The Weak and the Wicked was a liberally minded women’s prison drama from the ’50s. Glynis Johns and Diana Dors are locked up with a great collection of British actresses in this sympathetic portmanteau about birds doing bird.
Johns plays Jean Raymond, a timid young thing sent down for a twelve month stint after her gambling problem gets out of hand. She’s lost in the intimidating environment at first, but then she hooks up with troubled glamourpuss Betty (Dors) who’s doing time after taking the rap for her man. Chalk and cheese they are guv’nor and no mistake, but busty, brash Betty lends Jean a bit of pluck and protection, and in return, Jean fixes Betty’s broken heart of gold.
Their redemption song plays out across their transfer from the severe Blackdown jail to progressive institution, The Grange – a sort of ’50s style Open prison. It’s a plot device that allows the film to comment on the relative merits of the opposing regimes, while adding to the dramatic content by borrowing stories from the other inmates who remember their crimes in a series of episodic flashbacks. Best of these has Athene Seyler and Sybil Thorndike conniving to murder A E Matthews with a dose of weed-killer.
Cinema has a grand tradition of women’s prison dramas, but from John Comwell’s Caged (1949) to Jonathan Demme’s debut, Caged Heat (1974), most of them have come from America. There the prospect of cat-fights, shower scenes and baton-wielding, bull-dyke wardens packed the hoary hordes into drive-ins throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. It wasn’t until Mai Zetterling made Scrubbers (1982), the sister-school variant of Alan Clarke’s Scum , that British cinema finally caught up with the extremes allowed by the genre.
The Weak And The Wicked (adapted by director J Lee Thompson from Joan Henry’s novel Who Lie In Gaol ) comes from an entirely different era, being slightly less gritty than an episode of Listen With Mother . Dors (who would go on to star in Thompson’s anti-capital punishment plea, Yield To The Night ) does her bit to add a bit of dirt to the proceedings with an energetic display of sexy, snarling disillusion, but this is no exploitation pic. Instead Thompson and his substantial cast have dealt their characters and subject matter great sympathy to highlight the effectiveness of a more lenient penal system. The result could be seen as an intriguing historical document recording Britain’s growing post-war liberalism in the nature/nurture debate.
UK / 1953
Director: J Lee Thompson
Writer: J Lee Thompson, Anne Burnaby (from a novel by Joan Henry)
Cast: Glynis Johns, John Gregson, Diana Dors, Sidney James, Jane Hylton, AE Matthews, Olive Soan, Athene Seyler, Sybil Thorndike, Ursula Howells, Rachel Roberts, Marjorie Rhodes, Sandra Dorne, Bessie Love Banlier