Feature Article

Visible Stripes: Reenacting Trauma in Hollywood's Carceral Aesthetics

Author: Eli Boonin-Vail (University of Pittsburgh)

  • Visible Stripes: Reenacting Trauma in Hollywood's Carceral Aesthetics

    Feature Article

    Visible Stripes: Reenacting Trauma in Hollywood's Carceral Aesthetics


How to Cite:

Boonin-Vail, E., (2021) “Visible Stripes: Reenacting Trauma in Hollywood's Carceral Aesthetics”, Film Criticism 45(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.1032

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Published on
14 Oct 2021
Peer Reviewed

American cinema’s narratives of prison reform, much like reform itself, are less a matter of redressing injustice than they are aestheticizations and repackagings of carceral trauma for mass audiences. Offering out to the viewer phantasmatic resolutions of the antidemocratic contradictions of the United States’ penal system, the cinema’s representation of carceral abuse hinges on a logic of pastness and retribution. It promises on the one hand benevolent wardens and reformed carceral subjects, and on the other hand fantastically sadistic wardens and wrongfully convicted convicts. In both instances, these representations offer an inevitable and teleological view of carceral reform wherein prisons necessarily improve themselves. An examination of American film’s relationship with prison from early cinema to the classical Hollywood reveals texts, corporate arrangements, and production practices that sensationalize and manage the affects of traumatized prisoners under the guise of reform. At the heart of this relationship are the figures and bodies of prisoners themselves, who permeate the periphery of American film texts, at times resistant, at times compliant, but always haunting.

H.G. Percey, a research librarian at Paramount in the mid-1930s, succinctly articulated this tension between the film industry’s carceral imaginary and the nation’s programs of prison reform. Writing in the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers on the “Problems of a Motion Picture Research Library,” Percey confesses in passing that “Prison pictures worry us a little.” With this “us,” Percey speaks for several entities: on behalf of the film research library, on behalf of Paramount, and on behalf of Hollywood. All are concerned with prison pictures, Percey writes, “because with the new prison reforms prevalent in so many of the states, we do not always find the stripes and chains that are usually associated with the punishment of criminals.”1 The “we” here becomes slightly more flexible in its enunciating position, speaking both for the film industry but now also for audiences. Percey’s passive voice in this sentence attributes “associations” to spectators who expect and anticipate a certain image of American incarceration but disguises the function of the film industry in manufacturing and maintaining this association.

Percey’s concern with the prison film’s counter-reform aesthetics represents in the following analysis the apotheosis of a decades-long development of cinematic approaches to prisons and incarceration in pre-classical and classical American film. Her particular worry over the aesthetics of prisoner humiliation conflicting with actual reform suggests a common American imaginary in regard to carceral trauma, one informed by a legacy of representational tropes and techniques (“stripes and chains”) which relied on location shooting, reform narratives, and re-enactment methods to establish and promote an American prison cinema. Building off of the work of Alan Sekula on the “mutually constitutive history of criminology and photography,” Judah Schept warns us that “prisons can control what we see when we look at their facades and when we tour” but remains optimistic that “they do not have to structure our gazes into their pasts.”2 With Schept’s cautious optimism in mind, this investigation proposes to gaze into both cinema’s and prison’s pasts by reading Classical Hollywood prison film and its precedents in early film as sites of traumatic re-enactment and “acting out” for American culture’s relationship with its prisons. Cinema, like prison architecture as described by Schept, is an instrument of visual control that exists to structure the look. However, by treating American prison film in light of theories of trauma and re-enactment in the cinema, it is possible to contest both prison and cinema’s control of vision.

How might we think of conventional non-documentary Hollywood narrative texts as pursuing a method of re-enactment? Crucial to answering this question must be an understanding of the structural reciprocity between the American prison and cinema industries at critical moments of their maturation in the first half of the twentieth century. As Alison Griffiths has demonstrated, prison administrators like Sing Sing’s celebrity warden Lewis E. Lawes encouraged both the exhibition and production of cinema in American prisons.3 According to David Wilson and Sean O’Sullivan, Lawes’ advocacy for showing film in prison, his approval of location shooting at his prison for major studio productions, and his authorship of several titles adapted into prison films throughout the 1930s coincided with “a period of intense debate about penal reform” in which “films raised questions about the nature of crime and delinquency.”4 However, cinema’s relationship with prison reform predates the timeline Wilson and O’Sullivan establish. Griffiths recounts the use of location-shooting and re-enactment practices in such films as Raoul Walsh’s The Honor System (1917) and Sidney Olcott’s The Right Way (1921), finding their roots in films that Katherine Bleecker produced for the Joint Committee on Prison Reform in 1915.5 Such films reliably traded in re-enactments of prisoner torture, and the trade discourse marketing these films would often appeal to audiences explicitly on the grounds of offering voyeuristic windows into torture.6

Herein lies the contradiction at the heart of the relationship between prison reform and cinema in this period: films advocating for the improvement of prisoners’ conditions relied for affective appeal on re-enacted images of brutalized prisoners, infecting the American carceral imaginary with a normalized image of the traumatized prisoner and influencing American prison film for decades to come. It is in this sense that reformism and its intersection with American cinema provides us with a window onto theorizing Hollywood prison films through the prism of reenactment. In the context of documentary, Bill Nichols argues that “reenactment forfeits its indexical bond to the original event… the shift of levels engenders an impossible task for the reenactment: to retrieve a lost object in its original form even as the very act of retrieval generates a new object and a new pleasure.”7 In the case of re-enacting trauma on incarcerated bodies in American prison films, the shift of levels entails cultural and psychic work that relies on film’s charge of the real to instill and reinforce particular images of carcerality. As sociologist Michelle Brown puts it, “In American culture, citizens are much more likely to screen the prison rather than visit it. They are consequently familiar with imprisonment not through its institutional practice but its cultural representation, and this is an important site for the construction of a cultural memory that is largely iconic.”8 Whether the prison films produced by classical Hollywood were purely fictional, based on the writings of administrators or prisoners [20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) or Cell 2455, Death Row (1955), respectively], conventional documentary newsreel [A Call For Help From Sing Sing (1934)], or some admixture of these elements [the Bleecker films, as well as many postwar prison films like Canon City (1948) and Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)] that begin with documentary introductions to fictionalized accounts], they all produced some form of “new object and new pleasure” in the act of supposedly retrieving raw experience and reality from within American prisons. Consequently, their iconography derived from the use of location photography, staged re-enactments, and actual prisoners filmed as extras.

The pleasures bound up in the re-enactment and representation of punishment in American prison film are fundamentally tied to the spectator’s privileged role as witness to and surveyor of the penal colony. Allison Young has argued that criminology and penology have largely engaged the issue of representation through the witness paradigm, reading such representation as “a response to a trauma buried in the crimino-legal condition” wherein “each event demands that we read it and attempt to witness its meaning” through a “process of repression and representation that is contingent and continuous.”9 In this sense, the constant repetition of the “stock characters, plots, and themes” that, according to criminologist Nicole Rafter, “turn up again and again in traditional prison films” ought to be read as participating in an ongoing, cyclical, and interminable process in American cultural memory, namely a fantasmatic reconfiguration of the troublingly anti-democratic and sadistic elements of incarceration into a reconcilable and ultimately healthy picture of ever-improving reform.10 In this way, the reformist spirit and anti-death penalty messages consistently endorsed by American prison officials and cinema in the first half of the twentieth century combined with the film industry’s capital-driven need for serialization and reformulation, producing a form of cinema grounded in repetition and a spectator attuned to and expecting this very repetition. That the films themselves often emphasize the repetitious daily cycles of life behind bars further implicates individual film narratives within a larger pattern of genre-wide repetition.

In his 2018 dissertation, “Cagecraft: Prison, Performance, and the Making of Carceral Subjects,” performance scholar Nicholas Fesette provides a critical point of inquiry for theorizing prison representation and its relation to trauma and repetition by introducing the concept of prison as a “trauma machine.” With this term, Fesette means that prisons “serve to simultaneously structure, produce, and confine subjects in repetitions of historical violence.”11 Though largely concerned with representation in theater and performance, drawing heavily on his experiences volunteering as a teaching artist at Auburn Correctional Facility for five years, Fesette encounters a wide variety of non-theatrical, photographic, and filmic technologies of prison representation that factor into his conceptualization of trauma machines. Finding that “time and again, when theatre, photography, and film have depicted or otherwise encountered the prison, they represent the punitive regime as redemptive of the individual, thereby instituting a moral order for the democratic polis,” Fesette reads Edwin S. Porter’s Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901) as a specific case of film “failing to reenact the pain of electrocution in service to the humanitarian performance of modern civilization.”12 In this sense, this film’s anesthetic approach to representing electrocution participates in Fesette’s theorized trauma machinery while also serving as a microcosmic example of the relationship between prison reform and cinematic representation. That is to say that this representation subdues the real experience of trauma under the guise of technocratic efficacy and democratic ideals of humane treatment.13

Furthermore, Fesette’s conception of the similarities between performance and prison draws on a temporal reading that has significant implications for reading the relationship between film and prison. “Like the theater,” he writes, “the prison is deeply involved in repetition and recycling, bringing the past to life in the present.”14 Such “bringing the past to life in the present” resonates with William Guynn’s theories of film’s relation to traumatic history, what he describes as the frisson of experiential pull that happens when certain historical modes of filmmaking put us “face to face” with the past, reverberating in the present through representation.15 Guynn encourages us to conceive of cinema as a phenomenological vehicle for “evocation” – not simply representation – of the past. While Guynn confines himself entirely to postwar examples of historically evocative films, his recognition of prison cells as historically and visually charged sites of “traces of the past” groks with Fesette’s understanding of prisons as places imbued with “special energy” by memory.16

Figure 1:
Figure 1:
Figure 1: Kartherine Russell Bleecker

We may thus approach cinematic prisons – represented either fictionally or nonfictionally – as sites of historical memory evoked through location shooting, the filming of incarcerated bodies (or bodies pretending to be incarcerated in real carceral spaces), and reenactment of traumatic experience. These reenacted, staged, or entirely fabricated traumatic experiences engage viewers and shape the American carceral imaginary. In recounting Bleecker’s experiences reenacting “scenes of antiquated punishments” at Auburn Prison in 1915, Griffiths quotes Bleecker, who recalled in an interview that “I had a cardboard paddle made and gave the guard instructions to pull the victim up, then lower him gradually until his toes rested on the floor, but to appear to be holding tightly to the rope so as to keep up the illusion.” The convict involved in the reenactment, who had been sentenced to two years for drunkenly stealing a suitcase that he had mistaken for his own, was actually hanged by his wrists and lost consciousness, “not uttering a sound for fear he would ruin the take.”17 This is but a pronounced example of a larger willingness from the Auburn convict population to restage their own brutalization that Griffiths uncovers, finding that the prisoners even raised funds for the film by putting on a minstrel show. Thomas Mott Osborne, a nationally renowned prison reformer who had gone undercover as the prisoner “Tom Brown” at Auburn in 1912, took time off from his position as the Warden of Sing Sing to restage his stay as Brown for Bleecker’s camera in an attempt to evoke “all the horrors of the prison system before the reforms.”18 Griffiths has thus firmly established that location shooting, the filming of incarcerated bodies, and reenactment of traumatic experience were all integral components of Bleecker’s films, each of which worked to evoke traumatic historical experience for audiences.

Reformist filmic images of prison torture such as Bleecker’s set the brutal conditions of prison at a comfortable distance from the spectator both spatially and temporally. They justify the spectator’s voyeuristic desire to see harm done to incarcerated bodies by situating carceral trauma in a murky pre-reform past which the narrative of progress tells us we have since overcome. This artificial distance contributes to the “perpetual deferral or attempt to return to some originary event that will never arrive” which Fesette describes as critical to the traumatic temporal mechanics of the prison in cultural memory and imagination. It allows for the illusion of a neat teleology wherein punishment not only fits crime but also consistently refines its own practices.

Such a narrative of progress bumps up against the sticky experiential residue that images of torture produce, functioning in Guynn’s words as “the expression of experience, which is the continuous interaction between human beings and their environment” rather than “the description of the world that is the objective of the social sciences [emphasis original].”19 In other words, the use of violent images of incarceration to promote prison reform is caught in a contradiction: the reform discourse describes a pastness but the use of incarcerated bodies, location photography, and traumatic violence expresses the present and lures the viewer into a perpetuation rather than revocation of violence in prison. At the same time that they argue for a pastness of the injustice represented, such images necessarily evoke a traumatic experience that in Guynn’s formula of cinema’s relation to history lies beyond representation. Re-enactment in this sense builds what Joram ten Brink would recognize as a “body-based discourse” of history.20 Brink traces a genealogy of traumatic filmic re-enactment back to pre-cinematic war representations that include Crimean war performances staged in Victorian London, Civil War Re-enactments, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Spanish American war shows. Like the contradiction at the heart of prison torture re-enactments, Brink similarly finds a contradiction in war re-enactment.21 Brink notes that in the case of the Crimean war re-enactments of the mid-1850s, actual soldiers and casualties of the war were recruited to participate in performances, while the Buffalo Bill shows relied heavily on indigenous labor and performances from real-life participants and victims of the Indian Wars of the later 19th century. Such participation ought to be viewed as of a piece with the Auburn prisoners’ collaborations with Bleecker, who likewise committed to traumatic repetition in the name of representation. The question then remains: what about incarceration and its aestheticization was so powerfully attractive that it would convince a man brought into Auburn on a minor offense to willingly give himself over to tortures which both he and his captors considered antiquated and horrific?

Apropos of Brink’s investigation, Fesette makes much of the fact that in 1908 Auburn Prison hosted a Buffalo Bill Wild West show. Examining photographs of this performance, Fesette sets out to “look at these photos to reveal how both performance and photography, in the context of the prison, revivify the ghosts of racialized violence.” Describing his approach as a practice of “critical necromancy,” Fesette explains that “my analysis reads the ghosts in the images that bear witness to and also disavow the prison’s status as a place of trauma.” 22 This simultaneous witnesss/disavowal function in regards to prison trauma persists in the Bleecker torture case as recounted by Griffiths. The victim’s active participation in his own traumatization bespeaks the pull of cinema in the context of prison to simultaneously give witness to and disavow the prison as trauma machine, the disavowal function operating so strongly in this instance that the individual is able to sublimate or otherwise deny the trauma inflicted on his body in the moment of its becoming, justified as a spectacle for the cinematic apparatus, not “real” trauma but trauma performed in the service of representation and reform. In this way, re-enactment methods and temporalities based in repetition permeate both the prison and its representations on film and in performance. Recall Guynn’s recognition of the prison cell as a historically and visually charged site of “traces of the past,” and consider this alongside the fact that Bleecker’s films were exhibited by the JCPR alongside a model reconstruction of a cell at Sing Sing constructed by the prisoners themselves.23

The cell, when read as concomitant reenactment with the Bleecker film, adds a further layer to the temporal dimensions of repetition that traditionally associate themselves with “event”-based chronologies of reenactment, moving in the direction of re-enactment and trauma as sustained process, rather than the singular instance (such as the infliction of torture) repeated. As Nichols would put it, “the reenacted event introduces a fantasmatic element that an initial representation of the same event lacks. Put simply, history does not repeat itself, except in mediate transformations such as memory, representation, reenactment, fantasy – categories that coil around each other in complex patterns.”24 The composite model and film reenactments in the case of Bleecker present a consummate example of such categories folding around and enmeshing with each other, both of them functioning as a combination of representation, reenactment, and fantasy; each of them colluding with each other to mutually reinforce the other’s basic tendencies. These tendencies were the source of contradiction at the heart of prison reform aesthetics. The JCPR’s protocols and accompanying materials at the Bleecker exhibit suggest that reformist/abolitionist pursuits and gawk-worthy violent spectacle were the tendencies at odds with each other. While 20,000 visitors signed a petition at the 1916 exhibit to abolish Sing Sing and replace it with an honor system farm, organizers issued a note of caution out of fear over “the risks of the movies detracting from the exhibit, of audiences arriving early to watch the films and not paying sufficient attention to the exhibit.”25 Walter Benjamin famously suggested that film and distraction were intimately imbricated modes of modernist apperception, perhaps explaining why the intellectual aim of reform found itself bound to yet in competition with film’s shocking representations of traumatic incarceration.26 Fundamentally, the tendency towards reform and the tendency toward distracting cinematic violent spectacle were the foundation for an emergent cinematic carceral aesthetic that was to be further developed on in the aforementioned Walsh and Olcott productions. Their lineage extends to the torture sequence in Brute Force (1948), but can be most readily traced through the figure of Lewis Lawes.

It is in Lawes’s particular case as an interlocutor between prison and film industries that we can locate the cultivation and maturation of disparate tendencies in cinematic prison representation into the emergence of a recognizable genre product, replete with the many reliable characteristics that Rafter outlines. Over the course of the 1930s, Lawes collaborated with Warner Brothers to adapt his own books and plays into the emergent gangster/prison genre. Beginning with 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), Lawes’ work served as the inspiration for Over The Wall (1938), You Can’t Get Away With Murder (1939), Invisible Stripes (1939), and Castle on the Hudson (1940).27 Lawes’ visage was prominently used in the promotional material and trailers for these films, authenticating their reformist and carceral credentials. However, his cooperation with the studio industry predates any of his adaptations, as Griffiths notes that Lawes had given Charlie Chaplin a tour of Sing Sing as early as 1921 and that Jack Warner had written to Lawes to thank him for “the splendid cooperation given our boys who are photographing at the prison” for the 1930 John Ford feature Up The River.28 Most importantly, he served as a source of legitimation for the representation of prison and crime in Classical Hollywood film, as when he attended the premiere of The Big House (1930) at the Astor Theater in New York City and later wrote a telegram of support on behalf of Warner Brothers to ward off censorship concerns.29 As Bruce Crowther notes, 1929 piqued audience interest in all things prison with a series of high-profile riots at Dannemora and Auburn prisons in New York, culminating in the riot-oriented narrative of The Big House which Crowther described as “a prototype for countless other prison films over succeeding decades.”30 With all of these examples in mind, it can be reasonably argued that Lawes served as something of a midwife to the emerging Hollywood prison genre, assisting in coalescing a number of narrative, formal, and logistical aspects of prison filmmaking while also safeguarding the genre’s passage into American culture writ large.

Patrick Keating has recently made a convincing case for considering camera movement techniques of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood filmmaking as “a vehicle for ideas” that emphasized social aspects of dynamism, seriality, and convergence in prewar American modernity. Explaining a recurrent camera motif across a wide variety of genres – from the Busby Berkeley musical to King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) – Keating explains that “a filmmaker might dolly down a serial array of objects such as a row of desks in an office or a shelf of consumer goods in a department store – in order to emphasize the quality of sameness” that the mass-produced culture and commodities of modernity offered. Describing this method of cinematography as “the seriality shot,” Keating finds that “the prison genre proved to be a perfect showcase for the seriality technique, as in George Hill’s The Big House.”31 Indeed, prison films from this period reliably feature tracking shots past convicts dining in mess halls, sitting in prison theaters waiting for entertainment, or simply resting in their cells. The Lawes adaptations are no different in this regard. Both 20,000 Years in Sing Sing and Castle on the Hudson, for example, find the camera tracking past numerous death row cells to arrive on the protagonist.32

This element of seriality in Hollywood representations of prison can be read metonymically as a cinematographic embodiment of the larger principles of repetition and reenactment that governed the emerging prison genre. While it was in the commercial interest of the studios to formulate, commodify, and recycle repetitive elements in all their genres, Lawes and Warner Brothers’ found that prisons and their inhabitants were uniquely suited to being put through the same motions again and again. Donning the same familiar costumes, revisiting the same locations, restaging the same lighting patterns, and writing the same dialogue and narratives was not only expected but practically required of the genre. To put these generic tropes – these industrial mandates – into the parlance and framework of trauma studies, American prison films demonstrate a compulsion to repeat. Rather than “working through” the violence inherent in carceral structures, these representations instead “act them out” in the Freudian sense, as has been elaborated on by trauma theorists like Dominic Lacapra.33 In other words, violent reenactment and narrative repetition in the genre keep reform in a holding pattern, preventing it from ever touching down on the tarmac. American audiences instead come to lose themselves in repetitious fantasies of resolution within these films, the fantasmatic cinematic tortures ending with the reform of our fictional heroes while material conditions in actual prisons remain unchanged. Fesette intimately connects this situation of the genre to the study of trauma:

“Seeing an image of American captivity does not mean one understands the reality it depicts. The prison, in this formulation, is not a distinct site where violence can be seen, categorized, and eradicated, but should be understood as a more slippery set of conditions that structure American life. Its violence is in some sense always already disappeared. The very fact of the performance of violence’s disappearance creates the condition for its historical disavowal in the present. This disappearance resonates with Cathy Caruth’s theory of trauma. For Caruth, the traumatic event is always already unknowable; it is characterized by deferral, as a never-quite-arrived. Trauma is itself a disappearance and can only be approached through its compulsive repetition over time.”34

The emergent prison genre, supervised by officiants of the state like Lawes, offered out to viewers the false promise of prison and its violence as “seen, categorized, and eradicated.” If prisons exist in part – as Michel Foucault argues – to drain punishment from the realm of the visible, and if, as Michelle Brown argues, the prison is more often mediated than experienced in American culture, then the genre offers itself as a knowable unknowable, a compulsive repetition of a trauma that has been structured to disappear. The seriality of both its production and its form embeds repetition within the very essence of this function.

For, as Caruth has described trauma, “to be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event… The traumatized, we might say, carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess.”35 Prisoners are themselves possessed quite literally by history, rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, the American culture that holds them captive seems unable to process its own complicity in this possession, turning instead to images of captivity that possess them in turn. This circuitry of repetition and deferral within incarceration representation can be located in A Call For Help From Sing Sing, a 1934 Hearst Metrotone newsreel starring Lawes. Produced immediately after Hearst Metrotone had dissolved its partnership with Fox Film Corporation, the newsreel departs from several of the format’s conventions, utilizing stylized close-ups and pans of the warden in his office (familiar from its many reconstructions in subsequent adaptations of his work), elaborate re-enactment footage of unemployed young men roaming depression-era America, and culminates in an elaborate montage of superimpositions of marching Sing Sing inmates reminiscent of the work of Slavko Vorkapich, flagrantly displaying the seriality techniques outlined by Keating.36 Addressing an economically traumatized nation, this procession of carceral images once again adopts reform rhetoric while repeating and reinforcing emergent carceral aesthetics, calling for employment and education reforms while warning that Sing Sing is where America’s youth will end up if these measures are not taken.

Figure 2:
Figure 2:
Figure 2: Lewis Lawes appears in A Call For Help From Sing Sing (1934)
Figure 3:
Figure 3:
Figure 3: Superimpositions imply through seriality that unemployed youth roaming America will inevitably end up incarcerated

The late Jonathan Kahana suggested that “if social documentary is always at some level a problem of movement – from artifact to explanation; from viewing to affect or action – the use of reenactment in documentary reinforces it… between crime, art and mass culture.”37 Lawes collaborated on the newsreel and the feature-length adaptations in the aftermath of the Payne Fund studies, at a time when the popular and institutional understanding of the “movement” – as Kahana terms it – of viewed content to affectual outcome was greatly influenced by the Payne Fund studies and what Janet Staiger calls the “educational” model of media reception studies.38 Like many leading intellectuals of his time, Lawes subscribed to a behaviorist school of interpretation and justified his screenings of films at Sing Sing as a method of reforming the individual through the mimetic modeling of proper citizenship in screened content.39 A Call For Help likewise adopts an educational/behaviorist approach to the medium through direct address and expert voiceover to contextualize and contain the images of its several reenactments (both inside and outside the prison), and Lawes in his speech to the camera directly ties his message of reform to recent national responses to trauma, invoking repetition in the process: “we have come to the aid of our failing banks, why haven’t we some plan for youth that will take our young people off the road, that road that leads them year after year in a constant procession to the gates of our penitentiary?” Indeed, the seriality-infused camerawork and the repeating shots of prisoners marching too and fro in the courtyard rehearses this “constant procession.”

Whether social documentary or conventional Classical Hollywood narrative fiction, it has been the contention of this investigation that prison reform and reenactment modes of representing incarceration have always been a matter of the “movement” that Jonathan Kahana identifies between artifact and explanation, viewing and affect. To reinvoke Guynn’s conception of film’s relationship with traumatic history, film’s evocation of traumatic carceral experience in service of reform narratives brings viewers face to face with institutional histories while also seeking to shape and ultimately bury the audience’s memory of carceral injustice. Like an act of superimposition, film has the ability to press the past onto the present, to bring it “face to face” in the Guynnian sense. However, in the case of the Classical Hollywood prison genre, that suturing of past and present is done in service of a particular reformist aesthetic which serves at the behest of hegemony, the state, and the status quo. Rather than producing the revelatory frisson which Guynn describes, this fantasmatic pull of the real creates a false image of justice within the prison, of the reformed protagonist, and of institutional violence left behind in the past.

One of Lawes’ final film projects was Invisible Stripes, a by-the-numbers Lloyd Bacon gangster vehicle produced by the essential Hal Wallis/Jack Warner duo.40 Starring George Raft as an ex-con trying to stay clean, this film distinguishes itself from the other Lawes adaptations in that it takes place almost entirely outside of prison walls. The plot, consisting of a series of criminal intrigues involving the Raft character’s brother (William Holden) and his former cellmate (Humphrey Bogart, who frequently shows up in Lawes adaptations), offers none of the location shooting or reenactment methods relevant to the project at hand. However, the film’s title, promotional materials, and original trailer all rely on by-now-familiar carceral aesthetics. In addition to emphasizing Lawes’ authorship over the text, the trailer features a sequence in which Raft, walking past a police officer, is arrested in a freeze-frame while a series of animated stripes are superimposed over his suit. The implication here is that the gaze of authority, as well as the gaze of society writ large, interpellates the convict in a particular aesthetic configuration which is applied directly onto the body. This superimposition is a Guynnian case of past meshed with present, as Griffiths takes pains to note that striped uniforms were abolished at Sing Sing prison in October of 1904, more than a full three decades before the film’s release and well before Lawes’ assumption of wardenship, on the grounds that they were cruel and humiliating for inmates.41 Griffiths’ explanation for the function of prison stripes during the time of their use between 1850 and 1900 also serves to explain why they continued to resonate in the popular imaginary long after their abolition. As clothes that were designed to “physically and psychologically hurt,” Griffiths conscripts striped prison uniforms into “an optic of surveillance and theatricality that defined a great deal of the prisoners’ ritualized lives.”42 That they were no longer in practice mattered little to the American imaginary of incarceration. Prisoners in striped uniforms, like prisoners stripped bare and tortured, appealed to the spectacular and rendered carceral violence dramatically seen, acted out though never worked through.

Figure 4:
Figure 4:
Figure 4: A still from the theatrical trailer for Invisible Stripes emphasizes Lawes‘ authorship
Figure 5:
Figure 5:
Figure 5: The trailer for Invisible Stripes depicts an authority figure’s gaze projecting imaginary stripes on a paroled convict.

In this sense, the title “Invisible Stripes” is bitterly ironic, given that all stripes at this point could only be seen in the movies and one’s imagination. Lawes, himself a reformist advocate of the fair treatment of prisoners, titles his book and subsequent film in an appeal to aesthetic imagination over material reality, in so doing reinforcing the very humiliating image of the prisoner which his own philosophy and practices worked against. At Sing Sing’s auditorium Lawes even embedded his name within repeated iconic motifs of striped prisoners. Stripes. Bars. Cells. Rows. The topographic and aesthetic configurations of incarceration from the bodily to the geographic are constructed on repetitious forms. To rehash Fesette’s claims, “the prison is deeply involved in repetition and recycling, bringing the past to life in the present.” It stands to reason that the motion picture camera, in encountering these forms, and in its ontological mandate to capture and replay the motions of physical reality, sought to make itself something of a traumatic machine of repetition in turn.

In the post-Lawes Classical Hollywood prison film, prison iconography and narrative convention had fully coalesced around the violent images of incarceration which reform sought to locate in the past, demonstrating that prison films and their audiences were more invested in acting out trauma on the imprisoned than on working through it. Like the superimposed stripes on George Raft in the trailer for Invisible Stripes, the representation of incarceration in American cinema functioned to graft a layer of cultural imaginary atop reality, creating uncanny imbrications of “antiquated” or “horrific” past practices with the present. Tracing this practice back to films like Bleecker’s allows us to understand how reenactment and reform have consistently demonstrated a tendency to “coil around each other in complex patterns,” just as Nichols tells us memory, fantasy, and reenactment do, producing an unwieldy and unintended historical pattern of carceral aesthetics.

Author Biography

Eli Boonin-Vail is a PhD student in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in classical Hollywood cinema’s relationship with prisons. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Animation Studies, Inks: The Journal of The Comics Studies Society, and French Screen Studies.


  1. H.G. Percey, “Problems of a Motion Picture Research Library,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 26, no. 3 (March 1936): 253–58.
  2. Judah Schept, “(Un)Seeing like a Prison: Counter-Visual Ethnography of the Carceral State,” Theoretical Criminology 18, no. 2 (2014): 217.
  3. Alison Griffiths, “A Portal to the Outside World: Motion Pictures in the Penitentiary,” Film History 25, no. 4 (2013): 19.
  4. Sean O’Sullivan and David Wilson, Images of Incarceration: Representations of Prison in Film and Television Drama (Winchester, U.K: Waterside Press, 2004), 71.
  5. Alison Griffiths, Carceral Fantasies: Cinema and Prison in Early Twentieth-Century America (Columbia University Press, 2016), 232-266.
  6. Griffiths reproduces an advertisement for The Right Way: “See: The flogging of a Prisoner! See Prisoner chained to floor for 24 hours!” Ibid., 254.
  7. Bill Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 1 (2008): 74.
  8. Michelle Brown, The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle (New York, N.Y: NYU Press, 2009), 56.
  9. Alison Young, Imagining Crime (London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications Ltd, 1996), 212.
  10. Rafter devotes the better part of a chapter to outlining these very recurring features, though other scholars have questioned the specifics of her resultant rubric for prison films. Nicole Hahn Rafter, Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 163.
  11. Nicholas Fesette, “Cagecraft: Prison, Performance, and the Making of Carceral Subjects” (Ph.D., Cornell University, 2018), 31.
  12. Fesette, “Cagecraft,” 78, 102.
  13. As I have previously examined, Execution of Czolgosz has gained increased visibility in film studies pertaining both to the carceral imaginary (Griffiths dedicates several chapter sections to the film) and vernacular modernity (Kristen Whissel’s examination of the film in conjunction with Edison’s films of the 1901 Pan-American exposition). See: Eli Boonin-Vail, “A Matter of Light and Death: Convulsions of Modernity in Execution of Czolgosz With Panorama of Auburn Prison.” (2020 Yale Film & Media Studies Graduate Conference: Accidents & Contingencies, Yale University, New Haven, 2020); Kristen Whissel, Picturing American Modernity: Traffic, Technology, and the Silent Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2008), 117-160; Griffiths, Carceral Fantasies, 22-27.
  14. Fesette, “Cagecraft,” 78.
  15. William Guynn, Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 27.
  16. Another thinker who has recently contributed to the expanding film philosophical inquiry into cinema’s engagement with history is David Martin-Jones, who has brought post-Levinasian Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel into conversation with Deleuze to produce a world-system based vision of film historicity. Though Guyn draws on several different international examples throughout his book, Martin-Jones goes further to show readers that “Dussel provides a way of understanding how a world of cinemas explores histories in a manner which requires ethical engagement. With a ‘worldwide perspective’ after Dussel, these two things – history and ethics – appear inter-related.” David Martin-Jones, Cinema Against Doublethink (New York: Routledge, 2018), 50.
  17. Griffiths, Carceral Fantasies, 243.
  18. “Osborne Going into Movies: Will Act Tom Browne at Auburn Prison for Reform Committee,” New York Times, September 24, 1915. Cited in the Griffiths.
  19. Guynn, Unspeakable Histories, 18.
  20. Joram Ten Brink, “Re-Enactment, The History of Violence, and Documentary Film,” in Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, ed. Joram Ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer (New York: Wallflower Press, 2012), 185.
  21. Ibid., 180.
  22. Fesette, “Cagecraft,” 91
  23. Griffiths, Carceral Fantasies, 244.
  24. Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject,” 73.
  25. Griffiths, Carceral Fantasies, 244, 359-360.
  26. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 19.
  27. Jack Shadoian describes 20,000 Years in Sing Sing as “very much a typical Warners product: agile, low-key photography (Barney McGill), hard, spare, inventively functional sets (Anton Grot), tight editing for the utmost narrative economy and speed (George Amy), social commitment (book by Warden Lewis E. Lawes), rapid, Rice Krispies dialogue (Courney Terrett, Robert Lord, Wilson Mizner, Brown Holmes). These virtues, if such they be, were characteristics imposed by the studio and executed by the Warners unit with top efficiency, and with rarely less than adequate results.” The same characteristics can easily be found in the other Lawes/Warner features from throughout the decade. Jack Shadoian, “Michael Curtiz’ ‘20,000 Years in Sing Sing,’” Journal of Popular Film; Washington, D. C. 2, no. 2 (Spring 1973): 165.
  28. Lawes’ own 9-year-old daughter Joan Lawes appears as “Jean,” the warden’s daughter. She was top billed alongside Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart in their feature film debuts. Though a more lighthearted comedic take on Sing Sing than the later Lawes adaptations, Up The River features the same benevolent warden figure who served as a surrogate for Lawes himself. Audiences would have had no trouble making the connection in their own minds. Griffiths, Carceral Fantasies, 180.
  29. Ralph Blumenthal, Miracle at Sing Sing: How One Man Transformed the Lives of America’s Most Dangerous Prisoners, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004), 184.
  30. Bruce Crowther, Captured on Film: The Prison Movie, (London: B T Batsford Ltd, 1990), 7. Gonthier Jr. backs up Crowther’s argument for The Big House’s significance with the very subtitle of his book: From The Big House To The Shawshank Redemption. He calls it “The Grandaddy of all prison movies.” Gonthier Jr, American Prison Film Since 1930, 35.
  31. Patrick Keating, The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood (Columbia University Press, 2019), 103, 117.
  32. Note how this cinematic technique accords with the theatrical mise-en-scene that Michel Foucault describes as critical in the functioning of panoptic carcerality: “by the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.” Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 200.
  33. As Lacapra puts it in a succinct footnote: “In ‘acting out,’ the past is compulsively repeated as if it were fully present, resistances are not confronted, and memory as well as judgement is undercut.” The tropes of prison film likewise refuse to confront resistance and suspend judgement of the carceral state. Dominick LaCapra, Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 48.
  34. Fesette, “Cagecraft,” 81.
  35. Cathy Caruth, “Introduction,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 5–6.
  36. Scott Simmon and Martin Marks, Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film (1900 - 1934), Program Notes, vol. III, Treasures (San Francisco, CA: National Film Preservation Foundation, 2007).
  37. Jonathan Kahana, “Dossier: Reenactment in Contemporary Documentary Film, Video, and Performance: What Now?: Introduction: What Now? Presenting Reenactment,” Framework; Detroit, Mich. 50, no. 1–2 (Spring-Fall 2009): 58.
  38. Janet Staiger, Media Reception Studies (New York: NYU Press, 2005), 24.
  39. Griffiths, “A Portal to the Outside World,” 19.
  40. Lloyd Bacon’s own connection to Keating’s seriality aesthetic is substantial. He co-directed 42nd Street with an up-and-coming Busby Berkley, helping to author some of the most iconic seriality shots that Keating identifies.
  41. Griffiths, Carceral Fantasies, 306, n40.
  42. See the informative section: “Clothes That Hurt: Prison Stripes and Other Uniforms.” Ibid., 72-73.