Mrs. Cornelia Hilyard is forced to sacrifice her social status and snobbish sensibilities in this sordid and sadistic '60s thriller. Judge George Hatch says, "You go, girl!"
"In the name of humanity, won't someone please let me out of this
Following the release of Psycho in 1960, horror and suspense films branched out in new directions and assumed unique cinematic identities, later to become sub-genres in their own right. Sure, there were some outright rip-offs, like William Castle's Homicidal (1961), starring a two-faced Joan Crawford, aging from 30 to 60 right before your very eyes. And audiences looked forward more to Castle's gimmicky ballyhoo—"Filmed in 'Percept-O!' or 'Illusion-O!'—rather than the films themselves. With What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Robert Aldrich introduced Grand Dame Guignol, camp classics in which Hollywood has-beens, like Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead, were recruited to play hateful but sympathetic grotesques in Gothic thrillers with twisty plots and highly polished production values.
At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, Herschell Gordon Lewis directed the first pure "gore movie," Blood Feast (1963), with gruesomely mutilated body parts taking precedence over acting and all the technical aspects of filmmaking, save for the gross-out special effects. His follow-up was Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), and together they became the most notorious double-bill at drive-in theaters and 42nd Street grind houses. In 1968, he fell back on the Lady in a Cage premise with his sickest film, Just for the Hell of It in which a group of teenagers exploit and abuse the handicapped, blind, crippled, and physically dysfunctional. No laughs, here, and no cheap thrills either; just an urge to take a shower after viewing it.
Lady in a Cage is a genuine oddity. It twists the limits of traditional thrillers and employs a mere few seconds of some shocking but effectively rendered gore. The film stars Olivia de Havilland, who is not heavily made up or dressed to look like a demented harridan. She is the cultured voice of reason in a world gone mad and looks as beautiful as ever. But her character is eventually reduced to taking a more pragmatic approach to her situation in order to save her life and restore some semblance of order.
Facts of the Case
When her son, Malcolm (William Swan), leaves to spend the Fourth of July weekend with some friends, Mrs. Cornelia Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland) is left alone in her two-story mansion. Having suffered a hip injury, she is still able to move between lower and upper levels by means of a small private elevator. A series of coincidental mishaps leaves her trapped between floors.
The battery-operated alarm bell draws only the attention of an ever-repentant wino, George (Jeff Corey), who, in turn, recruits Sade (Ann Sothern), a plump hooker who has seen better days. It's Sade's responsibility to keep George focused on robbery and away from the Hilyard's wine closet. While pawning a toaster, George catches the eye of three psychotic hoodlums: Essie (Rafael Campos), a hopped up Latino; Elaine (Jennifer Billingsley), a drugged-out nympho with a permanent black eye; and Randall (James Caan), the sadistic and manipulative leader of the group.
This trio of sociopaths follows George back to the Hilyard's estate with plans to loot the place, but they get bigger kicks by brutally terrorizing the other occupants. Randall becomes particularly fixated on Mrs. Hilyard and vows to break her condescending, "holier-than-thou" attitude and pull her down from her pedestal.
Lady in a Cage opens with two-way, bumper-to-bumper traffic on Main Street, Smalltown, U.S.A. Everyone is heading out to celebrate the Fourth of July, surf boards, rubber rafts, and picnic baskets in tow. No one seems to care about the dire news being broadcast in a steady stream on the radio: "The nude, decapitated body of a woman was found in a cistern…The expected holiday death toll from highway accidents may well exceed last year's record high…We have nuclear missiles, but what about the Devil? Is there an anti-Satan missile…?" Traffic slows to a crawl as people stare at a dead dog, bleeding from the mouth, but no one stops to pull the canine corpse over to the curb.
Inside the Hilyard residence, the wealthy widow Hilyard is just as indifferent. With the Cold War reaching another critical point, she ponders reinvesting in armament stocks, "but it seems such a terrible way to make money." She quickly devotes her attention to her son, Malcolm, who is leaving for the long holiday weekend. They call each other "dear," "darling," and "love." To cement their Jocasta/Oedipus relationship, she caresses his face, comments on his cologne, and kisses him a little too close to the mouth. "Did you leave me one of your little love notes, like you always do?" Indeed he has, and it's a doozy. At 30, Malcolm finally wants to cut the apron strings, but his ultimate threat is saved as a psychological coup de grace at the film's climax.
After detailing, in explicit close-up, the "Safe-T" measures of Mrs. Hilyard's in-home elevator, director Walter Grauman (The Disembodied ) economically sets up the crucial power failure in the Hilyard home. As Malcolm leaves, he kicks a can out of the driveway, which introduces a construction worker who sets up a ladder that touches the house's main power line. Ironically, as Malcolm drives away, his front bumper hits the ladder and nearly short-circuits the connection. When the wind catches hold of a kite caught in the wires, it ultimately cuts the electricity altogether, and Mrs. Hilyard is suspended between floors.
Rather than have her trapped between a metaphorical "heaven and hell," once the house is invaded, the upstairs bedrooms and bathrooms are ransacked as well. Mrs. Hilyard's orderly life and provincial lifestyle is shattered, and she's surrounded by utter chaos. She can catch only glimpses of her precious porcelain and Lalique figurines being smashed against the wall as "graven images" and hear the shrieks of Sade and George as they are tortured. There is one nightmarish scene I haven't been able to get out of my mind since I first saw the film. Wearing a white poncho and bizarre ski mask, Essie covers George's head with a large travel bag and forces him to the floor. Randall starts swinging a heavy ceramic lamp by its cord, fast enough that you can soon hear the "whooshing" sound of its orbit. He finally kicks George in the chest and smashes the lamp against his head. Tough stuff for 1964.
As the marauding and defilement continue, Mrs. Hilyard realizes she must become more resourceful if she is to survive. She tosses her shoes at the telephone when it rings, hoping to knock the receiver off the hook. It might be Malcolm calling, or the housekeeper, Nellie, who was given the long weekend off. Even a stranger, or a wrong number—anyone who can relay her desperate calls for help to the police. Using her wedding ring, she unscrews the elevator's sidebar and tries to extend its reach by tying it to her cane with her silk scarf, but to no avail. The elevator has been her "cage," but also her protector. She catches on to Randall's increasingly crude sexual innuendos, as he powerfully rattles the bars of her "cage," and she wants out. The emergency alarm bell and telephone are useless, so she unscrews the metal borders of the elevator's air-conditioning vent, preparing for the worst and intending to stab him should he enter the elevator. "Stone Age…here I come."
The trio eventually remove their masks, and Sade, George, and Mrs. Hilyard know they are going to die. George pathetically begs to be spared. "I do not want to die. I want laughter. Death is solemn." Sade tries to reason with the thugs. "Look, Mr. Randall…I never done nobody no harm. The only person I ever hurt was myself. And I ain't a user anymore." Randall is not amused and orders Essie to "kill the wino." Sade races to the wine closet and locks herself inside. "That poor woman doesn't want to die, and neither do I," says Mrs. Hilyard. "I am a human being and—" "Yeah, and I'm an animal, right? Isn't that what you're saying?" Randall punctuates his statement with a loud, vulgar burp. "I think I'm going to be sick…" "Hey, Elaine! Come down here and watch the human being be sick in the cage."
When Randall hoists himself up into the elevator, this "lady," Mrs. Hilyard, is reduced to a territorial animal out to protect her domain. But it's not as easy as she'd expected. She cries "Die! Die! Die!" but her makeshift "knives" simply bend against Randall's brawny back. He laughs and sticks them between her breasts, telling her to, "Warm them up nice, Mommy." Randall's comments become more vicious and uncouth, bordering on obscenity. Sizing up her cleavage, he says, ""I bet you had him at it till he was 12. Kept him suckin', huh?" The outraged Mrs. Hilyard slaps Randall, only to be brutally slammed against the elevator wall with his fingers squeezing her throat.
Essie races downstairs with the note Malcolm wrote. There's a safe in the living room. Malcolm demands his share of what's inside, but Essie and Elaine want to take the 10 grand and run. But there's a final "love note" from Malcolm. "Release me from your generosity. Release me from your charm. Release me from your love." "What charm, foxy? You still got him at it, don't you?"
Essie urges Randall to read the P.S. because, "It's got what you might say 'buckshot' in it!" "I will call soon, and I hope your answer is 'yes,' because, otherwise, I'll quite simply kill myself." Mrs. Hilyard passes out, "Lyin' on the floor like a pile of old clothes." Randall is almost tender as he gently touches Mrs. Hilyard's face. "You know I had a grandmother like you, foxy. She tried to keep me at it, too. Oh, baby, I'd a killed her if she didn't die first."
Another group of looters arrives, and Randall hustles Elaine and Essie to the garage where they can guard their stash. Mrs. Hilyard decides to risk a harrowing jump 10 feet to the floor and pull herself out of the house for help. The heavy traffic ignores her cries, as do two policemen driving past on motorcycles. No one stops as she crawls toward the sidewalk, pleading for help. No one looks twice as Randall drags her back inside. But this time, she's not totally defenseless. She takes the two bent "knives" from between her breasts and stabs Randall's eyes. An even more shocking scene closes the film, nicely book-ending the opening shot of the dead dog.
Olivia de Havilland (The Snake Pit, The Adventures of Robin Hood) and James Caan (The Way of the Gun, Thief, and the original Brian's Song) square off beautifully, particularly during the lengthy scene in which they are both in the "cage." It's Old Hollywood versus The Method. Much of this scene is so graphic and intense that it's almost unwatchable because of the way Caan unmercifully brutalizes de Havilland. When he goes shirtless, displaying his hirsute torso, one wonders if he ever played the lead in a stage production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. At the end of that revamped and misguided 1944 production, William Bendix drops a coin down Susan Hayward's cleavage—very reminiscent of Caan sliding those bent "knives" down de Havilland's dress and telling her to "keep them warm."
Ann Sothern (A Letter to Three Wives) is quite touching as Sade, but Jennifer Billingsley (White Lightning) as Elaine and Raphael Campos (The Blackboard Jungle) as Essie come off as stereotyped amateurs. Jeff Corey has costarred in over 140 films, including Seconds and Messenger of Death. His performance as George is one of his quirkiest. Scatman Crothers (The Shining) has a small role as a pawnbroker's assistant, and William Swan (The Parallax View) is appropriately bland and effective as the molly-coddled Malcolm.
The dissonant, nerve-wracking jazz score by Paul Glass (Bunny Lake is Missing ) adds emotional triggers at key points, and it will keep you on the edge from the knockout opening credits. They have an imaginative Saul Bass style. Bass was the title designer for The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, and several Hitchcock films, including Vertigo and Psycho.
William Grauman was a popular television director whose career spanned four decades, and he helmed some of the best remembered series: The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Honey West, and 80 episodes of Matinee Theater between 1955 and 1958. Lady in a Cage benefits greatly from Grauman's eye for composition. He frequently reminds us of the height of the elevator, by shooting up from low and distant angles and down from Mrs. Hilyard's perspective. The screenplay by Luther Davis (Across 110th Street) is economic and smoothly develops the two sides of the world he wants to explore: culture versus chaos. The dialogue is sharp and delivered with enthusiasm and, on Caan's part, pure animal pleasure.
Paramount's anamorphic transfer is pristine, something I wasn't expecting for a film that has been out of circulation for so long. The edges are sharp, and the contrast is well-balanced. Both the Dolby Digital 5.1 and mono are excellent, and the Paul Glass score sounds top-notch. There are no extras, not even the original theatrical trailer.
Even by today's standards, Lady in a Cage is a genuine shocker, and I was surprised that Paramount didn't slap it with an "R" rating on the keep case. There are only a few seconds of "blood and gore" on display at the end, but the inherent and soulless brutality and the indifference to another's needs are sadly evident throughout. Until recently, the film had been banned in England and Finland for its violence and psychological torture, but they now have "Adult" certificates.
Crude, cruel, and sadistic, Lady in a Cage is an eye-opener for people who think they've seen it all.
Not guilty! But it is a very guilty pleasure.
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