dir. Walter Grauman
"The world must've ended. Someone on one side or the other must've pushed the button, dropped the bomb."
Being a movie geek, I tend to think I have a good overall knowledge of every genre and era of cinema. I certainly haven't seen close to everything yet, but I have seen many of the movies worth watching. What a joy it is when I can find a gaping hole in my film knowledge and fill it. Lady in a Cage is one of those cult favorites that I somehow managed to miss all of these years. It had been on my must see list for at least a decade but, for whatever reason, I kept putting off seeing it. How stupid of me. How did I go so long without seeing this movie?
Lady in a Cage is a marvel of construction, taking place over the course of a Fourth of July afternoon, it makes the most of its small budget. Although not elaborately plotted, it is quite tightly paced, with nary an ounce of fat. Using just a few locations, Lady in a Cage tells an engaging story, never feeling stagey. Telling so much with seemingly little, it is a grand example of economical storytelling.
Lady in a Cage belongs to a small genre of hagsploitation flicks from the sixties, starting with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. This era saw a slew of thrillers starring past their prime leading ladies in unglamorous roles. Some might find it dispiriting that the roles available to older women are so scant that these actresses would have no choice but to act in these pictures. I would feel bad for them but they were getting work in awesome movies. In 1964 Olivia De Havilland starred in the nastiest movie of this mini genre (Ann Sothern also has a smaller role in the movie). Although part of this group of hagsploitation flicks, Lady in a Cage veered away from the campy tropes of these pictures, and helped paved the way for the more realistically brutal horror movies of the coming decade.
The movie opens with an exciting Saul Bass inspired title sequence, intercut with live action footage of people driving to their vacation destinations and ignoring horrific images: a bum passed out on the sidewalk and a dead dog in the middle of the road. Playing over the credits (and throughout the movie) is a jazz inspired score not dissimilar from the one Jerry Goldsmith would compose for The Planet of the Apes. The dissonant music punctuates the brutality of these images, images which are so often ignored in day to day life.
We are soon introduced to Malcolm Hilyard (William Swan), the son of Cornelia Hilyard (De Havilland) and the biggest momma's boy this side of Norman Bates (Code in this movie, of course, for gay). Malcolm writes his mother daily love notes and kisses her on the lips (seriously, it took me a while to realize that he was her son). After Malcolm leaves for the day, Cornelia gets stuck in an in-house elevator when her power goes out. Panic starts to creep in as she realizes that no one is coming to help. What is a lady in a cage to do?
Surely, someone will come and rescue this poor woman after hearing the distress bell that she continuously rings. Indeed, help is on the way, if by help you mean a hobo and an aging prostitute with sticky fingers. After the hobo unloads some of Cornelia's loot at a pawnshop, a gang of hoods led by Randall (James Caan in his feature film debut) gets wind of the action. Caan here is responsible for one of the most terrifyingly assured film debuts by an actor in film history. Randall is a character similar to the one played by Martin Sheen in his debut film, The Incident (It's certainly miles away from the character Robert Duvall played in his debut, To Kill a Mockingbird). This atavistic criminal relishes the opportunity to terrorize a defenseless person even more than he relishes his chance at all that free loot.
The director Walter Grauman succeeds at leaving the viewer on edge. This is one of those films in which you feel that anything can happen. It creates an unsettling experience. One of the reasons for this is that the themes hit so close to home. We are shown how flimsy our idea of civilization really is. Earlier in the morning, Cornelia was a cookie-cutter bourgeois house wife, now she is forced to defend herself from animalistic hellions while stuck in a prison of her making. Cornelia's survival is not a certainty, especially considering that Randall has threatened to kill her along with the hobo and the whore.
Enough is enough. Someone's gotta get this motherfucking lady out of this motherfucking cage.
Eventually Cornelia does get out of the cage. After Randall's group runs out back to fight the pawnbroker, who has hired goons to help him steal the loot, Cornelia makes a run for it. She is not safe for long, though. Cornelia, battered, crawls to her front yard in broad daylight and screams for help. The apathetic citizenry, however, completely ignores her. Soon after, Randall grabs her and drags her back inside.
It is not until the film's finale that any citizens are aware of Cornelia's predicament. By then, it is too late for anyone to do anything. These people are simply rubber neckers and when they see that the show is over they leave. They've had their fill of entertainment for the day. The final image of the movie is of cars driving away to their vacations, bookending the opening shot of the movie.
Grauman indicts the audience for enjoying such movies just as much as he indicts the slack jawed onlookers in this final scene. He shows disgust with the way in which movie viewers find vicarious thrills through the suffering of others. It is a rather thin tight rope he's walking on. He is essentially saying, "I'm gonna make an exciting, nail biting thriller, which you'll no doubt enjoy. Fuck you for enjoying it. Thank you for your money." It is a tenuous philosophy to hold contempt for the very audience that gives you money to make your product. Generally, I am put off by movies that do this sort of thing. It just strikes me as pompous. In this instance, however, I had no complaints. It worked so well as a thriller that I wasn't put off by the heavy handedness of the message.
All that being said, this isn't the kind of movie I could watch again and again. I put Lady in a Cage in the category of movies that make you want to take a shower afterwards. It is one of the nastiest movies ever made. Even Cornelia is not spared the scorn of the filmmakers. In a late plot reveal we see the horrible effects of her smotherly love toward Malcolm. Cornelia is culpable in a horrible act involving him. Rarely does a movie have such contempt for humanity. We are not given any real heroes to side with.
I originally thought that this movie was based on the Kitty Genovese case. This was the crime, now cited in psychology textbooks, in which a woman was brutally beaten and murdered outside of her Queens apartment building while the tenants did nothing to help. I did a little research, though, and found out that this movie was released a mere four months after the Genovese murder. Unless the filmmakers managed to write, sell, cast, produce, do post production, and distribute within a four month span, the theme of this movie is most likely a coincidence (the aforementioned The Incident, however, was no doubt inspired by this crime). It does show how prescient this movie is, though. It examines a darker side of humanity that most would rather leave buried and presaged, quite eerily, the selfish actions of actual people when confronted with a very real crime.
Man, I gotta watch a cheerier movie for my next review.
(Here is the Saul Bass inspired title sequence.)