Swamp Women/Swamp Diamonds/Cruel Swamp (1955) -**
If ever there were a movie that simply cried out for Joel and the Bots, Roger Corman’s Swamp Women is it. A plodding, directionless, and generally hopeless early entry in the female crime subgenre to which Corman would frequently return over the course of his career, Swamp Women is heavily freighted with potential for derisive mirth, but it is so stultifyingly dismal that it can take a real effort of will to get through it all. Even at 68 minutes it seems overly long, and most of its limited entertainment value arises paradoxically from its signal failure to be at all conventionally entertaining. It hooks you in with a long and mostly pointless opening scene in which the original-to-stock footage ratio is almost miraculously low, then keeps you watching out of morbid fascination with the prospect that you may actually have stumbled upon a commercial action movie in which literally nothing ever happens.
That initial outpouring of stock footage takes the form of a rather forlorn Mardi Gras parade, which is being watched by aspiring oil baron Bob Matthews (Mike Connors, from Voodoo Woman and The Day the World Ended) and his gold-digging aspiring girlfriend, Marie (Susan Cummings). Bob is in town with an eye toward prospecting for oil out in the bayou, and Marie thinks it would be a grand old time to come along with him. This is because, astonishingly enough, she has somehow managed to live her whole life in New Orleans without ever figuring out just how rough and inhospitable swamp country can be, or indeed even that the whole fucking city is pretty much surrounded by the stuff. I hate the little bimbo already, and I’m sure you will too.
Bob isn’t the only one planning a trip to the swamp. Somewhere out in the reeds and the muck, the notorious Nardo gang hid a fortune in stolen diamonds. The gang were all rounded up by the police three years ago, and the men executed for the murders that attended their more profit-motivated crimes, but three of the dead gangsters’ girlfriends are still sharing a cell together down at the local lockdown. An apparently nameless police captain played by Lou Place believes the girls know where the diamonds are hidden, and he has an ingenious (if also somewhat unlikely) scheme to drag the information out of them. He’s going to have policewoman Lieutenant Lee Hampton (The Monster and the Ape’s Carole Matthews) pose as a fellow convict, and lead the Nardo molls on a phony prison break. The real escapees will surely go straight to the diamonds, at which point Hampton and the backup officers following at a discreet distance will re-arrest them and return the jewels to their rightful owners.
Lee gains her new cellmates’ confidence fairly quickly— or at least she gains the confidence of the only one whose opinion really matters. Josie (Marie Windsor, from Cat-Women of the Moon and The Unholy Wife) had been involved with Mike Nardo himself before he was put to death, and she has naturally emerged as the leader of the Nardo Gang Women’s Auxiliary during the three years of their imprisonment. Billie (Jil Jarmyn) and Vera (Beverly Garland, of The Neanderthal Man and The Alligator People) will go along with whatever she decides whether they agree with her or not. Personally, I don’t really understand what Josie and the Pussycats have been waiting for, or why they think they need any help from Lee. They’ve already done all the hard work of filing through the bars on their cell’s window and rigging the hinges to disengage so that the lower pane can be removed altogether. But be that as it may, it is only when Lee fills in a couple of seemingly minor details to the plan that they feel emboldened to make their escape— although in light of the suck-ass job the girls do of sneaking across the prison yard to the eminently stealable getaway car which Lee’s captain has so thoughtfully provided, I guess Josie’s trepidation up to now was probably justified. Regardless of this sorry performance, the rigged jailbreak comes off without a hitch (well, duh…), and before Corman has a chance to get the day-for-night filter adjusted properly, they’re off to the swamps. At Josie’s suggestion, they make a detour along the way to the home of an erstwhile Nardo gang hanger-on named Louie, whose susceptibility to blackmail makes him the logical go-to guy for such necessary provisions as weapons, food, a boat, and clothes that didn’t obviously come from a women’s prison commissary.
It appears, however, that there was no money in the budget for Louie; this has got to be an all-time low, even for Roger Corman. No sooner has Josie explained where the fugitives are going and why than the scene cuts to them standing thigh-deep in a bog, complaining about the leaky boat Louie palmed off on them. But luckily for the Nardo girls, this setback hits them just as Bob and Marie come buzzing by in a motorboat. Lee gets Bob’s attention, and when he goes to see what’s what, the others surround and hijack him, killing his pilot in the process. (That last part is kind of strange, since the shot of the pilot being gunned down by Vera is the first indication we see that there was ever a third person in the boat to begin with!) Vera wants to kill Bob and Marie, too, but Lee convinces Josie that they would be valuable as hostages in the event of a showdown with the police, and the waylaid prospectors are reprieved. But even so, Marie doesn’t last very long. A scene or two later, she is eaten by an alligator (which Bob the oil prospector is forced to wrestle, I might add), and there is much rejoicing.
We have now reached the point in the film (it’s about the half-hour mark) at which the plot evidently decided it wasn’t getting paid nearly enough for this shit, and walked off the set in protest. From here until less than ten minutes before the movie’s conclusion, we’ll see much bantering and bickering, a string of unproductive efforts by Vera and Billie to seduce the captive Bob, the stirrings of a nascent attraction between Bob and Lee, and a slow escalation of the rivalry between the trigger-happy Vera and pretty much everybody else in the cast. But mostly what we’ll see is a succession of interminable scenes of the Nardo Gang Women’s Auxiliary trudging, trudging, trudging through the Louisiana bayou. I’m sure that Corman, having lived most of his life in California, found the setting exotic and fascinating, but you know what? It isn’t nearly exotic or fascinating enough to carry the entire second half of a movie— even one as short as Swamp Women. By the time the girls finally reach the diamonds and the sparks start flying among them in a big way, Swamp Women has long since worn out its welcome.
I’ll tell you this, though— I’d bet you just about anything this movie was a big hit with San Francisco’s lesbian underground at the time of its release. Though I doubt it was intentional, the women of the title divide neatly into a femme pair (Billie and Vera) and a butch pair (Josie and Lee), and the fights that frequently break out among them have a lot more in common with the barroom brawls of contemporary B-Westerns than they do with, say, a traditional women’s prison movie catfight. The closest thing that ever surfaces to a conventional attempt to capitalize on the cast’s sex appeal is one hilariously un-sexy scene in which the fugitives, shitfaced drunk on liquor Josie presumably procured from the mysterious Louie, decide for no apparent reason that they all need to cut the legs off of their blue jeans. From the look of things, it hardly seems as though the usual male audience for movies of this type entered into Corman’s calculations at all, and in general, the vibe of Swamp Women could best be described as “on the road with four of the world’s brassiest, most cantankerous night-shift diner waitresses.” It makes for an interesting subversion of audience expectations, even if it wasn’t really intended that way— as it probably was not.
Unfortunately, the presumably accidental lesbian appeal really is the only particularly interesting thing about Swamp Women. It’s an awful, awful movie at pretty much every level, in a way that no other Corman film I’ve seen can match, and it’s hardly surprising that it is almost completely forgotten today. Corman’s own memoir never even mentions it (unless a passing allusion to shooting in the bayou counts as a mention), and it merits a bare two sentences in Beverly Gray’s later biography of the director/producer. What’s especially strange is that hardly any of the energy Corman usually brought to his work is in evidence here. Apart from its unmistakably Corman opening credits, it feels more like something Ed Cahn would have come up with— and on a bad day after a week-long bender, at that!