Caged! (1950): 4.5/5

Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is a 19-year-old widow, jailed as an accessory to an armed robbery committed by her husband, who didn’t make it out of the heist alive. Marie is sent to the local women’s prison, where she encounters a caring warden (Ruth, portrayed by Agnes Moorehead), an evil overseer (Evelyn, portrayed by Hope Emerson) and a number of tough female prisoners.

When Marie enters the prison, she is a sad and uncorrupted young girl who simply found herself in a bad situation. But it’s no secret that prison changes people. Will she emerge to re-join society successfully, or will she fall into a never-ending cycle of crime and jail time?

Prison dramas are very exaggerated by nature. They focus on the worst of the worst, in order to shock the law-abiding audience. They’re also often wildly inaccurate, following stereotypes of prisoners and prison life. But that’s certainly not the case with this prison film.

Caged! is gritty, emotional, dramatic and intense but it isn’t your average prison film. It succeeds at critiquing the modern American prison system, as well as providing a fairly accurate peek into life in a women’s prison in the 1950s.

The most striking element of this film has to do with the critical aspect of the story. The contrast between the characters of Ruth and Evelyn is phenomenal. Ruth, the kind and caring warden who truly wants the best for the inmates after they leave, represents the good intentions of the prison system. We always hear that the point is to rehabilitate criminals, to prepare them for life as productive citizens.

Ruth’s counterpart is Evelyn, the cruel and corrupt overseer of Marie’s prison block. Evelyn is the darkest reality of the prison system. She’s a very harsh woman, often imposing the worst possible punishments and tasks on the women in her block. She doesn’t care about their well being or rehabilitation. She even facilitates some of their crime.

Agnes Moorehead and Hope Emerson are both phenomenal and so convincing in these roles. Their performances are, in my opinion, award-worthy.

Agnes Moorehead and Eleanor Parker star as a concerned prison warden and her newest inmate (via filmnoirphotos.blogspot)

These two characters alone were enough to convince me that this is a great film, but they aren’t the only wonderful things about it. Every cast member is phenomenal. Each character is very different. The differences are sometimes subtle, but the cast does a great job of giving each inmate a very distinct personality.

The undeniable best is Betty Garde as hardened criminal Kitty, who tries to convince Marie to join the “dark side” and pursue a  rough-and-tumble life of crime.

Another favorite would have to be Jan Sterling as “Smoochie.” Her delivery is reminiscent of modern actress Melanie Lynskey, who is always effective in her “quirky friend” supporting roles.

It would have been easy to write a very campy script on this topic, and that has been done by many a screenwriter. Over the top tales of torrid affairs and cell block cat fights are common in the genre. Thankfully, all of these eyeroll-inducing elements are absent here.

Caged! is remembered as one of the best prison films ever made, and certainly THE best women’s prison film. I’m inclined to agree with those titles. It’s the kind of film that sticks with you for a long time, thanks to phenomenal performances all around and the script’s realistic drama.