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Friday, 1 July 2016

Lady in a Cage (1964)

Director: Walter Grauman
Writer: Luther Davis
Stars: Olivia de Havilland, James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley, Rafael Campos, William Swan, Jeff Corey and Ann Sothern
I’ve been working my centennial project for half a year now and it’s been fascinating to pluck interesting films from the careers of important cinematic names to celebrate what would have been their hundredth birthdays. Today, for the first time, I get to pluck an interesting film from the career of an important cinematic name to celebrate what actually is her hundredth birthday. Olivia de Havilland turns one hundred today and the world of film has wished her all the very best. Born in Japan of British parents, she was a major name in the thirties, not only for Errol Flynn movies like Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Adventures of Robin Hood, but of the quintessential Hollywood blockbuster of the era, Gone with the Wind. In the forties, the blockbusters gave way to more focused dramas, like To Each Their Own, The Snake Pit and The Heiress; she received an Academy Award nomination for each of those three and won for two of them, losing the middle one to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda.

It’s easy to argue that the longer her career ran, the more interesting her film choices became. Never mind all those sweet young things she played in her early films, there are so many fascinating roles later on that I had to debate myself over which of a bunch of them I should select to review. I dismissed Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte as too well known, but could easily have picked That Lady, in which she wears an eyepatch; the Oscar-nominated Not as a Stranger; or especially The Dark Mirror, a crime thriller in which she plays twins. In the end I plumped for Lady in a Cage, a surprisingly forward looking thriller from 1964 that feels like a commentary on the present and future state of Hollywood. It’s very much a product of its time but its approach to story often feels like it could reach cinemas this year, even as it’s set in a location that seems like a throwback to the old days. Put together, that makes for a schizophrenic tone that fascinates me and makes me want to read more into it than perhaps is actually there.
As it begins, there’s no mistaking the movie for anything but the product of sixties Hollywood. The opening credits sequence shifts between Saul Bass style animation and striking black and white photography, accompanied by a staccato jazz score. The imagery is deliberately dark. A couple make out in a car to the radio accompaniment of an overblown evangelical preacher lady, eager to tap into the cold war fear of the nation. ‘Have we an anti-Satan missile?’ she screeches. A young coloured girl drags her rollerskate up and down the leg of a passed out bum. A keg is thrown off the roof of a building celebrating the 4th of July. Most notably, there’s a dead dog in the street with what seems like everyone in the world driving past bumper to bumper but not a one of them stopping. Everything screams heat and disinterest. We’re very clearly shown an amoral modern world before we pop up a driveway into the old fashioned house of Mrs Cornelia Hilyard, a house that could have been in a Hollywood movie of three decades earlier.

Cornelia is a fascinating character from the outset, played by de Havilland, of course. She’s set up superbly by scriptwriter Luther Davis in textbook style. We’re introduced to her through the apparent suicide note of her grown up son, prompting us to expect a domineering tyrant rather than the sweet old lady who wouldn’t say boo to a goose that we then meet. She walks with the aid of a cane, because she broke her hip the previous year; she gets up and down stairs through the use of a personal elevator, which also highlights her financial well-being. She seems to be an incessantly cheerful sort, even while pondering on the morality of buying into armament stocks because of all the war talk on the news. So she’s a character of rare substance: tough but frail, someone used to power who has been relegated to the ranks of the powerless. That’s only emphasised when her son leaves for the weekend and accidentally bumps a ladder into an electric cable and sparks (pun not intended) a power outage to her house alone.
The title has two meanings. The first is literal, as Cornelia finds herself stranded inside her lift cage, stuck between floors with her son gone for the weekend and only a book, a portable radio and a vase of flowers for company. The second is metaphorical, as her attempts to communicate with the outside world by ringing an alarm only attracts unwelcome attention, suggesting that her nice house is as much of a cage as her elevator, the world outside not the helpful one she imagines but a dangerous one that only wants to rage. Initially, the alarm she triggers, which rings outside above a sign reading, ‘Elevator emergency: please notify police,’ finds only an alcoholic thief with mental health issues to break in and see what he can find. He’s George L Brady Jr, better known to one and all as ‘Repent’. After one run to sell Cornelia’s toaster to the local junkyard, he comes back for more with Sade, a faded whore he owed money to. They’re played by Jeff Corey and Ann Sothern, character actors to de Havilland’s old Hollywood star.

If the film at this point was highlighting how method actors such as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were playing lead roles in the sixties like they were character parts instead, we’re about to meet the future in the form of a trio of thugs led by James Caan in his first credited role (he had made a brief appearance as a soldier in Irma la Douce the previous year). While Repent and Sade are morally repellent, their actions do make sense. He’s an alcoholic who has clearly suffered for his addiction and she’s a prostitute in a cheap apartment. Both of them have dug their own holes but see a way to climb out of them in the stuff that’s all over Cornelia’s house free for the taking given that she’s stuck in a cage and can’t do anything to stop them. When Randall, Essie and Elaine arrive, having followed Repent from the junkyard, they have no such explainable logic to guide their actions. They’re the epitome of the famous dialogue from The Wild One: ‘What are you rebelling against,’ someone asks Brando. ‘Whaddya got?’ he replies.
In fact, that would actually be more depth than this violent trio get. Given how carefully all three major characters thus far have been introduced, Luther Davis clearly crafted these young thugs without any background at all. We don’t know where they come from and we don’t know what drives them, though, frankly, neither do they. They don’t feel like they belong in the picture we’re watching, more like characters who travelled back in time from the exploitation cinema of the seventies or even from something as recent as The Purge. Their connection to 1964 is only through their style: Caan is clearly trying to be Brando with all the fibre of his being and Jennifer Billingsley, who plays Elaine, tapped into the same wildness as Ann-Margret did the same year in Kitten with a Whip. Oddly, it’s the much younger looking Rafael Campos, playing Essie, who was most experienced at the time: Billingsley was brand new and Caan was earning credit one but Campos had been acting in film and on television since 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.

You can write the rest of the script if you have a background in three distinct eras of Hollywood film: the golden age of the thirties, epitomised by the polite de Havilland and her elegant time capsule of a house; the character-based drama of the fifties and sixties, highlighted by Corey, Sothern and their grounded characters from the bad side of the tracks; and the darker but emphatically less substantial future hinted at by Caan and his thugs. Their future is echoed most strongly in the amoral exploitation flicks of the seventies, from A Clockwork Orange to The Hills Have Eyes, but there are pointers as far away as the dystopian sci-fi and torture porn of today, let alone more nuanced thrillers like The Strangers. It’s hard not to see the Manson family murders of 1969 in this picture, made five years earlier, as if Luther Davis was foretelling the future. Perhaps he was looking at the present too, phrasing his world through the eyes of Kitty Genovese, who famously died three months before this film was released.
There are points where this is underlined in bold ink. Randall eventually engages in dialogue with Cornelia, after she hurls polite abuse at him. ‘What sort of creatures are you?’ she asks, because she cannot understand their motivation. He burps at her and the radio cries, ‘Here, before us, stands the man of tomorrow!’ Talk about a pessimistic social commentary! When Cornelia describes herself as ‘a human being! I’m a thinking, feeling machine!’ it merely prompts Randall to refer to her throughout as ‘the human being’, usage that suggests that he doesn’t see himself as one. He’s an animal, instead, he thinks, a thought backed up by their lack of background, substance or thought. They’re not the iconic juvenile delinquents that Brando or Dean played, they’re just thugs, inept and inane. Yet, time and again, they’re seen as the future. When Cornelia tries to stab Randall with makeshift knives, they bend and he looks at her as if stunned at her lack of acknowledgement that he’s the future and it’s impossible for her to stop him.

The ending is brutal, but again looking both backwards and forwards at once. I don’t want to spoil it so will attempt to be notably vague here, but there’s explicit violence that feels out of place in black and white and there’s a nod as far back as the star-making performance of Lon Chaney in The Miracle Man, made when Olivia de Havilland, one of the last links we still have to that era, was three years old. I’ve met Chaney’s great-grandson, who didn’t know him but runs a company dedicated to his and his son’s work. Yet Olivia de Havilland, alive and vibrant today and celebrating her centennial by talking with People magazine about her career, was alive way back in 1919 when Chaney changed the face of American film. She’s not the only famous star to reach a centennial this year, as Kirk Douglas is set to join her in December, but, while his career ran for longer, it didn’t begin until almost a decade later. I’m happy that we still have both of them but I’m happier still that they had such interesting careers.
Many are also happy that de Havilland took a stand, way back in 1943, against the Hollywood studio system, that resonates today. Having been Oscar nominated as Best Actress for Hold Back the Dawn in 1941, two years after a Best Supporting Actress nod for Gone with the Wind, she asked her employer, Warner Bros, to give her more substantial roles. Their response was to suspend her for six months and, once her contract was up, they suggested that she still owed them six months, as the suspension didn’t count. At this point, industry lawyers stopped the clock whenever an actor wasn’t working, thereby extending seven year contracts into much longer periods of time. De Havilland sued Warner Bros and, in 1944, she won, not merely escaping her own contract, signed back in 1936, but defining California Labor Code Section 2855 to mean seven calendar years. Well into the 21st century, Jared Leto of Thirty Seconds of Mars visited de Havilland in Paris to thank her for the De Havilland Law, as important a legacy as her films.

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