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Lady in a Cage

Lady in a Cage
Paramount Home Entertainment
1964 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min. / Street Date March 29, 2005 / 14.99
Starring Olivia de Havilland, James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley, Jeff Corey, Ann Sothern, Rafael Campos, Scatman Crothers
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Production Designer Rudolph Sternad
Art Direction Hal Pereira
Film Editor Leon Barsha
Original Music Paul Glass
Written and Produced by Luther Davis
Directed by Walter Grauman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Usually lumped with the other 'hag horror' films after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by virtue of the presence of golden-age screen star Olivia de Havilland, Lady in a Cage is actually an upscale version of marginal movies like The Sadist - realistic accounts of everyday atrocious crimes in the modern world. Tricked up with blatant criticisms of contemporary society, Luther Davis and Walter Grauman's film can't escape an essential sickness: Like its low-grade drive-in competition, it is first and foremost an exercise in sordid exploitation.

Paramount presents this almost legendary shock feature in a near-perfect transfer.


Self-satisfied Mrs. Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland) is recuperating from a broken hip. One morning the power is cut to her private elevator, and the only person to respond to her alarm button is the local wino George L. Brady Jr. (Jeff Corey). He enlists prostitute Sade (Ann Sothern) to help him cart away everything of value in Mrs. Hilyard's house, but a trio of enterprising thugs horn in on the easy pickings. Randall (James Caan) is a sadist looking for kicks, while his girlfriend Elaine (Jennifer Billingsley) and pal Essie (Rafael Campos) are also eager for wild new experiences. After tormenting Mrs. Hilyard, Brady and Sade, the trio decide that the fun thing to do is to kill all of them - a process they happily turn into a game.

By crowding Mrs. Hilyard's urban neighborhood with speeding cars and insisting that society is indifferent to individual suffering, Lady in a Cage attempts to base its cheap thrills within a socially relevant thesis. The sadistic premise simply traps Ms. de Havilland in a chromium box about eight feet off the floor and forces her to withstand one humiliating outrage after another. The thieves initially stay out of sight or wear stockings over their heads but in reponse to her pleas for help or mercy - "Take whatever you want but get me out of here" - the malevolent Randall sees to it that making their captive suffer is one of his main goals. His nymphomaniac girlfriend and giggly sidekick love the idea of taking a criminal vacation in Mrs. Hilyard's mansion, which resembles houses in Hancock Park but could be set on many streets in the L.A. area.

To enliven the proceedings, Jeff Corey portrays a brain-fried wino with a religious mania, while Ann Southern's practical thief simply gets into the wrong burglary at the wrong time.

The script is forever reaching for higher significance in an effort to elevate the picture's ambitions. Mrs. Hilyard appeals to Randall's humanity, and instead gets herself a substitute family to replace the gay son who feels smothered by her and wants to leave. The dialogue supports the notion that Mrs. Hilyard is a spoiled, complacent capitalist (she even talks about the distastefulness of having to earn money through armament stocks) who therefore deserves the slow torture that's meted out to her. This anti-establishment baloney is not only unfair but does a disservice to real critiques of class inequity. The only response encouraged by Lady in a Cage is more security and harsh action against anybody living an unconventional lifestyle.

The gimmicky script doesn't really exploit the possibilities of the woman trapped in the elevator car. A series of fluke accidents with the power connection behind her house cause her to be caught in the first place. Three groups of thieves, including a crooked pawn broker and his assistant (played by Scatman Crothers) come and go and make all kinds of racket without attracting the slightest bit of attention from neighbors. And although audiences were surely invited to think of such things, no-one attempts to sexually assault Mrs. Hilyard.

The key scene is when Mrs. Hilyard crawls onto her front yard and screams for help. The steady stream of traffic racing by takes no notice as Randall forcibly drags her back into the house. Lady in a Cage seems to predict - and to some degree justify - the twisted logic of the Manson Family. Charlie Manson granted himself license to terrorize the "straights" in service to the lunatic goal of igniting a combo race war/revolution. Randall and co.'s takeover of the Hilyard house may even have been an influence on Manson and his creepy-crawly commandoes ... who can say?

The filmmakers pay off only partially on their threatened bloodbath. After whetting our appetite with an off-screen stabbing, they serve up a gory death as 'payback' for one of the thugs - creating a nasty crushed-head effect by cleverly cutting an automobile tire. The restraint required to secure a studio production seems hypocritical in comparison to the no-budget competition willing to splash gore across the screens of average neighborhood theaters. 1964 was the year of The Flesh Eaters, which I remember seeing promoted in open competition with upscale movies.

The acting is basically good, with Ms. de Havilland perhaps a bit too strident and Jeff Corey hamming it up a tad too much. James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley and Rafael Campos suggest all kinds of kinky appetites as they enjoy their hostage's accomodations.

Lee Garmes' B&W photography is serviceable but the camera direction never expresses the anarchic story content. The fast cutting to represent the urban chaos outside the Hilyard house is as artificial as the volume of traffic on Hilyard's residential street. Interestingly, Lady in a Cage received high marks from French critics - who appeared to relish the film's knee-jerk criticism of American Madness.

The Paramount logo is rendered in vertical lines, like the original logo on Hitchcock's Psycho.

Paramount's plain-wrap DVD of Lady in a Cage looks great in an enhanced and detailed B&W image. The audio is clear throughout, and offered in original mono or a remixed 5.1 track. There are no other extras. The attention-getting DVD cover art of a screaming Olivia de Havilland reminds us of Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Lady in a Cage rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (mono; 5.1 surround)
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 22, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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