The Cohen Case Files: Women of San Quentin (1983)

Story by Larry Cohen

The misleadingly titled Women of San Quentin is about as inconsequential of a film as you are likely to find connected to Larry Cohen. While it sports a cast that is stacked with experienced character actors, it never rises above its TV-movie status to become an interesting—or entertaining—movie. All it aspires to be is filler to air for twelve minutes at a time between commercials.

As it begins, the film seems like it’s going to be about Larson (‘80s horror staple, Amy Steel), a newly-hired corrections officer in California’s notorious San Quentin penitentiary. Introduced during a training montage that starts the film, Larson’s journey from green trainee to hardened officer seems like it is going to be the main plot, but an ensemble of various officers and inmates quickly takes over the film as prison officials discover plans for a prison-wide fight between two rival gangs. As a series of smaller skirmishes and clandestine meetings increase tensions between the gangs, the officers in the prison try desperately to figure out when the planned attack is scheduled to happen in an effort to stop it before it starts.

If that plot sounds like an exciting piece of ticking clock suspense, I’m sure that’s how NBC sold it (the film originally aired on the network on October 23, 1983). Between that plot description and a title that implies a Roger Corman-style women in prison exploitation picture, it’s no wonder that it’s such a disappointment when it fails to even come close to those expectations. Despite the pulpy potential in its premise, the film is merely an unwieldy attempt to meld the new to television grittiness of Hill Street Blues with soap opera-ready stories about the personal lives of the officers.

Despite boasting a “story by” credit (that he shares with credited screenwriter Mark Rodgers), none of Cohen’s sense of humor or sharp satirical style is present. The film does try to address the obvious racial issues that are present whenever crafting a film set in a prison. Most of the prisoners are African-American and Hispanic—as is true to life. But Rodgers and director William A. Graham deploy most of their comments on this aspect of the film through an increasingly silly personal story involving one officer’s dating difficulties as opposed to approaching the volatile material head on. Cohen’s scripts for BoneBlack Caesar, and See China and Die are fearless when examining class and racial inequality, but Women of San Quentin barely plays at being tough in the face of potential controversy before shying away into a series of politically correct talking points over a series of romantic dinners gone wrong.

Even worse than using a dating subplot to flippantly comment on the disproportionately large African-American and Hispanic inmate population, is the way the gangs are handled. The approaching clash is between an African-American gang and a Hispanic gang, but the film is borderline offensive in the way it presents the Hispanic gang as nothing more than feral, bloodthirsty thugs. While the African-American gang members aren’t exactly portrayed as saints, they are given more screen time, a pseudo-justified reason for taking action, and a code of conduct that they adhere to. There is no real depth to any of the characters, but the illusion of depth is created by giving one side far more screen time and some characters who actually reflect on the escalating violence of the conflict. I highly doubt the filmmakers intended any sort of racism with the extreme difference in the way the gangs were handled, but the omission of any redeeming characteristics for the Hispanic gang members is an uncomfortable aspect of the film—not to mention the complete absence of a white supremacist gang that is briefly mentioned, but never seen. In fact, only two white inmates are given any screen time and one is a potential love interest (!) for Larson.

What the film lacks in a good script is at least partially made up for by a great cast. Steel is solid and sympathetic as Larson. She deserves better than being used as nothing more than a pair of eyes through which to be introduced to the prison’s world. But that world is populated by the likes of Yaphet Kotto, Debbie Allen, Ernie Hudson, William Sanderson, Gregg Henry, Hector Elizondo, James Gammon, Stella Stevens, and Marco Rodriguez, so there is always a reliable actor ready to breathe some life into the wooden dialogue and largely silly subplots they are given.

But the film consistently goes overboard on shallow subplots and—as much as it tries for “gritty realism”—is too hemmed in by TV standards to ever go too dark. The closest Women of San Quentin comes to the most unsavory realities of prison for the inmates is a heavily veiled reference to rape. Forced to adhere to TV-movie rhythms and sanitized for the viewer’s protection, the film never really stood a chance. The result is proof that 1983 network television was really no place to even attempt a film like this.

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