Sunday, July 26, 2020

Caged Birds

Olivia De Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964)

Olivia De Havilland died this week at the age of 104. It sometimes seemed to us film fans that she would live forever. She was the last of the great actors from classic Hollywood and with her, an era that recedes farther and farther from living memory comes to a definitive ending. I remember her best for her films with Errol Flynn and for her horror movies in the sixties and seventies, but she won a pair of Oscars after her collaboration with Flynn ended. Her feud with her sister, Joan Fontaine, seems to finally be at an end. I haven't written about many of her films, but I'm probably going to watch a fair dozen of them this week. I wrote about Lady in a Cage in 2006 for another venue. I'm reprinting that piece here, only slightly rewritten for clarity.

Lady in a Cage, 1964, directed by Walter Grauman. Olivia De Havilland, James Caan, Jeff Corey, Ann Southern, Jennifer Billingsley, Rafael Campos, William Swan.

I experienced a certain amount of deja vu while watching Lady in a Cage. On the surface, this seems like yet another rip-off of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, in which an aging actress from Hollywood's golden age is put into an exploitation story--in this case, Olivia De Havilland, who made a lot of bank in these kinds of films in the 1960s. But there, the similarity ends. The Baby Janes, for all their grand guignol gestures, are essentially old-style gothics. Lady in a Cage is something else. It is a fore-runner of the exploitation films of the 1970s, in which the sixties youth revolution collides with the middle class. It's remarkably prescient. Consider the opening credits: We see a city in a heat wave. On the soundtrack, we hear the intimations of a world spinning well and truly into chaos. The arresting freeze-frame shots of the world at large recall the end of Night of the Living Dead, but the last image we see as these shots progress to the house of our heroine is the flyblown carcass of a dead dog in the street. Even before the story itself has begun, the movie has laid before the audience the technique used a decade later by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre AND anticipated one of its first images (Tobe Hooper's film was originally to open on a shot of a dead dog by the side of the road--which can be seen in the extras of some editions of the film--but opted for a dead armadillo instead).

The story itself, in which the disabled upper class woman played by Miss De Havilland is trapped in an elevator by a power-outage and terrorized by home invaders, recalls Wes Craven's early films, in which the bourgeoisie are stripped of their privilege and must compete with the savages for survival. James Caan plays the film's version of Krug, the David Hess character from Last House on the Left. But this film goes Craven one better. Craven suggests that even mild-mannered "civilized" people become monsters to fight monsters. This film suggests that those "civilized" people may already have been monsters to start with. Our heroine even articulates this thought at key points of the film's running time: once near the beginning when she speculates that it might be a good time to invest in armament stocks, then later when she specifically calls herself a monster. This film is surprising for a film made in 1964 for making the class warfare between the haves and the have-nots explicit. Even more surprising is the depiction of affluence as a suffocating burden on the young. It should be noted that there are several not-so-sub rosa allusions to Oedipus and the complex named for him. The film even manages a few apocalyptic touches, especially when our heroine speculates that her plight has been caused by someone dropping the bomb.

James Caan and Olivia De Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964)
New Hollywood vs Old Hollywood in James Caan vs. Olivia De Havilland.

This is all so compelling that one can't help but be disappointed that the film isn't better than it is. Apart from the opening credit sequence--perhaps the best rip-off of Saul Bass that I've ever seen--the film is largely anonymous. It looks a bit like the TV noir of The Twilight Zone or The Untouchables. This is not surprising from a director who is a veteran of television. What's good here argues that the dominant creative hand behind the film is screenwriter/producer Luther Davis, who later wrote Across 110th Street, one of the bleakest of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. More than that, the villains of the piece seem unconvincing, whether because they are poorly conceived (likely) or poorly acted (also likely). More interesting than the main villains are the secondary villains, for want of a better term, played by Jeff Corey and Ann Southern. If the film had had the wit to conflate Jeff Corey's bible thumping wino with James Caan's young firebrand, then the film would have been REALLY prescient, presenting a proto-Manson. But it doesn't, and I'm digressing from the point.

In any event, what the film lacks in style, it more than makes up for in brutality and sheer nihilism. It's a bracing film even today.

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