2015, 6:38 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Lew Landers
3 Stars
Condemned WomenEarly on in Condemned Women, it is suggested that conditions for women’s penitentiaries need to change. That is, what might have been suitable for a woman one hundred years ago is no longer suitable now. It’s a thoughtful, progressive line about evolving gender expectations in a film that is otherwise without much of interest to say. Much of what follows is familiar of a standard prison drama of the early thirties, seeking to shed light on down-on-their-luck prisoners who have roles yet to play in society. The attempt to make the audience empathize with the prisoners is no better displayed than with the casting of Anne Shirley (who excelled at playing naive, waifish roles) as a young woman who has taken the rap for her boyfriend. Star Sally Eilers takes a different approach as a rather cold, distant presence–one wonders what Barbara Stanwyck, who was originally pegged for the film, could have brought to the role. As dull as the first couple of acts are, the late prison riot is visually sumptuous, with the great cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca utilizing heavy shadows and billowing smoke to create a chaotic, disorienting mood. There’s a brilliant shot in which one of the heroines lies dead and the bird’s eye camera tilts from one body to another to find her from above. It’s an artfully choreographed moment, involved in the sort of visually sophistication that Musuraca brought to his collaborations with producer Val Lewton.

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