John Cromwell, 1950
Starring: Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead, Ellen Corby, Hope Emerson
Marie Allen, a naive young woman, is sent to prison as an accomplice to her deceased husband’s failed attempt at a gas station robbery. In prison she learns she is pregnant and is hopelessly depressed at her fate. Marie is essentially ricocheted between the beastly warden, Miss Harper, and butch head criminal, Kitty, who wants Marie to join her gang. The kind prison superintendent, Miss Benton, tries to help Marie maintain her innocence, but she meets with a series of difficulties – Marie’s baby is taken away from her after delivery when her mother refuses to care for it, she witnesses the suicide of a prisoner refused parole, and attempts to keep a pet kitten in the ward, which results in its death and a riot. She is put in solitary confinement and has her head shaved, essentially the final torture that pushes her over the limit towards a criminal career.
Though there were other films before it, Caged is essentially the first women in prison film to take a stab at the realistic portrayal of life in a women’s prison. In earlier movies about incarcerated women movies, like Cecil B De Mille’s Manslaughter (1922) and The Godless Girl (1929), as well as Ladies of the Big House (1931) and Ladies They Talk About (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck, prison was portrayed as a cleaner, much more glamorous place.
Writer Virginia Kellog (she wrote both the script and the story it is based on, “Women Without Men”) actually went undercover in several prisons to write an article, “Inside Women’s Prison,” which is the origin for much of the realism of Caged. According to Kellogg, it was a horrifying experience full of solitary confinement, water torture, and the head shaving ritual that plays such a key role in Caged. She also witnessed the relatively free exchange of narcotics, which she initially included in Caged, though a drug-addicted character was cut by the Production Code. It’s frankly astounding that they allowed references to lesbianism, prostitution, spousal murder, alcoholism, and suicide, though many of these riskier scenes were cut – or at least slimmed down – for release in a number of cities.
Having somewhat of a documentary, realistic feel was common in noir of the time. The set of Caged allegedly went so far as to prevent the actresses from wearing makeup. This is a welcome change from the earlier, utterly unrealistic women’s prisons films. Though it’s not quite on the level of the exploitation WIP films of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s easy to see the tropes emerging here and in Women’s Prison (1955) with a gleefully psychotic Ida Lupino. Hope Emerson’s (Adam’s Rib, Thieves’ Highway) Miss Harper is a character type that would be repeatedly relentlessly over the years from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS to Chicago. She’s massive (Emerson was 6’2”), sadistic, and an opportunist who is secretly cowardly, but is power-mad in her role as warden. The character of Kitty Starke (Betty Garde from Cry of the City) became a staple of WIP films – the bossy, butch lesbian out to get a young, pretty, and helpless woman while also possibly seducing the other woman and certainly introducing her to a life of crime.
Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched) is perfectly cast as the film’s moral center, Ruth Benton, who tries to run an upstanding prison but is met with obstacles on all sides. There are certainly not many characters like her in later WIP films. The Waltons’ Ellen Corby (Vertigo, Sabrina) is great as a woman who thinks it’s hilarious that she shot her husband after years of domestic abuse and “warning shots” – yet another element that made it into Chicago (to be fair, the musical’s origin play, which I’ve never read, is from 1926 and contains a cast of female characters who have nearly all murdered their husbands or lovers).
Despite the cast of strong supporting actresses, the film absolutely belongs to Eleanor Parker, who is perfect as Marie Allen. Her transition from innocent teen to hardened criminal is subtle and believable. I’m a huge Parker fan – possibly because she is a fellow redhead – and find her to be one of the period’s most underrated actresses. She was nominated for three Academy Awards – for Caged, Detective Story, and Interrupted Melody – though I first encountered her as the elegant, yet petulant baroness from The Sound of Music. She lived a long full life – which included marrying four times and converting to Judaism – and just passed away last year. This was initially intended to be a Bette Davis and/or Joan Crawford film. While I love the end result and can’t picture anyone but Parker starring as Marie, it’s a shame the world never got to see the youthful Davis and Crawford, imprisoned, unglamorous, and fighting like mad (though Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a hard act to beat).
Considered one of the best films of the year alongside stiff competition like All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle, Caged’s realism allows for a welcome comparison to Jules Dassin’s male prison film Brute Force (1947), and the two would make an interesting double feature. John Cromwell (Dead Reckoning, Of Human Bondage, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Racket) delivers some solid direction, though he is largely bolstered by fine performances and some wonderful cinematography. Cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie ensured plenty of noir visuals, including a phenomenal opening shot – a POV ride in a prisoner transport truck shot on through tiny, caged window. There are plenty of excellent scenes, one of my favorites being the shot where Marie tries to escape and is seen through barbed wire, jumping up towards it.
Caged is available on DVD (which somewhat falsely claims that it is a cult film), but you can also check it out on Archive.org, because it is still in the public domain. As is my common refrain lately, I’d love to see a proper Blu-ray restoration of this film with some nice special features and a great commentary track. Despite the film’s unabashed social criticism and moral message – prison creates criminals – the film barely feels dated and comes highly recommended. I think the message is part of what keeps it fresh, considering that the problematic prison system is far worse in the U.S. than it was in the 1950s.