Wealthy poet Mrs. Cornelia Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland) is home alone for the 4th July weekend. Her son has just left for a holiday getaway. While recuperating from a broken hip Mrs. Hilyard uses an elevator to get her to her upstairs in her luxurious home. While taking another mundane ride up an electrical failure renders her elevator useless and she becomes trapped inside it!
Her cries for help only attracts the attention of a group of hoodlums who see all the nice expensive items she has in her home, break in and help themselves to anything they can grab – and all the while ignore the helpless Mrs. Hilyard. That is until violence escalates and the group realizes she could be a very problematic witness if they don’t silence her. Ms. de Havilland finds herself in an early home invasion film – and quite a disturbing one.
It’s funny about this period of the rise of low-budget thriller and horror movies. They were edgier and more gratuitous than what the big studios would release a decade earlier. They were not big glossy A-Pictures, but they became a platform for young up-and-coming actors and a lifeline for work for aging Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and in Lady in a Cage de Havilland. And also in a supporting part Anne Southern.
This is a b-movie exploitation film that attempts to offer a social commentary on the breakdown of morals and sympathy and the escalating brutality taking root in a more jaded world. The carriers of this message are the pack of thieves who break into the home and show zero compassion to de Havilland’s plight. And they carry that message really loud and clear!
The pack is led by a very young James Caan. He kinda reminded me of a combo of a young Marlon Brando and a young mustache-less Burt Reynolds in this. He leads his two co-horts around the house violating, snatching and breaking anything without any kind of remorse. The film really made me hate these people. There’s not one moment of redemption shown from any of them. Not one! They’re truly despicable and Cann and his crew really excel at showing that off.
Also in the house is older wino and Southern who were looking to pillage the house before Caan learned of this potential windfall. But why share the loot with these two when they can easily kill them! And the gang demonstrates even further cruelty by cluing everyone in on their plan. How do they justify killing other people – because they are there.
It’s pretty unsettling to see these three older actors as they beg, shiver and cry from the younger violent pack and all they do is mock and laugh. It’s really brutal. It’s especially shocking to see this when you consider the fact the film was made over fifty years ago!
It’s very visceral and gory and the portrayal of the depths to which human beings can act is appalling. It’s shocking to see today, but back when this film first came out – it must have been especially disturbing! It’s like a precursor to the sadistic film Funny Games fifty years prior.
All during this rampage de Havilland is locked in her cage distressed and trying to think up anyway to get out. There are some great shots around her elevator emphasizing the height she’s at and the potential help she can grasp towards that’s always just out of reach or out of earshot.
Director Walter Grauman keeps reminding us of how close a rescue de Havilland has with consistent shots of vacationing traffic driving unknowingly past her house and people walking past her persistent pleas for help. It does amp up the tension very nicely. It had me saying, “Damn I wish the ice cream man would just hear this poor woman!”
Toss in some rough handheld camera work. An animated title sequence ala Saul Bass with bars running all around the screen cut in between some really disturbing and surreal shots.
There’s some really bizarre stuff in the title sequence, which had me intrigued to what they were meant to represent. Like a young black girl rolling her skate up and down a bums leg. Very, very strange. Then it’s complimented by a smooth jazz score by Paul Glass.
Also the question that is raised – is there another ‘cage’ that de Havilland is trapped in besides that elevator??? There’s some good stuff here!
DeHavilland is very good in this. She always had such a likable quality and here in her middle-aged years she still maintained that presence. She also still looked quite pretty. The whole film I was rooting for her to finally manage to get the upper-hand and somehow save herself.
And as for the intruders’ unkind attitude towards her…ugh! How can anyone treat Main Marion this way! I was really hoping these three thugs would get some kind of justice for their actions. When de Havilland is cornered knowing she is on her own with these thugs who value nothing, including her life and she utters the line, “Welcome to the stone-age” I was right there with her.
I’m a bit torn with Lady on a Cage. On one hand it is very effective thriller. The heroine I liked and the villains I really, really hated. For the entire time I was glued in waiting to see what would happen next. But the movie starts to get so disturbing and dismaying to watch that I wouldn’t call it necessarily entertaining. It’s not a ‘fun B-movie’ for me.
I’m happy I saw it, but it’s not a movie that I would be anxious to see again. And it’s not because I thought it was a bad film, but just an uncomfortable one. Things at times do get a bit heavy handed and melodramatic, especially with the social message aspects. Jeff Corey’s wino is a bit cartoonish times too. But as a suspense movie it does deliver and it is certainly memorable. I imagine it really left an impact on audiences who saw it when it first came out.
One other thing about my experience with Lady in a Cage. Not too long before seeing it I watched a documentary about the 1968 Tate murders committed by the Manson family.
So I had that in my head, started to see similarities between the vicious gang and what happened to the victims at the Tate house and I think that made the film feel even more chilling. I started to view it like a omen to the real life tragedy that would happen only four years after Lady in a Cage was made.
Instead of watching the trailer, which gives away a bit too much of the movie, watch the opening title sequence instead