Violence, sex, brutality and gore became common images on American movie screens in the 1960s. One of the first films to sell explicit blood and sociopathic threat in a film released by a major Hollywood studio is Lady in a Cage, recently reissued by Warner Classics.
The movie is largely forgotten now, but when it was released, it was unique. The low budget indie gore shockers that would follow in its wake were still some months away. Independent films hadn't yet gone where the mainstream producers, writers, directors and stars normally wouldn't. Lady in a Cage, however, was released by Paramount. It was a sharp stab towards opening American studio films up to the types of ideas that could not be shown in most films in 1964.
The late 1950s and 1960s offer a blending of movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s alongside a new generation of filmmakers and actors. This makes for opportunities in vintage TV shows to see Sylvia Sidney alongside Robert Duvall in Naked City or Robert Culp and Bill Cosby playing off a poignant Boris Karloff in I Spy.
In Lady in a Cage, Olivia de Havilland (who was Errol Flynn's Maid Marion in The Adventures of Robin Hood) is teamed in this 1964 lurid thriller with James Caan, who leers and sneers and burps with disgusting energetic bravado in one of his first major roles. You get to see two performers from different eras acting together, in what some would find a repulsive narrative, both making the most of the over-the-top antics.
Warner Archives have preserved this film (which some might wish had remained forgotten) in a sharp widescreen print that captures the stark black and white images. As with most of the Warner films released on the Archives, the DVDs are essentially bare-bones discs, with only the original trailers on them, but the prints are often beautifully presented for people who love the art of films.
As a lover of movies or old TV series, it thrills me that they have managed to find a way to preserve films and performances that would otherwise be lost, and that they have taken the time to present the films in their original aspect ratios.
The title Lady in a Cage might suggest a low-budget, independent Women In Prison film, but that's not what this movie is. I had vague memories of seeing the film when it was released in 1964. I remembered the premise: a woman locked in an expensive elevator built in her home because she couldn't walk. And I remember that she had her home invaded by all sorts of despicable people who are relentless in their callousness. It had some impact on the movie screen on that day.
Watching the film now, it is not as violent or bloody as I recalled, but its insistent sadistic streak is still potent after all these years.
The film opens with discordant music as well as images set outside the house where imprisonment and hidden abuse will confine much of the story. Whenever these rapidly cut images outside the house occur it's seemingly with some intent of a larger theme, perhaps of indifference to cruelty or apathy to violence happening to others. Yet, thematically these themes do not hold valid throughout. None of the cars travelling by with people taking surfboards to the ocean or blithely carrying on necking in their cars are aware anything is happening to the lady in the cage.
There is no ignoring a victim's screams. There is no turning heads from bloodletting. There is no lingering sense of cowardice in people not wanting to get involved, as in the most horrendous cases reported of such events in real life.
And what to make of a photo in the opening of a young black girl scraping a roller skate up a prone man's leg? What the hell is that supposed to state? It's definitely a provocative image for a 1964 movie from Paramount.
Once the discordant music and images fade, we are inside the house where everything plays out. de Havilland's son is leaving for the weekend, and we know there is something off kilter about their relationship, just from the secretive letter he leaves for her to find after he's gone. She doesn't get to see the leter, because as soon as she is alone, outside events cut the power from the house and entrap her in the ornate, elaborate elevator that becomes her cage.
This confined setting could make the film extremely static, but director Walter Grauman keeps this span intensely visual, emphasizing her entrapment, using angles that highlight props that might help her escape her plight, including phones and ringing alarm bells. The camera establishes height but also establishes claustrophobic bars — expensively designed bars that are still a prison.
It also establishes, as one can see from the down shots, that de Havilland still retains her beauty and star quality.
Olivia de Havilland was Maid Marion to Errol Flynn's Robin Hood in the 1939 Technicolor classic, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Here she is the widowed Mrs. Cornelia Hilyard, confined by a broken hip to her enormous Hollywood home with its huge staircase and high roof. She may be about to be terrorized by crazed intruders, but the filmmakers still represent the largeness of Hollywood fortune. The cage itself is ornate and exquisite (making it visual for movies) although it only travels one floor – though the wait for it to descend from that height seems interminable even when the cage is working).
de Havilland is the victim, but she is no Maid Marion here. Even she comes to consider herself darker agendas after she realized what damage she has done to others and pronounces herself as a "monster."
No Robin Hood is coming to save this fair damsel.
In these initial sequences when she is still alone, and has no way to escape for days, she tries desperately to get out of her dire predicament. Those moments make for some of the best suspense narrative in the movie.
There were Hollywood rumors that de Havilland — who won two Oscars for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949) — turned down the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire because of some of the extreme dialogue. She denied that was the reason, and I believe her, or else why would she choose to play the lady in the cage only a few years later? We're not talking any Tennessee Williams pedigree here.
Jeff Corey plays a wino who is also a belligerent religious fanatic, drinking and shouting hell and damnation as the booze goes down. Maybe he saw one of those montage images of a couple necking in a car and it drove him to drunken shouting rants.
Corey was blacklisted in the McCarthy Com
munist witch hunt during the 1950s, and he became an acting teacher for people like James Dean, Robert Blake, James Coburn, Leonard Nimoy and Robin Williams, among others. Pretty eclectic group of talent, huh?
After guzzling from de Havilland's private stock, and realizing that there is more than drink in the house, he decides to go to Ann Sothern's place. There, he makes her an offer to invade the house and steal all the riches and knick-knacks one could pawn in a big haul.
Sothern plays a haggard, down on her heels woman, who's led a hardscrabble life. All of it shows on her face and in her eyes. I swear she uses her huge pocketbook as a shield for the front of her body in every long shot, but I could be wrong. Sothern is a long way from her successful 1940s Maisie film series in which she starred as the energetic Maisie, who got the best of every lowlife. Now, she plays the lowlife.
At the local pawn shop that just might be willing to take in some under the table business, James Caan, Rafael Campos, and Jennifer Billingsley, as a trio of teen-age reprobates escaped from the Blackboard Jungle, learn of the rich house and the isolated woman. Campos played many roles as Mexicans on TV westerns in the late 1950s, and is especially effective in a couple of episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel that break away from the stereotypical ethnic characters of the time for pop culture. In Cage, Campos gets to do his patented psycho laugh for de Havilland, and his skittish I'm tough/I'm scared shtick.
But this film is really old school/new school, with the veteran de Havilland and the newcomer Cann. He makes the most of it, even when his face is covered in a nylon stocking, and mocks, taunts, and grosses out de Havilland.
Don't expect any deep psychobabble about what makes Caan tick; the only thing you need to know is his boundaries for violence are nonexistent. His scorn is relentless. His sneer conveys the capacity for brutality and degradation.
Caan seems to be having a helluva good time!
Lady in a Cage seems to hold more violent imagery than it acually depicts, saving the gore for the very end. It delivers an impression of being more graphic than it actually is. But when Caan swings a sculptured statue at a potential victim's head, it's the body language, and the sound of air signaling the increasing velocity of the weapon that makes the impact palpable.
For those of you who have viewed Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava from this time period and earlier, you'll note that this American movie starts to tentatively explore territory that Bava has staked out with impressive storytelling and atmosphere. Bava had a budget that Paramount would hardly notice to create his films, but that did not limit his inspiration and aspirations.
For those who like to explore films that begin to change the parameters of film, Lady in a Cage breaks the lock on the ornate Hollywood door. Warner Archive Collection preserves it with a vivid print, in the correct aspect ratio. To my knowledge that is the best the film has ever been offered to movie collectors.
It's just up to you if you want to climb into the cage with Olivia de Havilland and James Caan.
Copyright © 2014 by Don McGregor
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