3 out of 5 stars

Philip French, a British critic, with his tongue presumably in cheek, described Lady in a Cage as belonging to a genre he termed “cable hangers” or “shaft operas”—films set in elevators, that is. Certainly, the nominal premise is the plight of the pleasant lady Cornelia (Olivia de Havilland), who becomes stuck in an elevator at her pleasant home and watches helplessly as a collection of marauders enter to wreak havoc amongst her precious objets d’art.

But Lady in a Cage isn’t truly about being stuck in an elevator at all, and it’s certainly not a “trapped” film in the style that’s become popular in recent decades—Phone Booth (2002), 127 Hours (2010), Buried (2010) and so on. It makes little use of the elevator’s claustrophobic potential; more of the action takes place outside the elevator than within it, often in parts of the house not visible from it, or even outside altogether.

The elevator even becomes a sanctuary as much as a prison, because Lady in a Cage is a home invasion film. It’s an early example of a genre that was then relatively rare—William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours (1955), Richard Brooks’s In Cold Blood (1967) and Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) are amongst the few notable examples from the period—but would soon explode in the 1970s with the likes of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and continues strongly to this day. There are, indeed, some noticeable similarities between Lady in a Cage and Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008), and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the older film influenced Bertino. (In seeming like a “trapped” film but being much more concerned with home invasion, Lady in a Cage also has more in common with David Fincher’s 2002 film Panic Room than with the other “trapped” films mentioned above.)

As a home invasion film, it taps into fears of a world that is becoming more dangerous, where anyone can be victimised, seemingly at random. Lady in a Cage distinguishes very clearly between “rational” economic crime and “irrational” violent crime. The people who see Cornelia’s home purely as a place to be robbed are essentially sympathetic, and indeed it’s one such criminal, the local junk dealer/fence Mr Paul (Charles Seel), who looks at one point like he might be her saviour. By contrast, the three youths who follow (James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley and Rafael Campos) are much more disquieting—to Cornelia and to us—because they are not solely motivated by gain. Hurting others, and generally violating norms, seems to be an amusing end in itself for them. “What have we done about the Devil?” asks a Christian radio presenter early on in the film, and it will become clear who’s meant.

Lady in a Cage lays it all on the line with a sledgehammer approach: it’s desperately over-directed and over-acted. It’s little surprise that few of those involved have much of a lasting reputation, although for Caan it was his first screen credit and de Havilland already had an illustrious career behind her, from her historical crowd-pleasers with Errol Flynn to her later, more serious roles. Beyond Caan and de Havilland, several of the cast were busy performers in both television and film; the director, Walter Grauman, also mostly worked in television and this is the only film of his that’s remembered these days. (He was a first cousin once removed of the exhibitor Sid Grauman, who lent his name to the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.)

The screenwriter, Luther Davis, had penned quite a few films but again none are truly remembered apart from Vincente Minnelli’s Kismet (1955). The composer, Paul Glass, who gave Lady in a Cage a fractured, highly dissonant score that suggests old certainties have been replaced by new insecurities, went on to be prolific in the classical world, and his contribution is one of the movie’s few classy elements.

As important as any of these to Lady in a Cage, for better or worse, was the cinematographer Lee Garmes, then nearing the end of a long career that had begun in the silent era. From the opening Saul Bass-inspired titles based on a motif of vertical bars (actually designed by the company Tri-Arts, led by the art director Bob Guidi), it’s clear we’re in for a film where the visual effect is important.

The title sequence also integrates street scenes—a couple in a car, a drunk sleeping it off, a Fourth of July firecracker—just as the film will later return repeatedly to shots of the house’s immediate vicinity. Over and over again, Grauman cuts to an almost implausible number of vehicles passing by on the street outside, partly for reasons of plot mechanics (they drown out the elevator’s alarm bells) but also to express how the urbanised modern world isolates people; nobody in the cars notices any of the suspicious activities going on around Cornelia’s home. One car even hits and presumably kills a dog. Later, military jets in the sky provide a glimpse of a wider, equally impersonal modern world.

The film actually begins outside the house, eventually moving to a close-up of an external air-conditioning unit (its grille recalling the bars of the titles) and then into the interior, seemingly penetrating the walls in a way which foreshadows the later home invasion. Here we meet Malcolm (William Swan), who is preparing to go away for a long weekend and leave his mother Cornelia alone.

He isn’t really necessary to the film, which would work rather better without a subplot concerning his plans to move out; a childless Cornelia would probably have made for a cleaner and even punchier story. But the early scenes with him do set up some of the atmosphere of the film. There is a definite hint of something inappropriately intimate in his relationship with his mother, which will be alluded to by one of the thugs who break into the house later on, and this (along with equally vague but unmistakable hints of homoeroticism between the two male members of the home-invading gang) may have contributed to the feeling of some critics that Lady in a Cage was—as the British writer Leslie Halliwell put it—“unpleasant” and “nasty”.

If this impression of Malcolm and Cornelia is deliberate, it’s not entirely logical. Throughout the rest of the film, Cornelia is presented very much as the embodiment of civilised values (she’s a poet, albeit not a very good one if her voiceover verse is anything to go by)—and, specifically, a once-secure civilised life under attack. Screenwriter Davis emphasises ideas of risk and danger: the radio discusses road deaths (fatalities in car accidents were rising rapidly around this time), there’s “war talk in the papers” (American involvement in Vietnam was deepening), Cornelia implores Malcolm to cut back on smoking (the US Surgeon General’s highly influential report on the dangers of smoking was issued a few months before the film came out, but after it had been shot, so this particular topicality was probably a happy coincidence). Cornelia is the hapless individual American vulnerable to all these new threats… but at least safe in her home, or so she thinks.

She also has a broken hip, and so must use the house’s elevator to go up and downstairs. Cornelia is in the process of doing this when the power goes out (explained in a rather contrived way that doesn’t entirely make sense—it’s not clear why the elevator would even start in the first place) and she’s trapped in it. At this point, the announcer on her portable radio remarks that “everyone is heading to the great outdoors” before the programme segues into a news story about a murdered woman… as so often, Lady in a Cage is heavy-handed here with both the irony and the threat.

Before long a local wino, Brady (Jeff Corey), stumbles into the house and a bit of slapstick ensues before he steals a toaster and heads off to sell it to the fence Mr Paul. In doing so, however, he also inadvertently alerts a group of youths—Randall (Caan), Elaine (Billingsley) and Essie (Campos)—to the situation in the house. They are the real villains of the piece, like caricatured psycho versions of kids from West Side Story (1961), and it’s here that we get the first foreshadowing of Bertino’s The Strangers.

When Brady and his friend Sade (Ann Sothern), who he has recruited to help him clean out Cornelia’s possessions, return to the house the kids follow them and also enter it, set on indulging their own, more sensual and destructive urges. All through this time Cornelia has remained trapped in the elevator, and it’s not long before she is the object of the youths’ unwanted attention.

But although her plight remains the film’s apparent topic, just as much tension now comes from the way that it puts the two groups of criminals in opposition: the traditional and essentially harmless Brady and Sade versus the far less predictable and crueller youths. It also, at this point, gets much nastier; there is sadistic behaviour not only toward Cornelia and the unfortunate Brady but also toward Elaine and Essie (Randall seemingly delights in tormenting his own gang), and some disturbingly animal-like behaviour, especially from Essie.

Again, Davis’s screenplay can’t resist underlining the points repeatedly. “What sort of creatures are you?” Cornelia asks (my emphasis); Randall will later mockingly refer to her as “the human being”. One of the better verbal images in Cornelia’s poetry observes that instead of keeping the jungle out by building cities, we’ve “built the jungle in”.

Grauman’s direction and Garmes’s cinematography are similarly prone to making the obvious even more obvious.

There are, to be fair, moments when the cinematography and direction are effective, and they need to be with such long dialogue-free stretches. Shots of Cornelia first realising she’s stuck in the elevator are well-constructed, making clear its height from the ground floor and the distance to a first-floor gallery; she isn’t going to be able to jump or climb out. There’s a real sense of loss when she drops her handkerchief from the elevator—even such a trivial thing is important in her circumstances—and there’s a genuine shock when the three kids first burst in and attack Brady.

There’s an extreme close-up of Cornelia screaming that’s very reminiscent of Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and an astonishingly (for the period) suggestive—if very tricksy—shot about an hour in where we see Billingsley’s face reflected in a small mirror, behind which loom Randall’s belt buckle and shirtless chest; there seems to be no space at all between her head and the lower half of his body, although of course it’s an illusion produced by the mirror.

There are, however, some clumsy touches (at least one shot inadvertently gives the impression of the immobile elevator descending). Throughout the film, there’s a tendency towards excessive camera movement. Unnecessary,literal-minded zooms and close-ups highlight plot mechanics that were already perfectly apparent—for example, a zoom-in and close-up on a ringing phone, followed by a zoom-out again when the ringing stops!

This also necessitates some rapid cutting to get all the shots in (sadly, Lady in a Cage isn’t covered by the wonderful Cinemetrics average shot length database). Combined with mostly very bright lighting and overwrought performances, all this gives a frenetic feel to the movie, which again confirms that Lady in a Cage has little in common with the “trapped” genre. We should probably be grateful it was shot in black and white, although it was made around the time colour releases finally started to become the majority (claims as to the exact year when they overtook black-and-white differ). Adding the lurid colour of the period to this hyperactivity would be just too much to bear.

Among the cast, de Havilland is certainly commanding, though not immune to histrionics. At least the line “Stone Age, here I come!” (both immortal and terrible) is the writer’s fault, not hers. Sothern as Sade is more understated and more likeable as a result. Corey overacts as Brady, but again the part is written that way, and he does strike the balance between being sympathetic and annoying just about right. It is also—surprisingly—Brady, rather than Cornelia with her grand pronouncements about civilisation and humanity, who has the key exchange with Caan’s Randall that exposes a real nihilism at the heart of the film. “Why us? What have we done?” pleads Brady; “You’re here,” responds Randall, a moment echoed again in The Strangers years later.

Caan is by far the dominant character among the three youths. He’s the only one who’s intelligent, so he gets all the meaningful dialogue. However, he does not attempt to develop his character beyond smirking aggression, but then again the screenplay doesn’t give him much scope. Billingsley’s Elaine mostly simpers, while Campos’s Essie giggles and grimaces.

Nobody could argue that Lady in a Cage is a great film. But there are good things in it: de Havilland for much of the time, Glass’s uncompromising score, the nightmarish quality of the uncaring neighbourhood outside, even little details that come across well like the uncomfortable heat. Much of the film does seem crude and overdone nowadays, but it was genuinely tense and exciting the first time I saw it, and the raw power of the concept survives the many shortcomings in writing, acting, and directing. Nice ladies getting stuck in elevators might be rather worrying; home invasions are scary.

USA | 1964 | 94 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH • FRENCH • SPANISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Walter Grauman.
writer: Luther Davis.
starring: Olivia de Havilland, James Caan, Jennifer Billingsley, Rafael Campos, Jeff Corey & Ann Sothern.