A harsh, suspenseful and unrelenting black-and-white thriller from 1964 about a lone woman trapped in a private elevator while goons invade her house. It was and remains one of the best films of its kind.
LADY IN A CAGE appeared alongside similarly minded early-sixties shockers like THE THRILL KILLERS, THE SADIST and BLOOD FEAST, all of which pointed the way to the type of extreme nastiness we’ve now come to take for granted in horror/suspense movies.
The headliner of LADY IN A CAGE was Olivia de Havilland, a top Hollywood star of the 1940s following in the footsteps of fellow aging starlets Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, who jointly found success two years earlier in the lurid shocker WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (the sequel to which, 1964’s HUSH…HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, featured de Havilland). Incidentally, Olivia de Havilland famously turned down the role of Blanche Dubois in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE because, she alleged, “A lady just doesn’t say or do those things on the screen.” I guess by the time LADY IN A CAGE came around she’d changed her mind!
Cornelia Hilyard, a wealthy middle aged poetess, is left alone in her inner-city mansion one sweltering afternoon by her grown son Malcolm—who unbeknownst to her is fed up with their overly intimate relationship and plans to kill himself. As Cornelia rides her in-home elevator to the second floor the house is hit by a power outage, stranding the elevator between floors.
Trouble begins almost immediately when Cornelia’s emergency alarm bell captures the attention of George, a bum who breaks in and loots her kitchen. George then informs a local hood of his find, and the two case out the house. Cornelia again rings her alarm bell, which only attracts more trouble: a mini-gang of hoodlums led by the slimy ex-con Randall.
Cornelia begs Randall and his goons to help her escape her “cage,” but to no avail. They decide to kill her, in fact, with Cornelia overhearing their dastardly plans. As the goons grow increasingly rowdy and even murderous in their “animal orgy,” stabbing George to death in plain view of the shocked Cornelia, she grows determined to fight back, vowing “Stone age here I come!”
Director Walter Grauman and writer-producer Luther Davis announce their overall worldview in the opening credits sequence, depicting a dog run over on a crowded inner city street. This film’s universe is relentlessly harsh and unpleasant, showcasing an unabashedly reactionary viewpoint—as elucidated by the heroine’s refrain “You’re one of the bits of offal produced by the welfare state…you’re what so many of my tax dollars go into the care and feeding of!” Yet that very sense of conservative outrage gives the film a primal jolt (a la DIRTY HARRY or DEATH WISH); you may disagree with its politics, but you’ll likely be too engrossed in the action to worry much about them.
The film’s real problems are with the overly explanatory voice-over ruminations by the poetess heroine, such as “We made cities and towns thinking we had beat the jungle back, not knowing we had let the jungle in!” Far stronger are the gritty (apparently documentary) shots of everyday city life, which are effectively contrasted with the claustrophobic interiors. Grit and realism and what distinguish this film, along with an energetic visual style that favors strikingly dynamic camera angles and ahead-of-its-time brutality (a climactic shot of a man’s head crushed under the wheel of a car remains startling).
Olivia de Havilland, an actress known for her beyond-the-call-of-duty commitment to her roles, delivers an impressively full-bodied performance, straining and sweating her way through a decidedly unglamorous part. James Caan, in one of his earliest film roles, is also quite effective as the sociopathic Randall; the perverse sexual tension between Caan and de Havilland—and by extension the vaguely incestuous relationship between her and her grown son—is palpable, and wisely played to the hilt by the actors and filmmakers, good exploiteurs all.
LADY IN A CAGE
Luther Davis Productions
Director: Walter Grauman
Producer: Luther Davis
Screenplay: Luther Davis
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Editing: Leon Barsha
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley, Rafael Campos, William Swan, Jeff Corey, Ann Southern