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CAGE WITHOUT A KEY (1975).

Women-in-prison films have always held a prurient fascination with moviegoers -- from somewhat tame early efforts like CAGED (1950), GIRLS IN PRISON (1956) and HOUSE OF WOMEN (1962), through the early-'70s onslaught of sleazy drive-era gems such as CAGED HEAT, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and SWEET SUGAR. No surprise, the networks soon attempted to jump onto this bandwagon, with somewhat watered-down results such as this CBS made-for-TV movie, first broadcast on March 14, 1975, in which a good girl makes one shitty decision and winds up in a juvenile rehabilitation lock-up. And back then, who wouldn't be curious to see sitcom-cutie Laurie Partridge getting brutalized behind bars?... 22-year-old Susan Dey, in her first major role following THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY's cancellation, stars as idiotically-naive, recent high school grad Valerie Smith. While heading to San Francisco, her car conks out on the highway and she naively accepts a ride from a smooth-talking old classmate, Buddy Goleta (APOCALYPSE NOW's Sam Bottoms), in his groovy VW van, only to get unjustly implicated in a botched liquor-store-robbery-turned-murder before the first commercial break. Valerie's subsequent fate is the San Marcos School for Girls, which at first glance might seem like a peaceful maximum security campus for convicted teens, but all of the usual prison movie clichés are also on display. Our new fish is soon courted by two vicious opposing cliques -- one led by tough black chick Tommy Washington (COME BACK, CHARLESTON BLUE's Jonelle Allen, believably low-key), the other by catty bitch Suzy Kurosawa (REVENGE OF THE CHEERLEADERS starlet Susie Elene, annoyingly over-the-top) -- and attacked while sporting only a towel by resident-lesbian Noreen (Lani O'Grady, the eldest sis on EIGHT IS ENOUGH). But it isn't until one of her closest friends is scalded in a kitchen "accident" that Valerie reaches her emotional breaking point... In terms of harsh reality, this lightweight tale is nowhere close to Linda Blair's BORN INNOCENT, which premiered seven months earlier, and while director Buzz Kulik (BRIAN'S SONG, BAD RONALD) does a workmanlike job, the teleplay by Joanna Lee (who began writing for GILLIGAN'S ISLAND and THE FLINTSTONES, before moving up to self-important telefilms such as LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE and the Susan Dey-starrer MARY JANE HARPER CRIED LAST NIGHT) often succumbs to maudlin melodrama, as well as a dopey, final-segment escape attempt. Squeaky-clean Valerie has zero personality and is such a bland victim that it's difficult to feel sympathy for the poor girl, while Dey's lack of dramatic range doesn't help matters, since she simply looks vaguely stunned or upset throughout. Meanwhile, Bottoms makes an amusingly cocky and unpredictable whackjob, whose pathological lies send Valerie to this slammer. Non-incarcerated cast members include Michael Brandon (FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET) as the liberal do-gooder public defender assigned to Valerie's case, who continues to work on her appeal, and Karen Carlson (BLACK OAK CONSPIRACY) as his crusading reporter wife; Katherine Helmond plays San Marcos' oblivious administrator; Basil Hoffman (MY FAVORITE YEAR) is a judge; plus longtime Actors Studio coach Allan Miller appears as a hard-assed prosecutor.

© 2017 by Steven Puchalski.