A wealthy poetess (Olivia de Havilland, Gone With The Wind) recovering from hip surgery gets accidentally trapped inside her home elevator. Various street bums decide to take advantage of the situation and the “lady in a cage” is forced to look on helplessly while her house is being ransacked.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“I’ll pay you to stop this animal orgy, $10,000 in cash.”
Lady in a Cage was accused by critics of everything from desperately trying to replicate the success of the Grand Guignol classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to crass exploitation of movie star Olivia de Havilland. Bad reviews and low box office numbers notwithstanding, this is one of the most interesting films of its kind.
Lady in a Cage is a cut above the ordinary. Writer Luther Davis (The Hucksters) and director Walter Grauman (A Rage to Live) were clearly interested in making a commentary about the volatile 1960s, a time of social and political unrest — the movie reflects the deep fears and divisions of the era.
The opening sequences set the story’s tone: a child harassing a homeless man, a dead dog on the street, a road under construction, etc. The camera quickly takes us inside a luxurious house owned by a lady who is oblivious to the street turmoil. With economic efficiency, these scenes establish the film’s main theme: the coexistence of parallel realities in urban areas. The film also explores generational differences.
Lady in a Cage offers a clash of two completely different worlds — it’s the haves vs. the have nots. The most interesting aspect of the movie is that it doesn’t take sides. The poetess is snobbish and controlling. The hoodlums are amoral and selfish. It’s a cold and cruel world and everyone is contributing to its decay, the movie argues. The film’s depiction of the callousness of people is hard to watch at times.
Smart casting is key to the film’s success. It’s interesting to see a classically trained actor like de Havilland go toe-to-toe with method actor James Caan (The Godfather), who plays the vicious leader of the gang of criminals. If de Havilland is a symbol of old Hollywood, Caan represents a new wave of young American actors — Caan and de Havilland’s contrasting acting styles reinforce the differences between the characters.
As a matter of fact, the entire cast is great, especially Ann Sothern (A Letter to Three Wives) who gives a committed performance as an over-the-hill hustler. Jennifer Billingsley (White Lightning) and Rafael Campos (The Appaloosa) are creepy as two young sociopaths. Jeff Corey (original True Grit) is a crazy wino. Scatman Crothers (Kubrick’s The Shining) plays a shady businessman’s assistant.
By the way, I’m not 100% sure, but I believe this is the first mainstream Hollywood movie to show people unabashedly smoking marijuana. Furthermore, the film constantly alludes to promiscuity and even incest. I was also surprised to see a rather gruesome shot of a person’s head being completely crushed by a car tire. These things aren’t a big deal anymore, but I’m sure they were considered shocking back in the day.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Widely panned during its initial theatrical run (one film critic called the movie “reprehensive,” another said that “it should be burned”), Lady in a Cage has deservedly developed a cult following over the years — it’s one of those films that gets better the more you watch it. It’s also a precursor of sorts to modern home-invasion movies like The Strangers (2008) and You’re Next (2011). B&W, 94 minutes, Not Rated.