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Monday, 30 July 2012

Lady in a Cage (1964) - Star of the month... Olivia de Havilland


"Take anything you want, but in the name of humanity help me get out of this horrible cage!" - Olivia de Havilland (as Cornelia Hilyard in 'Lady in a Cage')


'Lady in a Cage' is a 1964 horror/thriller starring Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sothern, Jennifer Billingsley and James Caan.


The telephone... So near, yet so far
Cornelia Hilyard (played by de Havilland) is a wealthy middle aged woman living in a 3-story mansion with her 29 year old son Malcolm. Following hip surgery, Cornelia has a private elevator installed to help her commute from floor to floor.
Shortly after Malcolm leaves for a weekend away, there is a power failure, which leaves Cornelia trapped in her elevator, stranded between floors. A virtual prisoner in her home, Cornelia is robbed and terrorised by a drunk, a prostitute and a gang of 3 thugs.

Watch the trailer:


The opening title sequence

The opening title sequence is well crafted with montage shots of some disturbing images intercut with the credits. Some of the images include a dead dog, and a young girl rolling her roller skate over a homeless man laying in a gutter. This presents the spectator of a preview of the disturbing images to come.


Key themes

'Lady in a Cage' is a social commentary of 1960s United States, and the degradation and decaying of family values in society.

Firstly the rise of gang warfare and violence is presented with the gang of thugs breaking into Cornelia's home, and violently robbing and damaging her property. The film also explores violence against women with Randall beating his girlfriend Elaine for being smart, and also the scene with Esse pushing his knife against Sade's neck.

'Lady in a Cage' also plays on sexuality:
  • The scene where Randall, Elaine and Esse are in the bathroom together hints at a potential male-female-male threesome
  • Malcolm Hilyard, still living and home, is depicted as being homosexual having addressed the letter to his mother as "Dear Darling", with one of the thugs Esse commenting: "This whole letter. It sounds real... what you might say... gay", immediately followed by Randall asking Cornelia "Is your litle boy married?"

A domestic terror

The core of what makes 'Lady in a Cage' so terrifying is most of the events occurring within Cornelia's home - the one place where she should feel safe and secure. It leaves us as the spectator to consider, if Cornelia is unable to be safe within her own home, how can we be safe outside of our homes. In a desperate plea to stop the terror, Cornelia even makes an offer to her attackers: "I'll pay you to stop this animal orgy, $10,000 in cash."


The second domestic terror lies within Cornelia's mind. Towards the end of the film Cornelia's journey of self discovery brings her to the realisation of her controlling and manipulative maternal behaviour, driving her son to the verge of suicide. 


Did you know...

  • This was James Caan's first "credited" feature film role - Caan had previously appeared uncredited in 'Irma La Douche' (1963).
  • Joan Crawford was initially intended to play the role of Cornelia Hilyard
  • The film was refused certification in the UK by the BBFC and remained banned until 2000

Closing remarks

'Lady in a Cage' is a gripping, suspenseful and claustrophobic psychological drama with three brilliant, yet very different performances:

  • James Caan delivers a chilling and disturbing performance as the lead thug in his first credited feature film appearance
  • Olivia de Havilland (as usual) does not disappoint with her powerful portrayal of the victimised Cornelia
  • Screen legend Ann Sothern also steals every scene she's in as drunken prostitute, Sade.

Sadly this film was ahead of it's time and considered to be obcene. Had the film been released 10 years later, I am almost certain the three aforementioned performances would have received Oscar nominations.

When this film was first released in 1964, it terrorised and disturbed film goers, but watching it in 2012 we do not feel the same degree of terror. The disturbing thing about this is the realisation as to how desensitised we are to view films with violence and sadistic themes.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed 'Lady in a Cage' and would strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys suspense and thrills. 

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