Writer: Luther Davis
Stars: Olivia de Havilland, James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley, Rafael Campos, William Swan, Jeff Corey and Ann Sothern
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.