It’s amazing what a smart filmmaker could get away with at the drive-in. As long as you delivered the right amount of exploitable content to keep the producers and the audience happy, you could pursue whatever themes and messages you wanted. Roger Corman was the best at providing this sort of freedom to filmmakers – as long as they could obey budget/time constraints – and the New World Pictures catalog features many films with offbeat themes as a result.
One of the best New World productions in this vein – one of the best New World releases, period – is Jackson County Jail. The script, smartly crafted by future Oscar winner Donald Stewart, combines the “wrongly accused fugitive on the run” story archetype with Southern Discomfort and rape-revenge movie elements into an unexpectedly subversive stew. Our audience identification figure is Dinah Hunter (Yvette Mimieux), an L.A. ad exec who is burnt out from a bad job and a manipulative, philandering boyfriend (Howard Hesseman). She calls her former boss in New York, gets her old job back and decides to drive cross country to shake off the L.A. blues.
…And that’s where her troubles begin. She gets fooled by a pair of grifters who steal her car and purse. When she tries to get help in a small town, a drunken bar owner comes on to her and then turns her over to the cops when she fights him off. She’s put in jail while they check out her identity because she has no i.d. to show – and when the sheriff leaves, the overnight deputy rapes her. She accidentally kills him when she fights back and is talked into running by the prisoner in the next cell, career criminal Coley Blake (Tommy Lee Jones). They run for freedom but the road grows more perilous by the moment as the cops close in.
Simply put, Jackson County Jail is a fascinating collision of exploitation savvy with message-oriented filmmaking. All the key exploitative elements are in place – action, a bit of nudity and plenty of chases, punch-ups and shootouts – but the framework used to deliver them works in some challenging ideas.
To start with, the film is openly critical of America and its institutions. As seen through the main character’s eyes, the country is a place where men hold the power and are resentful of independent women. The police are portrayed as ineffectual, hasty in judgment and sometimes corrupt. It’s not just the authority figures, either. Corruption extends all the way down to the society’s underbelly: for every “honest” crook like Coley, there are two amoral predators like the hitchhikers that rob Dinah. The cynical viewpoint of the film is best summed up in an unforgettable speech where Coley describes the country as one big “rip-off.”
Jackson County Jail is also unusually perceptive in how it portrays the rape scene that the plot turns upon. This sequence and its slow buildup is played for drama and realism rather than titillation, convincingly portraying how this kind of scenario could happen and showing the true ugliness of the act (in an inspired touch, the rapist withdraws in self-disgust when the enormity of what he has done hits him). Its unique to see this kind of moment handled with such sensitivity and dramatic detail in an exploitation film.
The interest in drama further extends to the relationship between Dinah and Coley. Any other version of this story would try to transform the two into starcrossed lovers but Jackson County Jail shows admirable restraint. The two characters grow on each other slowly but are too beleaguered and different as people to fall in love. Instead, we see them bridge the gap between themselves by first discussing their differences and then beginning to appreciate their key similarities – a sense of honesty and a basic inner decency. This happens during a sort of intermission where the two hole up in a deserted house and catch their breath: this segment is easily the best written and directed material in the film and almost plays like an arthouse drama.
These touches make Jackson County Jail more than your average exploitation flick. The final element is strong craftsmanship on both sides of the camera. The acting is truly above-average for this kind of film. Mimieux handles her challenging role with grace and subtlety, handling Dinah’s more emotional moments with impressive realism, while Jones’ uses his down-home charisma to flesh out his character’s world-weariness and dark outlook on life. Robert Carradine is also convincingly scary in an early role as the leader of the hitchhiking duo, as is Frederic Cook as the jailhouse rapist: neither overplays and their naturalistic work makes them all the more effective.
Behind the camera, Stewart’s script has a tight narrative and delivers the required action but has a thoughtfulness to its presentation of character and thematic material. The same comment could be extended to Michael Miller’s direction, which bypasses the relentlessly aggressive style you’d expect from this kind of film. There are a few missteps – namely, a car crash that happens too easily and is too explosive – but he has a real eye for composition (look at the gorgeous way the scenes with Mimieux and Jones are shot) and a flair for ironic visual juxtapositions, the latter really coming into play during the downbeat finale.
In short, if you’re a 1970’s exploitation scholar then Jackson County Jail is required viewing. It took a lot of nerve to make a movie this critical of America and its problems during the Bicentennial – then again, it’s also the kind of wonderful surprise that New World Pictures was capable of when it was firing on all cylinders.