Lady In A Cage
I first saw Lady in a Cage (1964) on cable several years ago. At the time, I didn’t know anything about it, and it turned out to be one of those cool little movie gems you find every once in awhile. I found myself just enjoying the hell out of it every time I rewatched it. Its been one of my favorite cult film thrillers ever since.
The opening credits of the film are reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho. It is a montage of different images broken up into bars representing the cages of life. The film itself really works as a metaphor for so many cages we find ourselves trying to break out of.
Mrs. Cornelia Hilyard (Olivia DeHavilland) is an upper class, middle aged, widowed woman who lives a happy quiet life along with her son Malcolm (William Swan). She is recovering from a broken hip, so she is using a custom made elevator to get up and down from her bedroom to the first floor. Her son Malcolm looks to be some kind of professional and he is leaving on a business trip. Mrs. Hilyard sends him off and we see she treats him like a surrogate husband. On the surface Malcolm plays along with her, but secretly he resents their relationship.
In a nearby alleyway, an electrical wire running to the house is knocked loose by a carpenter’s ladder as Mrs. Hilyard gets in her elevator to return to the second floor. The wire in the alleyway is hit again and the power suddenly shuts off. Mrs. Hilyard waits a few minutes for the power to go back on, but nothing happens. She begins to ring the emergency alarm in the elevator to try to see if someone outside will hear, but no luck. An old wino (Jeff Corey) walking down the alley hears the alarm ringing. He goes up to the back door and breaks the window, unlocks it and enters the house. While he’s sneaking around, Mrs. Hilyard hears the noise and begins to call out to see who’s there. The old wino looks around the house and realizes there’s a ton of expensive objects he can grab, but when he sees the large wine closet, he begins to freak out. This guy is a complete lush and with all the booze available he is in heaven. He grabs one bottle and then takes one of Mrs. Hilyard’s porcelain statues and throws it at the wall, smashing it apart. He then begins to scream “REPENT!” over and over, which causes Mrs. Hilyard to get frightened and scream in terror. The old wino grabs a toaster on the way out and goes down to the local pawn shop and turns the toaster in for a few dollars. While he’s there three punk kids are in the corner of the shop listening to what the old drunk is telling the Pawn Shop owner about a “big house full of expensive stuff”.
The old wino goes to an apartment building nearby and puts two dollars underneath a door. The room belongs to Sade (Ann Sothern) an old floozy friend of his. We find out the bum’s name is George L. Brady. He then begins to tell her about the house and all the expensive stuff inside. He also tells Sade about the wine closet, he explains that he needs help cleaning the place out, but she has to keep him away from the liquor so he doesn’t get all messed up. She agrees and they both goto the house and begin looking around for stuff to take. Mrs. Hilyard is now getting very stressed and knows she’s in trouble. She tries to yell for help, but it’s no use. George and Sade stay out of sight of Mrs. Hilyard, but every time she hears someone in the house, she asks them to help her.
When George begins to freak out about the wine closet he pleads with Sade to shut the door but she gets an attitude and tells him to do it himself. So he feverishly struggles with this problem and finally brings himself to shut the door. Just when Sade and George think they’ve got the whole place to themselves, suddenly, the three punks from the pawn shop rush in behind them. They are Randall (James Caan, in his first starring role), his girlfriend Elaine (Jennifer Billingsley) and a Mexican wacko Essie (Rafael Campos). They begin to cause even more havoc and poor Mrs. Hilyard has now become locked in a cage of hot, sweaty torment. The three punks take the house over and the film really becomes a wild frenzy of excitement.
The movie works like a pressure cooker as we are essentially trapped in the same cage as Mrs. Hilyard. The editing and pacing of the film really is one of the main aspects that creates a feeling of high tension. While the three punks torment Mrs. Hilyard, Sade and George, we get to see how the mind of a criminal works. James Caan is wonderful as Randall bringing a young, crazy Brando-esque quality to the role. He’s a wild animal just looking to pounce on his prey and he even terrorizes and beats on his two accomplices.
One of the main things I really liked in the film is Olivia DeHavilland’s classic melodramatic performance. She talks to herself throughout the film in voice-over and when her and James Caan first face off, it becomes one of the funniest moments in the film. Her reactions to his tale of “life in reformatories” is just hilarious. This film would also make a perfect stage play.