When first watching Swamp Women, just based on a brief synopsis I read, I was expecting a women-in-prison movie; since it’s a Roger Corman picture, the guess wasn’t too far afield. It retains some of the tropes of the genre – catfights, a little bondage, tough women – but since it doesn’t take place in a prison and lacks the dynamics of domination between old prisoners and new prisoners, guards and prisoners, it doesn’t really fit in that genre. It also lacks the nudity and sex characteristic of those films, but that can be ignored because it was filmed in 1955, an era with much stricter rules than in the 60s and 70s when exploitation films of that ilk proliferated. It also reminded me of female biker gang flicks, but again lacking an essential element, motorcycles. I’m not sure where Swamp Women fits in terms of genre; perhaps it’s just an action/crime film that’s tied to exploitation films with outlaw women. In any case, it’s a fun film about women doing what the do best: slogging through swampland to find a bag of diamonds.
Swamp Women begins with a young couple named Bob and Marie enjoying the sights of Carnival in New Orleans. Bob is oil tycoon who owns land in the bayou and Marie convinces him to take her on a tour of the swamp. Meanwhile, a police office named Lee has been given an assignment to infiltrate the Nardo gang in prison and find the whereabouts of a bag of diamonds they stole. Lee meets the gang in their cells, Josie, the levelheaded leader, Vera, the hot-tempered redhead, and somewhat childish Billie. She earns the gang’s trust with ease by breaking them out of jail and taking them to a getaway car. The group borrows a boat from an old friend so they can search the swamp for where they buried the bag of diamonds. The boat breaks down, but thankfully Bob and Marie are touring the swamp; the gang takes the boat and holds the couple hostage. Bob is tied up and stays tied up for most of the movie. Marie is not tied up and spends the rest of her screen time crying; then she’s eaten by an alligator. On the way to the diamonds, Vera and Billie constantly squabble, frequently leading to catfights that end with both parties dirty or wet. At the same time, Josie and Lee seem to develop a mutual respect that might be an incipient friendship. In spite of the fighting, the girls seem to get along well enough, but Vera ends up betraying the group when they find the diamonds by stealing it at night and taking Bob with her. Although Vera also steals the guns, the girls manage to kill her with a makeshift spear and take back the diamonds. As the cops close in on the gang, Josie becomes suspicious about Lee’s nervousness about shooting guns and killing Bob. Lee and Bob, who is still tied up, fight with Vera and Billie, knocking them out. As the police arrive, Lee and Bob embrace because a few flirtatious exchanges necessitate that they get together at the end. Yay!
Considering that this is the second movie Corman directed, Swamp Women is a pretty good B-movie. There’s enough depth to the characters that we can sympathize with them and the action stays at a good clip in spite of some padding footage; thankfully the padding footage is of the swamp, which is pretty, and degradation of the original film has turned the moss a weird violet hue that looks cool. The main draw of the film for me was the tough, smart-mouthed women. It’s the exact opposite of the stereotype of 50’s women; of course, I think the stereotype that the 50’s was buttoned-down and idyllic is because censorship precluded showing the seedier side of life in the movies and television that have survived to this day, not to mention the nostalgic view the elderly have of the era. Nevertheless, it’s nice seeing that the women aren’t helpless damsels, excluding Marie who we never really sympathize with. It’s actually a rare case where the typical gender roles are reversed; Bob is the captive that the women lust over and it’s up to Lee to save him. The movie attracts the male gaze by putting the women in Daisy Dukes cutoffs and having the girls fight each other; the attraction is made all the more pointed and amusing when we see Bob flirting with the girls and smiling like a kid in a candy store when they start wrestling; I’ve never understood the attraction of catfights, but to each his own. However, it’s hard for me to fault a low-budget exploitation film for trying to add some thrills and showing an understandable tendency for violence in escaped convicts. The characters are no less tough or interesting for showing some skin; that being said, I can’t say I’m not biased in my assessment of a movie with tough, skimpily clad women. C’est la vie.