Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Jackson County Jail (1976)

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act into law, creating the Interstate Highway System (part of the National Highway System) we use (in America, obviously) to this day (and more often than not are inconvenienced by what we perceive to be the extremely inefficient and perpetual maintenance thereof). In post-WWII/Korean War America, more and more people opted to "See the U.S.A. in [Their] Chevrolet," and long-distance driving became something to do for reasons other than (primarily) shipping goods and mobilizing military assets from state to state. For fans of exploitation and genre cinema this opened up a whole new avenue to explore. For all the major metropolitan areas that these roads zip through, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small towns which are inherently creepy (at least to people raised in more urban and suburban settings) for their insularity and remoteness. After all, not all monsters come with fangs and claws.

Dinah Hunter (Yvette Mimieux) is an ad executive in Los Angeles. After expressing herself forcefully to a (jackass of a) client over a feminine hygiene product ad, she goes home early. Upon arrival, she discovers her hubby, David (Howard Hesseman), screwing around with some teenie bopper. Deciding to head back to New York, Dinah chooses to drive rather than fly and "see the country" (never a good idea in exploitation movies). Through a series of despicable and harrowing events, she finds herself locked up in the eponymous jail where a final incident pushes her over the edge. Whisked away by aloof crook, Coley Blake (Tommy Lee Jones), looking like something Joan Crawford dug up out of a cave in England), the pair find themselves on the lam with no easy way out.

Michael Miller's Jackson County Jail, being attached as it is to Roger Corman, was sold to the American grindhouse circuit as an exploitation film. Though it does have some exploitable elements, the film is of a higher caliber than many similarly-themed films of the time (the first that springs to my mind is Black Mama, White Mama, but feel free to add your own). It has action and an aura of sleaze, but it never wallows in it, and the filmmakers create characters that behave (more) believably given the circumstances. Moreover, it doesn't dwell on the exploitable facets as so many of its brethren would. The filmmakers seem to care about what happens to these characters other than in a strictly prurient sense, and consequently so does the viewer.

This is Dinah's story, and principally it is one of discovery. When the film starts, she certainly has an opinion (and often a correct one), but the men she encounters undermine and devalue this opinion, trying to make her a subservient woman to their own chauvinistic needs and desires. Once the events in her life escalate, she finds herself robbed not only of her mind but her body, as well. Sheriff Dempsey (Severn Darden) sums it up succinctly when he tells Dinah that she's being held until she can prove who she says she is. 

It is through the juxtaposition of her words to her actions in the remainder of the film that Dinah's character should be revealed. And yet, somehow it never truly feels like it is. The filmmakers seemed to want to play it safe, with Dinah aligning herself with the outlaw Coley, but maintaining that she has faith that the system will vindicate her. Or perhaps this subversion of the expectation that Dinah must emerge from her ordeal a much stronger woman is, in fact, the whole point. Maybe she isn't a strong woman, and all of her actions and positions before were just posturing, a façade masking the true person.

Dinah Hunter's name can be seen as a variation on the Roman Diana, goddess of the hunt and protector of virgins and women. Dinah, herself, doesn't appear to be looked after by any divinity in particular, though the case can be made (and I can hear you groaning as I stretch for this one) that Coley represents Apollo, Diana's sister and god of (among other things) truth and prophecy. Jones plays Coley as stoic as stoic gets, saying things like, "I'll play what's dealt," and "I's born dead." He tries to show Dinah that there is really only one path open to her. Whether she accepts this by film's end is open to some debate.

On a filmmaking level, Miller displays a capable hand. He moves the camera when necessary and locks it down when appropriate. He also uses handheld techniques on four occasions (that I counted), and each time it succeeds in conveying the immediacy and tension required of the scenes. The first use is during Dinah's excursion into a bar's back room, and it conveys the chaos and confusion of her character right up until she exits into the main bar room (and assumed safety). The second use is during Dinah's rape, and there is an abundance of closeups and extreme closeups to draw us in and force us to witness the event but never in a leering, exploitive way. The shots immediately following the violation are longer, awkward, and uncomfortable, as befits the situation. The third and fourth handheld sequences focus on Coley and are action scenes to add thrills and tension, not necessarily to illustrate a point, but they are effective and well-done, nonetheless. The car chase scenes are also handled nicely, and there were a few points where I thought Coley's pickup was going to flip over (ah, the joys of practical filmmaking). To be fair, there are some continuity errors and gaffs (most noticeably with some mismatched eyelines), but it's never enough to detract from the experience overall.

The filmmakers also make a point of stating that the film takes place during America's (and the town of Fallsburg's, coincidentally) bicentennial celebration. This was a year for the country when national pride was at an all-time high, on the surface at least. But with the recent end of an enormously unpopular war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that ousted President Nixon from office, there came a strong distaste and distrust of public authority in general. Though it is never stated outright, it is easy to intuit that Coley was a soldier who returned from Vietnam to an uncaring country. He claims he has always been a crook, but he is also of the popular counterculture opinion that "the whole goddamn country is a ripoff." His nihilistic demeanor seems more a defensive reaction than an inborn credo, but we are never let in fully to his motivations. It is telling, then, that the film's finale occurs at a bicentennial parade, disrupting it and symbolically calling out a collective establishment that had become dismissive of its rank and file. Also of note is the expression on Dinah's face as the film fades to black. On one hand, the full impact of her life up to this point clarifies for her. Yet on the other hand, she glances around, seemingly confused about where to turn next. Certainly, this is a sentiment prescient for both its time and our own.

MVT: Mimieux carries the film, and I think she does a remarkable job portraying someone struggling to deal with the most traumatic events of her life and not truly knowing how.     

Make Or Break: The "Make" scene is when Coley tells Dinah that they're both now wanted for the events in the jail. The scene is understated, but places a very definite bit of punctuation on the ineluctable finality of the duo's fate.

Score: 7/10




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