Rage in the Cage: CAGED (Warner Brothers 1950)

“In this cage, you get tough or you get killed” – Kitty Stark (played by Betty Garde) in CAGED

 

The Grandmother of all “Women in Prison” films, CAGED still packs a wallop, nearly seventy years after it’s release. This stark, brutal look at life inside a women’s penitentiary was pretty bold for its time, with its savage sadism and heavy lesbian overtones, and matches up well with BRUTE FORCE as an example of film noir prison flicks. Everything about this film clicks, from its taut direction by John Cromwell to the use of sound to create mood by Stanley Jones, plus a powerhouse mostly female cast led by Eleanor Parker .

The 28-year-old Parker convincingly plays 19-year-old Marie Allen, given a one-to-fifteen year sentence for accessory to an armed robbery during which her husband was killed. The mousey Marie is indoctrinated, given a number (Prisoner #93850), and poked and prodded by staff, who discover Marie’s two months pregnant. Marie is given light duty by the prison-reform minded superintendent Ruth Barton, but sadistic old-school ward matron Evelyn Harper has other plans.

Marie’s first night inside the walls is a frightening experience for the youngster. She’s befriended by three tough street chicks led by Kitty Stark, boss of a shoplifting gang who wants to recruit the kid when she gets out of stir. When fellow inmate June is denied parole, it’s Marie who finds her hanging during the night, causing her to go into shock and give birth  prematurely. Her mom refuses to take the baby, then she’s denied parole, and a switch flips inside Marie’s head, turning her as hard as the veteran cons.

Tensions flare when Marie finds a kitten outside the prison laundry and takes it in, and a catfight over the cat between Marie and Harper escalates into a full-scale riot! Marie is given three days in solitary by Barton, but before serving the cruel Harper shaves her head. Kitty, who’s spent a month in solitary enduring beatings from Harper, gains justice of her own in a swift and vicious stabbing of the matron in the cafeteria, as Marie cheers her on, yelling, “Kill her, kill her”. Prison life has changed Marie, but not for the better, and the final scene has Barton resigned to the fact that she’s failed, and Marie will be back.

Parker was justly nominated for an Oscar for her performance, as she transforms from young innocent into hardened criminal during the course of the film. Also nominated was Hope Emerson as the sadistic Harper. Emerson’s 6’2″, 200+ pound frame make her an imposing physical presence, and she’s about as mean as a prison screw can get. Neither actress won – Judy Holliday picked up the statuette that year for BORN YESTERDAY, while Josephine Hutchinson won for HARVEY – but a case could certainly be made for them.

Agnes Moorehead’s  part of reform warden Ruth Barton also deserved Oscar consideration. Her battles with bureaucrats and the disrespectful Harper (who treats the inmates like pond scum and constantly refers to them as “ya tramps”) highlight the differences between rehabilitation and punishment, battles that are still going on today (and as someone who once worked inside the prison system, trust me on that). The film gives an impressive cast of women the chance to shine: Betty Garde is the hard-bitten Kitty, Lee Patrick her rival “Vice Queen” Elvira Powell, Jan Sterling the CP (that’s Common Prostitute) Smoochie, Ellen Corby a nutty husband killer, Gertrude W. Hoffman the wise old lifer Millie, Olive Deering the doomed June, and the tragic former star Gertrude Michael as the haughty Georgia. Other Familiar Faces behind the walls include Don Beddoe (as the political hack prison commissioner), Jane Darwell , Marlo Dwyer, Sandra Gould, Esther Howard , Sheila MacRae (billed as Sheila Stevens), Queenie Smith (as Marie’s mom), Amzie Strickland, Nita Talbot, and Ann Tyrell.

CAGED’s tougher-than-the-soles-on-a-streetwalker’s-feet screenplay is by Virginia Kellogg, who wrote the story with Bernard Schoenfeld (both were Oscar nominated). Kellogg, who wrote the stories for the tough films noir T-MEN and WHITE HEAT , was a former reporter who used her contacts to go undercover as an inmate in four different prisons to do research on the subject. The result was this knockout of a movie, as realistic a look at prison life as was possible for the time. The bleakness of doing a bid behind bars, the corruption that still goes on, and the dehumanization of people contributes to the high recidivism rate experienced even today. The women of CAGED are no saints, not by a long shot, but their treatment here offers no hope for redemption, just a revolving door for those tagged as social outcasts. It’s a film that is still relevant today, and a film noir you don’t want to miss.


Face the Darkness: Bogie & Bacall in DARK PASSAGE (Warner Brothers 1947)

“Tuesdays in Noirvember” concludes with the genre’s biggest icon, Humphrey Bogart (and he’s bringing Lauren Bacall along for the ride!):

The year 1947 belonged to film noir, as some of the dark genre’s true classics saw the light of day: Robert Mitchum donned that iconic trenchcoat in OUT OF THE PAST , Richard Widmark snarled his way through KISS OF DEATH, Burt Lancaster battled sadistic Hume Cronyn with BRUTE FORCE , Tyrone Power got trapped in NIGHTMARE ALLEY , Rita Hayworth bedeviled Orson Welles as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , Ronald Colman won an Oscar as a cracked actor leading A DOUBLE LIFE, and Lawrence Tierney terrorized the hell out of everyone in his path in BORN TO KILL . Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, noir’s power couple thanks to the previous year’s THE BIG SLEEP , teamed again for DARK PASSAGE, an slam-bang crime drama that may not be quite on a par with those mentioned above, but more than holds its own in the film noir canon.

The movie starts in a unique way, as the subjective camerawork by DP Sid Hickox allows us to see things through the eyes of Bogart’s Vincent Parry, a convicted wife killer who’s escaped from San Quentin. I found this to be most annoying in Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE (released earlier in ’47), but unlike that film, not every frame is shot from Parry’s perspective, proving one again that less is more. Parry hitches a ride with a stranger who recognizes him, and he’s forced to knock the dude out. Pulling him into the roadside brush and changing clothes with him, Parry is stunned when a woman he’s never met, Irene Janson, pulls over and offers to help him.

Turns out Irene knows Parry’s former flame Madge, who was instrumental in getting Parry convicted. Irene’s own father was falsely accused of murdering his second wife and died in prison, and Irene believes Parry’s innocent as well. Now calling himself Alan Linnell, Parry meets a chatty cabby named Sam, who  hooks him up with Dr. Coly, a disgraced plastic surgeon who gives him a new face. When Parry goes to his pal George’s apartment to heal, he finds his friend’s also been murdered, and now he has to turn to Irene for help in clearing himself in two murders…

We don’t get to see Bogie’s mug until almost halfway through the film, which went up Jack Warner’s craw sideways, but once we do things really begin to heat up. Writer/director Delmer Daves crafted a corker of a tale based on a novel by hardboiled pulp author David Goodis, though there are some gaps in logic and too much reliance on coincidence to make this one thoroughly believable. But that doesn’t really matter, as we get a fast-paced thriller with Bogie and Bacall torching the screen once again. Daves started as a screenwriter (including Bogie’s early hit THE PETRIFIED FOREST) before making his directorial debut with DESTINATION TOKYO. He has many good-to-great films on his resume, like THE RED HOUSE, BROKEN ARROW, JUBAL, 3:10 TO YUMA , KINGS GO FORTH, THE HANGING TREE, and the blockbuster A SUMMER PLACE, and if you haven’t discovered his work yet, you should!

Agnes Moorehead  is a real bitch as Madge, the jilted lover who got Parry nailed for murder, though cinema crime solvers will have ‘whodunnit’ figured out pretty quick. Bruce Bennett appears as Irene’s wannabe beau Bob, Tom D’Andrea is good as Sam the cabby, Douglas Kennedy plays a detective on Parry’s trail, and ex-Our Gang member Clifton Young is the jerk Baker, a self-described “small time crook” who first gives Parry a lift, then returns with blackmail on his mind. And that picture of a pre-surgery Parry in the newspaper pre-plastic surgery is actor Frank Wilcox.

Franz Waxman  contributes another memorable score, and the song “Too Marvelous for Words” (written by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting) serves as a love theme, vocalized by big band singer Jo Stafford. DARK PASSAGE may not be 1947’s top film noir, but it’s an entertaining little number that held my interest all the way til the end. Plus, it’s got Bogie and Bacall – what more could you ask for?

Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)

When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane ) down the stairs and loses the ability to walk, she still treats Pinks like shit. The two leads aren’t very happy characters, and the movie suffers because of it.

It’s Pinks who helps her the most, paying her hospital bills and willing to practically wheel her all the way to Miami (the scene they cause at the Holland Tunnel is a comic standout), yet Her Highness is just using the lowly bus boy, her only goal being to snag millionaire playboy Decatur Reed (William T. Orr, later a successful television producer for Warner Bros). I think it’s Lucy’s character that turned me off; even at the end (which I won’t spoil for those who want to watch), I didn’t have much sympathy for her. She’s a self absorbed, total bitch, especially in her treatment of those who care about her, and almost completely ruined the film for me.

The movie’s saving grace is the eccentric supporting cast that brings those trademark “Runyonesque” characters to vivid life. Ray Collins   and Sam Levene hit the bull’s-eye as a pair of erudite gamblers named Professor B and Horsethief. Eugene Pallette and Agnes Moorehead shine in the parts of Violette Shumberg and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a “fat-and-skinny” odd couple (the Nicely-Nicely character would later pop up in GUYS & DOLLS, played this time by Stubby Kaye). Millard Mitchell   has an early role as retired hood Gentleman George. Among the other Familiar Faces around the big street you’ll find Louise Beavers, Hans Conreid, George Cleveland, Charlie Hall, Donald Kerr, Marian Martin, John Miljan, and Dewey Robinson. Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra play in MacLane’s Miami nightclub, and look closely for Bess Flowers and a young Marie Windsor as faces in the crowd.

Director Irving Reis (THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER, ALL MY SONS) had the unenviable task of balancing the bittersweet comedy-drama of Leonard Spielgass’s script, and isn’t quite up to it. Reis was fairly new in the director’s chair at the time, and those schizophrenic shifts from offbeat comical Runyonesque hoods to mean Lucy throwing shade at Fonda are quite jarring. Perhaps if director Reis had toned down Ball’s character a few notches and let Fonda lighten up a bit, I’d feel different. As it stands, I chalk it up as an interesting failure, but fans of Fonda, Ball, and Damon Runyon yarns will probably want to judge for themselves.

 

Grand Dame Guignol: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (United Artists 1971)

The recent FX mini-series FEUD has sparked a renewed interest in the “Older Actresses Doing Horror” genre, also known by the more obnoxious sobriquettes “Hagsploitaion” or “Psycho-Biddy” movies. This peculiar film category lasted from 1962’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? until winding down around the early Seventies. 1971’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? came towards the end of the cycle, a creepy little chiller with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters   getting caught up in murder and madness in 1930’s Hollywood.

I wouldn’t exactly call Debbie Reynolds a “hag”; she was only 39 when this was filmed, and still quite a hottie, especially when glammed-up in a Jean Harlow “Platinum Blond” wig. Deb gets to show off her tap-dancing and tangoing in a few scenes, showing off her still amazing legs for good measure. She and Shelley play a pair of Iowa mothers who (as the opening newsreel footage tells us) have spawned two killer sons that slaughtered a young girl and got sentenced to life in prison. Harassed by angry mobs and receiving threatening phone calls, Adelle (Debbie) and Helen (Shelley) decide to go west and open a dancing school for aspiring Shirley Temple types in Tinsletown.

Changing their last names, Adelle and Helen rent a studio, and soon an oddball unemployed ham named (appropriately enough) Hamilton Starr worms his way into a position as voice coach. Linc Palmer, rich father of one of Adelle’s no-talent pupils, takes an interest in her, while Helen withdraws from the world, finding solace in her pet rabbits and the religious radio broadcasts of Sister Alma (played by Agnes Moorehead, whose genre credits include HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE   and DEAR DEAD DELIALH).

Helen is still getting those threatening phone calls, and seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adelle suspects Helen of sending a newspaper clipping of her sordid past to Linc, and comes home to find blood smeared on a cardboard cut-out of her. She demands Helen leave, and walks out in a huff. A knock on the door finds a man who knows Helen’s real name, and as he walks up the staircase, the frightened, freaked out woman pushes him to his doom. Adelle returns, discovering the horror, and helps Helen get rid of the body.

Helen is now truly cracking up, and not even Sister Alma can save her (“There is no forgiveness for me”). After Adelle receives a marriage proposal from Linc, she arrives back home to discover her bedroom trashed, and blood all over the bathroom. Following a trail of blood down the bannister to the backyard, she gasps as she sees Helen’s pet rabbits all slaughtered in their coops. Then Helen appears, blood on the front of her nightgown, and…

And you’ll have to watch the movie to find out (although that poster up top may give you a clue). Shelley Winters was said to have been having a real-life nervous breakdown while shooting this film, and her acting is more restrained than usual at this stage of her career. She certainly had me convinced she was going bonkers but, given the circumstances, it probably wasn’t that much of a stretch for her. There’s a subtle but noticeable lesbian subtext in Helen’s reliance on Adelle, deftly handled by both ladies. Shelley had previous appeared in THE MAD ROOM, and went on to star in WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, and overcame her breakdown to continue a long career.

Linc is played by Dennis Weaver, taking a break from MCCLOUD to portray Debbie’s lover. Flamboyant Irish thespian Michael MacLiammoir plays the flamboyant Hamilton Starr in a clear case of typecasting (though he did remind me a bit of Sydney Greenstreet). Another oddball actor, Timothy Carey , has a cameo as a down-on-his-luck bum. Pamelyn Ferdin, Logan Ramsey, Peggy Rea, and the immortal Yvette Vickers   all pop up in small parts.

Henry Farrell, whose novel served as the basis for BABY JANE, wrote the spooky screenplay, as he did with SWEET CHARLOTTE. He also did the teleplays for HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALAN (with Julie Harris and Anthony Perkins) and THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE (Barbara Stanwyck). Director Curtis Harrington was a huge horror buff responsible for the atmospheric NIGHT TIDE, QUEEN OF BLOOD, GAMES, and the TV Movies THE CAT CREATURE, KILLER BEES (with Gloria Swanson!), and DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL. DP Lucian Ballard isn’t a name usually associated with horror films, but he dabbled occasionally early in his career (1942’s THE UNDYING MONSTER, ’44’s THE LODGER), so he knew the territory fairly well.

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? is kitschy fun, with Debbie and Shelley enjoying a good, gruesome romp together. Keep a lookout for more of these “Psycho-Biddy” films on TCM and elsewhere, featuring Golden Age stars like Bette, Joan , Barbara, Agnes, Olivia, Tallulah, Miriam , even Gloria Grahame… just watch out for hidden knives!

 

Happy 100th Birthday Olivia de Havilland!: HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (20th Century Fox 1964)

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Today marks the 100th birthday of one of the last true Golden Age greats, Olivia de Havilland. Film fans across the globe are celebrating the life and career of this fine actress, who fought the Hollywood system and won. Olivia is the last surviving cast member of GONE WITH THE WIND (Melanie Wilkes), won two Academy Awards (TO EACH HIS OWN, THE HEIRESS), headlined classics like THE SNAKE PIT and THE DARK MIRROR, and costarred with dashing Errol Flynn in eight exciting films, including CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, SANTA FE TRAIL, and THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON.

Olivia moved to Paris with her husband in the 1950’s and was semi-retired, acting in a handful of films. In 1962 director Robert Aldrich  scored a huge hit, a psychological horror thriller called WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, starring screen veterans Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. A new genre was born, featuring older actresses in suspenseful psychodramas. Olivia starred in one of them, 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE, about a woman trapped in her home as deranged youths ransack her house. Aldrich sought to capitalize on his success with another film to star Davis and Crawford titled HUSH… HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE. But Crawford bowed out, citing illness (gossip of the day suggested she didn’t want to work with Davis again). Bette placed a call to her old Warner Brothers friend Olivia, who read the script and accepted the role of scheming cousin Marion. The two Grand Dames, along with director Aldrich, had another hit on their hands, a Southern Gothic tale set in a decaying Louisiana mansion.

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The film opens in 1927, as Charlotte’s father Big Sam Hollis confronts John Mayhew. Mayhew has been having a clandestine affair with the big man’s little girl behind the back of his wife Jewel. Big Sam forces John to break it off at that evening’s big dance, and Charlotte doesn’t take it well, screaming “I could kill you!” Later, we see someone offscreen grab a meat cleaver and, sneaking into the music room where John sits alone, chop off his hand and head, violently hacking him to death. Charlotte enters the ballroom in a blood-stained dress as the partygoers are shocked, and Big Sam sadly walks her to her room.

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Fast forward to 1964. The Hollis home is scheduled to be demolished to make room for a new highway, but Charlotte brandishes a shotgun to ward off the bulldozers. Charlotte’s fiercely loyal maid Velma tries to talk some sense into her, but the emotionally wounded Charlotte refuses to leave. Enter Charlotte’s “last kin”, cousin Marion, who arrives back home to take care of things. Sweet natured Marion and family doctor Drew (who once were lovers) also try to convince Charlotte to leave the estate, but she’s having none of it, angrily still holding a grudge against Marion for telling Jewel Mayhew about her and John. Meanwhile, an insurance investigator named Harry Wills has come to town, seeking answers to why Jewel has never cashed in on John’s policy.

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The movie then becomes a nightmare of terror for Charlotte, as she sees John’s disembodied head show up in the music room, hears harpsichord music playing, and strange voices calling her. Dr. Drew gives her sedatives to calm her down, and Velma begins to get suspicious of him and Marion. When she finds an hallucinatory drug in Charlotte’s room, she puts two and two together. Velma tries to help Charlotte escape, but is stopped by Marion, who smashes a chair over her head and sends her crashing down the staircase to her death.

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Marion and Drew have been plotting all along to drive Charlotte over the edge in order to take control of her money. They concoct an elaborate ruse that ends with Charlotte pumping Drew full of lead (actually blanks). Charlotte pleads for Marion to help her get rid of the body, telling her she can have all the money. They dump him in a pond, but Charlotte’s in for a shock when Drew pops up at the top of the staircase, a shambling mess, causing her fragile sanity to crumble. The two lovers celebrate outside, drinking champagne and congratulating themselves on their wicked scheme. Charlotte comes out ton the porch and overhears them and, realizing she’s been duped, pushes a heavy planter on top of them, killing them both.

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Olivia de Havilland was 48 when HUSH.. HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE was made, still a very attractive woman. She plays Marion perfectly, all sweetness and sympathy at first, then showing her true rotten nature. Miss de Havilland shows a mean streak here, a far cry from Maid Marion and Melanie Wilkes. I think it’s the film’s best performance, and that’s saying a lot considering the all-star cast.

Bette Davis goes full-throttle as Charlotte like only Bette Davis can. Agnes Moorehead was Oscar nominated for Velma (the film was also nominated in six other categories). Moorehead’s  CITIZEN KANE costar Joseph Cotten plays the co-conspirator Dr. Drew. Mary Astor makes her final screen appearance as the widowed Jewel Mayhew, showing much restraint among all the Grand Guignol theatrics. Cecil Kellaway has the small but pivotal part of Wills; his scenes with Davis and Astor are standouts. Others in the cast are Bette’s BABY JANE costar Victor Buono (as Big Sam), George Kennedy Bruce Dern (as John), William Campbell, Wesley Addy, and Ellen Corby.

HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is a fine entry in the “older actresses doing horror” sweepstakes. Not quite as good as WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, it still manages to deliver plenty of chills, and it’s got a classic movie lover’s dream cast. Olivia de Havilland went on to make appearances in five more features (including THE SWARM ) and some television projects (winning an Emmy for ANASTASIA: THE MYSTERY OF ANNA) before retiring completely in 1986. Still alive and well and living in Paris, we salute you on your special occasion, Olivia. Here’s to a hundred more!

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