Saturday, October 13, 2012

#142: Lady in a Cage (Walter Grauman, 1964)

Wow. This B&W shocker is a corrosive piece of nastiness with an unrelentingly poisonous worldview, very surprising for an early 1960s big-studio release. I am one of the modern era's premier pessimists, but I'm not a cynic. This film is one of the most cynical I've ever seen, and though I can't share its makers' worldview, I have to admire its unwavering bleakness and complete lack of faith in any human being to do the right thing, particularly considering its vintage. Lest you suspect from my characterization of its blackened heart that the film is a dreary slog, be assured. This movie is very entertaining, very funny, reasonably suspenseful, a little ridiculous, and never dull. I enjoyed it immensely.
Lady in a Cage opens with one of the best Saul Bass ripoff credit sequences I've ever seen. As soon as it began, I said, "Alright! Saul Bass!" and then was confused when Bass was nowhere in the credits. Bass had nothing to do with this movie, but the ripoff artists do a tremendous job of biting his modus operandi and his je ne sais quoi, with sexy results. This opening credit sequence remains fantastic even after the faux-Bass bits. It sets the tone, to make a large understatement. It's Fourth of July weekend in an all-American upper middle class suburban neighborhood. Car after car full of shitty, bratty kids and middle-class married dopes head out to the beach. A firecracker shoots into the air. A little girl rides her roller skate over the leg of a drunken homeless man, semi-passed out in the street. The camera fixates on a dead dog in the road. Car after car after motorcycle after car drive past the dog, looks of either disgust or indifference on the faces of the passengers and drivers. No one stops.
Soon, we're inside the nice, upper-middle-class home of terrible poet Cornelia Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland) and her adult son Malcolm (William Swan). Malcolm is 30, still living at home. He's an "interior decorator" with "many female friends," which is the way major studio Hollywood films told you a character was gay in 1964. (Interestingly, Swan himself is gay and was in a long-term relationship with soap opera and Academy Awards telecast director Richard Dunlap until the latter's death in 2004.) Cornelia broke her hip in a fall several months ago and an indoor elevator has been installed in the home to enable her to move between the first and second floors while she recovers. She uses crutches to get around. Malcolm is about to leave for the weekend, and the exchanges between mother and son reveal Cornelia as a vain, smothering, overbearing, irritating woman. Malcolm is cold and can barely contain his disgust. Meanwhile, Cornelia is oblivious to her son's hatred. Swan is only in the film for about 10 minutes, but he's so good and so memorable in this scene that his presence hangs over the rest of the film. He perfectly captures that look of disgust on the face of an adult child when a parent says something cloyingly infantilizing. Good stuff, Swan.
After Malcolm leaves, Cornelia gets in her elevator to go upstairs, but a carelessly placed ladder from a city employee near a frayed power line cuts off power in Cornelia's home. She is trapped in her elevator between her first and second floor, and her broken hip prevents her from jumping out or climbing up to the second floor. Fortunately, she has an alarm button to push. That button is connected to a loud, clanging warning bell outside with a note affixed to it reading: "Elevator Stuck. Please Call Police." Unfortunately, a homeless derelict (Jeff Corey) who is fighting a losing battle to stay off the booze (he's stamped the word "Repent" all over his hands) happens to walk down the alley and see the alarm bell. He breaks into the house and steals several bottles of wine and a toaster, which he promptly sells at a sleazy pawn shop (featuring an uncredited Scatman Crothers as an employee). Unfortunately for him and Cornelia, a trio of sociopath delinquents (James Caan in his first major role, Rafael Campos, and Jennifer Billingsley) are hanging out at the pawn shop. They wonder where a drunken bum got a toaster and some expensive wine and decide to follow him. The bum enlists a fellow small-time street hustler (Ann Sothern) to help him pick the house clean, but the trio of dangerous creeps follows them to the house. They decided to pick the house clean themselves, torment Cornelia and the two street hustlers, and kill them.
In a film where every character is selfish and cynical, the viewer's allegiances and sympathies are constantly shifting. It's almost impossible to like Caan, Campos, and Billingsley (particularly the ridiculously OTT Campos), but there are times when de Havilland's Cornelia deserves a little punishment, particularly when she tells Caan he's "the offal of the welfare state" and that her tax dollars were spent paying his way through juvenile detention facilities. She'd love the Romney/Ryan ticket. The lousy 47 percent have invaded her home. The tension, black humor, and twists pile atop one another but feel natural and unforced, and the film's ending is darker than a coal mine though the action takes place exclusively during daylight hours in the middle of summer.
Though sometimes hysterically over the top, Lady in a Cage is an unfairly obscure 1960s horror/suspense/social satire with some beautiful camera work and cinematography from Hollywood legend Lee Garmes, who photographed Von Sternberg's Dishonored and Shanghai Express, Hawks' Scarface, and parts of Gone with the Wind. Screenwriter Luther Davis wrote the equally corrosive '70s crime film Across 110th Street, and director Walter Grauman primarily worked in television, directing almost every show you've ever heard of between the late 1950s and early 1990s, including 53 episodes of Murder, She Wrote. This is not quite as grandmother-friendly as that long-running series. Lady in a Cage is a weird, wild movie that deserves a larger cult reputation. If you can get behind a film putting forth the central thesis that all human beings are selfish pieces of garbage, I think you may love it.

No comments: