Billy Fine racked up a half-dozen credits during the first half of the ’80s, either as producer or executive producer, on a set of films that were noteworthy VHS and cable favorites in their day. For example, you might know Penintentiary II if you’re into blaxploitation or New Year’s Evil if you’re a slasher buff. That said, his biggest claim to fame lies with a trio of films that reignited the women-in-prison genre for the ’80s. Chained Heat is the most beloved of these films and Hellhole is remembered for its mad scientist elements and star-studded exploitation cast… but The Concrete Jungle was the first film in this trio and deserves credit for getting the ball rolling.
The Concrete Jungle takes the classic “innocent lamb thrown to the wolves” story archetype familiar to fans of the genre: Elizabeth (Tracey Bregman) is a wide-eyed ski bunny who doesn’t know she’s being used as a drug mule by her sleazeball boyfriend Danny (Peter Brown). When the cops find drugs in her luggage, she quickly winds up in prison. She immediately earns the ire of corrupt Warden Fletcher (Jill St. John) and the attention of Cat (Barbara Luna), the predatory queen bee who runs things on the inside. Elizabeth tries to avoid trouble, making the occasional friend like ex-prostitute Katherine (Sondra Currie), but her enemies are determined to break her, particularly when she becomes friendly with prison reformer Shelly Meyers (Nita Talbot). It’s inevitable that the lamb will have to find her inner lion to survive.
The resulting film sticks close to the genre’s elements but surprises in other ways. The Concrete Jungle doesn’t go for the throat with sex or nudity the way Chained Heat does and, as a result, tends to get shrugged off by modern women-in-prison film fans as too tame. That said, such criticism misses a few interesting facts about The Concrete Jungle: it has a better script and more interesting characters than Chained Heat.
Alan J. Adler’s screenplay delivers a few dollops of sleaze to sell the danger of the prison, most notably a grim sexual assault scene involving a predatory guard, but otherwise focuses on how Elizabeth tries to retain her decency while getting tough enough to deal with vicious cons eager to prey on her. It’s surprisingly earnest in its pursuit of this plot thread and this gives it a core of genuine drama that gets explored on a few different fronts, most notably her friendship with Katherine and how she builds trust with Shelly while learning how to protect her own interests in the process. The rest of the script never deviates from familiar character types or plot situtations but it assembles them in a sturdy, well-structured way that makes it engaging between the expected exploitation moments.
The Concrete Jungle also benefits from confident direction by Tom DeSimone of Hell Night fame. He hits an interesting balance of drama and camp that brings some energy to the dialogue-driven side of the script while delivering periodic bits of sleazy excitement required by the genre (like when the guards break out a hose to break up a riot on the yard, leading to some mud-wrestling style topless shots). He was savvy enough to recognize that the performances would need to carry the script so he fuels the film with charismatic work from a nice repertoire of recognizable faces.
Said performances are the key to how The Concrete Jungle engages the viewer. Bregman gives an understated performance that makes her relatable amongst the film’s bigger, broader performances and she throws herself in into the character’s stoic suffering. She would later become a soap opera star so it’s no surprise that she is sympatico with the material’s melodramatic vibe. The villains are suitably colorful: Luna gives a fiery, gleeful portrait of her queen bee archetype while St. John offsets her flashy work with a performance that is charismatic in icy, preening sort of way.
Also of note is Talbot, who brings a sense of conviction to her work: her dialogue duels with St. John as they spar over the prisoners’ fates are a highlight of the film. Elsewhere, keep an eye out for exploitation vet Peter Brown as the oily boyfriend character, Camille Keaton appearing in the film’s most grueling and sleazy sequence and episodic t.v. vet Carole Ita White playing a con who delivers a funny monologue about how she ended up behind bars.
In short, The Concrete Jungle deserves more respect than it currently gets. If you view the women in prison genre solely for sleaze and outrageousness, you probably won’t appreciate its muted approach to those elements – but if you like story and performance driving your exploitation fare, this plays like an engaging throwback to the ’50s and ’60s women-in-prison films that had to lean on those elements to achieve their effect. The result would make a great double bill with another Schlockmania favorite, the similarly story-driven The Naked Cage.
Blu-Ray Notes: This one skipped DVD entirely but escaped from home video limbo via a blu-ray edition from Code Red. It features a 2K transfer that is a dramatic improvement on the old VHS and cable transfers and also includes a quartet of interviews with cast and crew, including lively chats with Bregman and DeSimone.