Never did I expect an Olivia de Havilland film to show up in TMP’s Classics of the Corn series, but that’s exactly what’s happening today.
Lady in a Cage follows de Havilland as Mrs. Hilyard, a very wealthy woman who lives with her son. The house is a three-story mansion with its very own elevator, installed after she suffered from a broken hip.
On the weekend of the 4th of July, Mrs. Hilyard’s son has just left the house for a short vacation. She decides to take the elevator up to the main floor and find some way to occupy herself now that her beloved son is not around to entertain her. An electrical failure stops her from getting there. She’s stuck in the “cage” of the elevator, and her son won’t be home for days.
She rings the alarm bell, but to no avail; the only person who notices it is a drunkard (Jeff Corey) who breaks into the house and doesn’t even attempt to help her get out of the elevator. And the trouble doesn’t end there: the drunkard later comes back with his prostitute friend (Ann Sothern) and three young hoodlums (James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley and Raphael Campos) to ransack the home.
Lady in a Cage was directed by Walter Grauman and written by Luther Davis.
I went into this film with decidedly high expectations due to the cast. I love Olivia de Havilland and Ann Sothern, and the film is also the credited debut of James Caan. The striking opening also gave me big hopes, with its lack of dialogue and continual shots of death and “sin.”
I knew next to nothing about the film before watching, and had I known the premise I probably would have expected the oddities to come.
The film is, first of all, packed with unusual characters. You’ve got a drunkard who is known as “Repent” because he repeats the world so frequently and has it written all over his hands. Ann Sothern portrays a grumpy prostitute. Caan’s character of Randall seems to be trying incredibly hard to morph into Brando, very unsuccessfully. Nearly every character in the film is a criminal of some sort, and even those who aren’t criminals — Mrs. Hilyard included — are very purposefully flawed. (Hilyard has a questionable and extremely overprotective relationship with her son.)
I can completely see what Luther Davis was trying to do by packing his screenplay with these characters, but it all comes off as terribly corny when carried out on screen. Even Olivia brings the cheese, with her quotes of terrible poetry and her screams about the “EMEEEEERGENCY” at hand.
The fact that I usually enjoy the members of the cast in other films makes me think that their performances may have been exaggerated on purpose, but purposeful or not, the fact remains that they make the film very difficult to take seriously.
There are a few scenes of real tension and fright to be had in Lady in a Cage, showing the film’s potential to have been a very good, claustrophobic and psychological thriller. Also on the positive are the narration of Mrs. Hilyard’s thoughts, providing a unique look into her mindset as all of this terror surrounds her, and the fact that all of the action takes place in daylight. In theory, the fact that no on responds to Mrs. Hilyard’s alarms should make it all the more chilling, not to mention the fact that the criminals don’t need the cover of night in order to get away with their crimes. The corny and kooky elements of the film squash all of that potential, though.
I can see the messages that the film was trying to get across (the ills of society and how we’ve created them) and what the filmmakers wanted it to be, but unfortunately for them, Lady in a Cage is enjoyable for all of the wrong reasons. The performances and the story are composed in such an outrageous way that the impact of the film’s meaning is lessened — but it’s still one heck of an interesting watch if you’re in the mood for a strange piece of film cheese.