Caged Heat: Subverting the Subversive


Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, one of the names most frequently projected onto silver screens across America was that of Roger Corman, a writer, director, producer, and distributor who churned out over a dozen films a year under the American International Pictures banner.  Fiercely independent and frugal to a fault, Corman worked fast and cheap to deliver B-movies shamelessly tailored to the trends of the moment.  Though he is most frequently associated with the horror genre (largely due to a string of successful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations released between 1959 and 1964), Corman produced and released films spanning almost every popular genre of the era.  As David Cook explains in Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979:

The AIP-Corman strategy was to abjure the mass audience and target market segments demographically (teenagers) in order to exploit their tastes (monster-themed science fiction, horror, hot-rods, rock ‘n’ roll) with sensational, low-budget material…. [wherein] swift delivery of the goods compensated for a multitude of sins at the level of form and packaging, and low budgets meant high returns for success and minimum risk for failure.

Though he wrote and directed a great many films himself (including 1960’s Little Shop of Horrors, which was famously filmed in less than forty eight hours), to maintain a steady stream of marketable content, Corman sought out young filmmakers eager to work for bargain rates, often recruiting writers and directors straight out of film school.  Burgeoning cinema programs such as those at NYU and UCLA furnished Corman with a stable of young talent, many of whom would ultimately find success and renown beyond that of their mentor.  Among the writers and directors who worked for Corman are Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Monte Hellman, Robert Towne, Peter Bogdanovich, and James Cameron.  Actors such as Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda all got their start in AIP productions.

In 1970, Corman left AIP to found New World Pictures.  As a distributor, NWP catered to a more upscale market, giving stateside release to films by such luminaries as Ingmar Bergman (Cries and Whispers [1972], Autumn Sonata [1978]), Federico Fellini (Amarcord [1974]), François Truffaut (The Story of Adele H. [1975]), Small Change [1976]), and Alain Resnais (Mon Oncle d’Amerique [1980]).  As a producer, however, NWP upheld the AIP objective of producing “a series of low-budget films made by new, young filmmakers” (Cook 328).  Perhaps the most critically lauded of Corman’s NWP era protégés is Jonathan Demme, who would go on to win an Academy Award in 1991 for directing the adaptation of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.  At the start of the 1971, however, Demme was a publicist whose PR work on Corman’s The Red Baron convinced the director to offer the twenty seven year old the chance to cowrite the biker picture Angels Hard as They Come, thus initiating a long and fruitful relationship between the two.

After impressing Corman with his second unit work on 1972’s Hot Box, Demme was given the chance to write and direct his first feature: Caged Heat, released in 1974.  Produced on a modest budget of $180,000, Demme’s film capitalized upon the then-fashionable women-in-prison subgenre while subverting many of its more exploitative thematic and stylistic tropes.  Erica Gavin stars as Jacqueline Wilson, a young woman who is arrested during a drug bust and sentenced to “no less than ten, and no more than forty years” for possession and accessory to attempted murder.  While incarcerated, she butts heads with the stern, sexually repressed superintendent McQueen (Barbara Steele) and forms tenuous and circumstantial alliances with the other inmates which culminate in not one, but two thrilling jailbreak sequences.

Beyond its very specific and bankable generic signifiers, Caged Heat was demographically targeted in its casting of Gavin and Steele in prominent roles.  Gavin had six years earlier played the eponymous Vixen in Russ Meyer’s X-rated smash, which Cook identifies as “the first gender crossover ‘Adults Only’ hit,” having earned a hundredfold profit on its $73,000 budget (Cook 273).  Steele, meanwhile, was a popular British actress, known primarily for horror films such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) and Corman’s own adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), which was one of AIP’s most successful productions both critically and financially.  Though far from the A-list, Gavin and Steele’s names on the marquee likely drew in a few predominantly male fans.

NWP suggested to theater owners that The Exorcist, released several months earlier, be paired with Caged Heat on a double bill in order to attract more ticket buyers.  On paper, the match doesn’t make much sense, and surely netted more gains for Caged Heat than for William Friedkin’s horror classic, which in addition to earning ten Academy Award nominations had been the year’s highest grossing film.  What the two films do have in common, beyond sensational subject matter, is a desire to transcend the perceived limitations of their respective genres.  Just as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had for science fiction in 1968 and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather had for the gangster picture in 1972, The Exorcist strove to legitimize the horror film by utilizing A-list talent to enact a nuanced and philosophically resonant narrative which delivered far more than the cheap and superficial signifiers of its genre.  Caged Heat may not have possessed the pedigree (or the budget) of these earlier films, nor were its aspirations as lofty, but on its own relative scale it was a similarly progressive deconstruction of an often cheap and facile mode of cinematic discourse.  Like Kubrick, Coppola, and Friedkin before him, Demme was able to maintain those surface elements which would appeal to the lowest common denominator while qualifying, tempering, and critiquing them through form and context.

The Caged Heat trailer gives a fair assessment of the artistic and ideological merits of the average women-in-prison fare by hilariously misrepresenting Demme’s film.  Burdened by a comically stentorian voiceover which urges the viewer to “enter the female jungle of Women’s Prison USA… where caged passions ignite in carnal confinement,” the three minute preview opens with Pandora (Ella Reid), an African American woman, being stripped and thrown into solitary confinement as she calls her female aggressor a “pig.”  From there, it goes on to include almost every shot of violence and nudity from the eighty three minute film, mixing and matching unrelated scenes without regard for narrative logic.  The discerning filmgoer could be forgiven for taking a pass on Caged Heat after seeing its trailer; not only does it completely disregard the elements of social critique which would have made it palatable to many contemporary viewers, it attempts to sell the film as a violent, sapphic orgy with declarations like, “Caged Heat: it must explode!”  Most egregiously, the trailer constantly reiterates the absence of men in “Women’s Prison USA,” which if we are to believe the narrator, turns the women into desperate, lustful, sex-crazed maniacs; in its own language, “women without men in the cruelest bondage of all… torn by penal passions.”  But more on gender later.

In addition to trailers and posters, NWP’s promotional material included suggestions for ways in which theaters could raise awareness of and interest in Caged Heat.  In addition to the aforementioned Exorcist double bill, these included special screenings and contests targeted at three key demographics: black audiences, women’s organizations, and former convicts.  Young males and the so-called raincoat brigade would have needed little more than the film’s titillating poster (tagline: “White hot desires melting cold prison steel!”) to persuade them to queue up at the box office; by looking at what Caged Heat has to offer to these several other target audiences, however, one gets a sense of some of the contemporaneous trends in not only American cinema, but social and political thought as well.

By the time Caged Heat was released in 1974, blaxploitation was a well established genre, boasting such classics as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), the Pam Grier vehicle Coffy (1973), and its sequel Foxy Brown (1974), released a month before Caged Heat.  Like her Beyond the Valley of the Dolls costar Erica Gavin before her, Grier appealed to male and female audiences alike, having made a strong impression as an assertive alpha-female in a series of women-in-prison pictures produced under Corman’s AIP and NWP banners.  One such film was 1973’s Black Mama White Mama, co-written by Jonathan Demme, and had Coffy not made her a star, it’s easy to picture Grier as Maggie in Caged Heat, a role which ultimately went to her Foxy Brown costar Juanita Brown.

Blaxploitation thrived in the wake of the civil rights movement a decade before, when racial tensions which had been simmering since America’s colonization finally came to a violent head.  Slave dramas ranging from the lurid (Russ Meyer’s Blacksnake [1973], Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo [1975] and its sequel Drum [1976]) to the respectable (the landmark television mini-series “Roots” [1977] adapted from Alex Haley’s bestselling novel of the same name) formed a parallel subgenre, the constituents of which could be tasteless and regrettable as often as they were cathartic.  Caged Heat makes no overt reference to this abhorrent chapter of American history, but its many scenes of inmates being put to work in the fields for “Agricultural therapy” undeniably invoke the image of the nineteenth century plantation with its literal stable of unpaid labor, an innuendo underscored by closeups of black hands picking fruit from peach trees.  By alluding, however indirectly, to this acute and sustained instance of institutionalized racism, Demme places the civil transgressions committed within the US penal system on a continuum of congenital and rampant abuse inflicted throughout the nation’s history by those in power upon those at society’s margins.  The landscape’s inherent invocation of imperialism — of land as commodity and the site of tension between pastoral idyll and class warfare — is compounded by Demme’s treatment of the superintendent as a dated relic of Colonial rule in the process of displacement, a depiction which we will explore further

With regard to the second demographic, women’s organizations, the disparity between Caged Heat’s advertising and its actual content becomes especially pronounced.  Rather than the sex-starved man-crazy nymphomaniacs depicted in the trailer, the inmates in Caged Heat are largely headstrong, sensible, and self-reliant.  When characters are depicted nude, they are not sexualized, either objectively as subjects of the leering male gaze or as the powerful Steinem-esque protagonists Grier would often play; rather, their nudity represents their vulnerability and their homogenization within the mechanistic penal system.  When Wilson is first admitted into the prison, she is forced to strip; this gesture is ostensibly for physical inspection and to ensure the prisoner is not smuggling anything into the facility, but as it does for Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange (1971), the act doubles as a stripping of identity, reducing an individual to a number, a largely insignificant cog within a greater machine.

Contrary to what the trailer — and the conventions of the genre — would have you believe, whenever characters are denuded within the prison, it is a reflection of this initial exposure and its trifurcated purpose.  Maggie tears off Belle’s blouse in search of the cigarettes she believes Belle has stolen from her; Pandora is stripped of every vestige of her identity and humanity, including her clothes, when she is forced into solitary confinement; and as the inmates are herded like cattle into the showers, they are referred to not by name but by number.  Rather than be assigned uniforms, the women are allowed to retain and wear their own attire, affording them a minor outlet for self-expression as well as a link to their previous lives; when that right is taken away, it is to rob them of their identity rather than to sexualize them.  It is only once female convicts are outside and faced with a dearth of viable options that their bodies are reduced to and recognized as a tradable commodity.

Following the trend throughout the 1970s of foregrounding women as independent characters with psychological depth rather than mere accessories to their male counterparts, Demme’s heroines are far from slaves to patriarchy, even if they are victims of it.  Once inside, the women rarely speak of men, and when they do it is often in a condescending or flippant manner, such as in the comedic skits put on by Pandora and Belle (Roberta Collins).  Social critique underscores the humor, however, as Belle jokes about a man “[pulling] out his John Hancock.”  Playing not only upon the tawdry slang for male genitalia which comprises the last syllable of the American patriot’s name, the remark implies the far more innocuous euphemism for one’s signature, suggesting both that to these marginalized women, a man’s identity is synonymous with his sex (an objectifying reduction which to this day is leveled primarily at women) and that the supposedly universal freedom upon which the nation was founded is in fact a boys’ club which excludes based upon gender as well as race and class.

Excluding Dr. Randolph (Warren Miller), who will be discussed later, the only significant male presence in the film comes in a series of three independent dream sequences.  The first, Lavelle’s (Rainbeaux Smith) dream, occurs immediately after the opening credits, during which Wilson is arrested and sentenced, and gives the audience its first glimpse inside the prison.  Beginning with a shot of locked bars which then rack focuses to Lavelle asleep on her cot, the sequence hints at an existential reading of the prison genre, wherein the existence of confinement precedes the essence of the individual.  Outside, a man walks down the hallway toward Lavelle’s cell.  She greets him, and they kiss through the bars; she turns her back to him and he continues to grope her amorously.  In Caged Heat’s trailer, this shot accompanies the suggestive narration, “If you could get in, they’d let you do anything,” but in the film, Lavelle casually reaches for a knife and proceeds to stab her unidentified paramour, laughing with delight until she is awoken, thus ending the dream.  Later in the film, we learn that Lavelle is serving life without parole for murder, having stabbed a man who was raping her friend.  Though Lavelle acted in her friend’s defense, the assailant was a senator’s son, and Lavelle became another victim of a justice system weighted in favor of rich, white men.  We are not told if the man in Lavelle’s dream is the senator’s son, or if he stands for mankind in general, but the message is the same: escape, for Lavelle, means freedom not from the walls off her cell, but from the patriarchal tyranny which landed her there.

The second dream sequence takes place during Wilson’s first night in prison, and depicts the new inmate being woken by a man dressed like a British officer in the Arabian desert.  He steals her from her cell, and as they make their way down the hallway, their attire changes to that of a dapper gangster and his fur-festooned moll.  Wilson’s Hollywood fantasy of damsels in distress being rescued by dashing, debonaire men is shattered, however, when the two are cornered by a zombie-like mob of familiar faces.  As Wilson is encircled by cops, wardens, and inmates alike, however, her once-daring hero cowardly slinks away leaving her at the mercy of her oppressors.  If she is to survive the real world, her subconscious tells her, she must disabuse herself of any naive notions of chivalry such as she saw in fairy tales and on movie screens as a child.

Though we hear the voices of the men and women surrounding her, Wilson’s screams are silent; inside the prison, she is robbed of voice, of self.  This is in marked contrast to the acousmatic voice of the judge who earlier in the film sentenced her.  Disembodied, like a stern reprimand from God, this absent figure manifests itself and defines Wilson’s experience more assertively than her own thoughts and actions; the terrified shriek which accompanies her waking from the nightmare — the return of her prodigal voice — draws not solace but the ire of her cellmates who care more for silence than for the condition of her enervated psyche.

The most interesting of the three dream sequences is that of Superintendent McQueen.  Crippled below the waist both literally and figuratively, McQueen retreats from Pandora and Belle’s ribald comedy routine in disgust (pointedly, following a joke about male virility) and retires to her office, where she sleeps on the couch.  (We are led to believe that McQueen is just as imprisoned by these walls as her inmates, which becomes an indictment in itself.)  As she drifts to sleep, she imagines herself dressed as a burlesque entertainer, not unlike Liza Minelli in Cabaret (1972), performing to a crowd of prisoners in front of a row of brightly colored bathroom stalls.  In stockings and heels, accentuating the legs which are little more than dead weight in her waking life, McQueen sashays across the stage, chastising her audience for the behavior which landed them in prison.

To the superintendent, sex is not only something to be ashamed of, it is something criminal, an urge with reasserts male dominance over women.  “Don’t you realize it was sex that put you here in the first place?” she asks them, reducing all of their crimes to singular instances amidst a systemic appeal to male sexual favor: stealing to dress better for a man, engaging in prostitution to line the coffers of pimps, and committing murder to eliminate sexual rivals.  McQueen represents all of the fire and brimstone of Wilhelm Reich’s theories of sexual repression without any of the much celebrated release, the sort of buttoned-up antagonist familiar to those who had taken part in the sexual revolution a decade earlier.  Bitterly defined by her absence of sexual gratification, McQueen seeks to squash in others the carnal desire which she has only managed to repress within herself; she identifies her dream as “disturbing, but oddly gratifying,” yet quickly reinstates her icy exterior before exposing too much of her psychology.  It is telling that McQueen sentences Pandora (in Greek mythology, the all-endowed first woman) to solitary confinement after finding “pornography” in her cell — it is in fact a photograph of Pandora’s boyfriend, a symbol of her sexual gratification and her life outside of confinement, two sources of emotional edification unavailable to McQueen.

McQueen further betrays an ingrained deferment to patriarchal norms by consistently referring to Gavin’s character as “Wilson, Jacqueline,” thus giving primacy to the name handed down from fathers across generations.  When she later grants Wilson favor for having “come from a good family,” the patriarchal deferment takes on the deeper resonances of dynastic imperialism under which America was first colonized.  Steele, of course, is a British actress, and made no attempt to disguise her accent in Caged Heat.  On a purely acoustic level, this further distances her from the inmates and guards in the prison and highlights a remote iciness in her lines and delivery.  Ideologically, however, it underscores her oligarchical and outmoded role within the film, a status conveyed by the name “McQueen”, which manages to sound both regal and diminutive.  In ironic counterpoint, her office wall is decorated with an enormous American flag; she and it never occupy the same frame, however, and when it appears on screen, it does so behind the inmates as they face the superintendent in pairs — first Pandora and Belle, later Maggie and Wilson.  Their subsequent revolution against tyrannical rule is not a mere prison break, but rather a recapitulation of the American spirit.

The 1970s saw an influx of films about prisoners and ex-cons.  Papillon (1973), for instance, celebrated the superhuman endurance of Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen) and cataloged the injustices committed within a French penal colony, while films such as Straight Time (1978) showed the hardships faced by those attempting to reenter society following incarceration.  These, along with fugitive pictures like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Scarecrow (1973), produced a string of charismatic criminals who, unlike their cinematic forebears, were not required by the Production Code to atone for their sins.  There were figurative prisons as well, such as the British boarding schools of youth-in-revolt films like Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) (which are subtly invoked by the British McQueen’s title of “Superintendent”) and the asylums best depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); in these films, the rebellious spirit was celebrated as a thing to be nurtured and maintained against the institutionalized forces of control.

How did Caged Heat compare to these contemporaneous works, and what did it have to offer to its third targeted demographic, former convicts?  Aside from the beguiling protagonists, Demme offers a snapshot of America as a corrupt and unnegotiable land of transgression upon every rung of society; the only thing that changes as one moves up the ladder is the amount of impunity granted.  Caged Heat opens abruptly with Wilson and two male coconspirators running away from undercover cops; there is no relative idyll before the audience is thrust into criminality, nor any alternative glimpsed.  Crime is an existential fact, rather than an aberration.  After Wilson and Maggie escape the prison later in the film, what they see on the outside is no more reassuring.  The two track down Maggie’s friend Crazy Alice (Lynda Gold) at the Academy of Sexual Satisfaction, where she is working as a prostitute; Alice, who is on parole, confides in Maggie that she was laid off and now can’t find any work besides the oldest profession.  Meanwhile, Wilson makes some phone calls to track down her old cronies, only to discover that they have all been either arrested or killed — no more in real life than in her dream can Wilson expect to find salvation in the arms of a man.

The lack of viable options for gainful employment the women face would surely be heartening to any disillusioned former felons facing the same dire prospects.  Many don’t want to fall back into criminality, but simply find no other option in a society which is better equipped to punish than to rehabilitate.  Wilson, Maggie, and Alice hatch a plan to rob a bank, and are surprised to find that when they arrive, the bank is already being held up by a group of men wearing Disney masks.  This is Caged Heat’s sardonic joke: that crime is forever circumjacent, that every transaction is in some way felonious, and that in order to uphold moral law one must sometimes break man’s law.  Even the seemingly harmless all-American family whose car the women commandeer responds with indignation and exasperation when they see police lights approaching in the rearview: “Oh no, not again,” the father exclaims to his wife, son, and canine — even the most innocuous among us have been heretofore gripped by the long, abusive arm of the law.

Right beside the American flag in McQueen’s office hangs a portrait of Richard Milhous Nixon.  Caged Heat was produced and released in the midst of the Watergate scandal, meaning this piece of decor is no idle gesture.  Nixon’s portrait was already at this point in history a shorthand for corruption, duplicity, and perniciousness at all levels of American government.  What is most interesting about Caged Heat’s take on bureaucracy, however, is its evenhanded treatment of McQueen as conflicted, damaged, and on some level compassionate, but simply ill-equipped to understand or correct the broken system of which she is a part.  In fact, unlike the unflinching Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McQueen shows her vulnerability, her compassion, and her maternal instincts toward her inmates in subtle ways, only consenting to practices like electroshock therapy and lobotomization when coerced into them by committee.  By the end of the film, McQueen is simply another woman victimized by the system.

It is in fact Dr. Randolph who is the true face of evil in the film, forcing McQueen to assent to barbaric practices which silence rather than treat the women under his care.  A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest are perhaps the two most prominent cinematic critiques of these soul-robbing techniques, but Caged Heat adds an element of sexual aggression, with Wilson explicitly calling her electroshock therapy a rape.  Later, once Randolph has succeeded in circuitously talking McQueen into authorizing a lobotomy for Belle, he presents the operation to the shocked and drugged inmate as a chance for freedom: “You want a shot at parole?”  Belle, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, is essentially told she must give up one freedom for another, sacrificing her conscious will for a “life” on the outside.  Once she is anesthetized into submission, Randolph undresses, fondles, and photographs Belle, before suggestively stroking the bit of the lobotomy drill.

Caged Heat contains other stylistic signifiers of its era, such as a look that, like Scorsese’s Mean Streets the year before, manages to be both gritty and sleek, utilizing zooms and dolly shots to emphasis directorial presence.  Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto — whose only previous credit was Terrence Malick’s Badlands in 1973 — makes the film look more expensive than it was, and achieves a few neat optical effects which subtly align viewers with the protagonists.  One such instance which is as simple as it is effective is the first landscape shot after Wilson is incarcerated, which occurs after the inmates are loaded into a truck to be transported to the agricultural field.  The shot begins almost completely washed out, with the aperture slowly closing until proper exposure is achieved, much as one’s pupils would dilate to adjust to the harsh daylight after an extended period of confinement.

Elsewhere, Demme, like other cinematically literate filmmakers of the period, utilizes strategic visual quotations from other films.  The two most prominent are the sentencing of Wilson, which directly invokes a similar sequence from the proto-women-in-prison film Caged (1950), and a whispered message relayed from one inmate the next, much like the mess hall sequence from White Heat (1949) in which James Cagney learns of his mother’s death.  Unlike these earlier films, however, and in a more joyous fashion than other pictures of the early seventies, Caged Heat allows its protagonists to get away with their crimes, successfully making off with the money from the bank and freeing their fellow inmates from the prison.  Not unlike Jaws, which would create unprecedented waves at the box office a year later, the pessimism of Caged Heat’s first half — in which dreams are the only form of escape — gives way to upbeat, crowd-pleasing wish fulfillment which quickly neglects the collateral damage inflicted along the way.

Still, this triumphalism is tempered by the dire glimpses of the outside world which we have been granted throughout the film, and there is no reason to suspect Wilson’s prospects will be any rosier this time around.  Demme flirts with this ambiguity, freezing the image just as Wilson and the other girls crowd into the getaway car, optically zooming in on her arm reaching out from the passenger seat for the door handle.  After a brief moment, however, the image is reanimated, the door slams, and the vehicle speeds off into the distance.  Has Wilson kickstarted a new era for herself and for marginalized women?  Or has she simply shut herself in behind a different door?  As is typical for 1974, Caged Heat doesn’t give us the answers to the questions is raises.

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