With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform.
Thanks to the hot popularity of Robert Aldrich’s you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it thriller “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” hagsploitation movies starring your favorite screen dames nearing or passing their prime were briefly all the rage in the 1960s. “Lady in a Cage,” a claustrophobic and fright-filled horror picture directed by Walter Grauman, was the grand (and fleeting) entrance into the hagsploitation genre for then-48-year-old Olivia de Havilland, who died just this past weekend at the age of 104. The film was excoriated upon release, when The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther deemed it as “socially harmful.” And yet all these years later, “Lady in a Cage” remains a doozy.
De Havilland wasn’t even the studio’s first choice to play Mrs. Hilyard, a moneyed widow recovering from a hip surgery who gets stuck in her mansion’s (excruciatingly slow) service elevator during a power outage. Paramount Pictures chased everyone from Joan Crawford (too on-the-nose, especially after 1962’s “Baby Jane”) to Rosalind Russell (who turned it down). The film, written by Luther Davis, was partly inspired by the New York City blackout of 1959. Less than half a decade after the murders committed by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, which went on to inspire “In Cold Blood,” it’s easy to see how “Lady in a Cage” also sought to tap into American fears of home invasion, because the film very quickly pivots to a break-in thriller as cheesy and overwrought as it is downright disturbing.
As she lies helpless, Mrs. Hilyard’s home is broken into by a pack of grotesque hoodlums straight out of a Fellini cast gone to the insane asylum. The group is led by Randall, played by James Caan in his first screen role. Menacing and even a bit sexy in a stocking over his head, Caan is clearly doing a Marlon Brando bit here, talking out one side of his mouth, hirsute and hobbling as a conveyance of masculinity. The rest of the gang includes hysterical, painted blonde Elaine (Jennifer Billingsley) and the shrieking, id-like counterpart Essie (Rafael Campos). Throughout the movie, this sick trio enacts an orgy of violence, mayhem, and sexual assault, as Mrs. Hilyard watches from her prison. At one point, she has a chance to escape, but is too afraid of the potential drop, as the elevator has stopped just below the threshold of the second story of her home.
“Lady in a Cage” becomes more fascinated by the triad of monsters that have broken into the house, leaving Mrs. Hilyard sweaty, panicked, and alone in the elevator. When she finally does escape, in a dramatic sequence that pits her against the three invaders, the movie takes another hairpin turn, rattling the skeletons in the closet of Mrs. Hilyard’s issues with her son: It’s revealed that he’s probably gay, both through the explicit suggestion of Randall and also through the movie magic of the time that allowed discerning viewers to read between the lines. (In the film’s opening scenes, her son Malcolm is dressed and styled as being obviously fruity.) It’s also heavily suggested that Mrs. Hilyard’s son may or may not have killed himself, thanks to a scrawled-out letter he leaves behind before taking off for the rest of the movie.
Did their too-close relationship, as so many closeted-gay male characters had with their mothers in old Hollywood movies, drive him to his death? You might think of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1959 Tennessee Williams adaptation “Suddenly, Last Summer” — where Katharine Hepburn, also an aging dame, is just a bit too close with her son Sebastian Venable. He dies a horrible death.
The shoot for “Lady in a Cage” apparently lasted just two weeks. That explains the movie’s feverish atmosphere and frenetic pacing. De Havilland has a whale of a time with this role, throwing herself with terrorized delight into the film’s crazy Oedipal antics. Upon release, Time Magazine said that the film “adds Olivia de Havilland to the list of cinema actresses who would apparently rather be freaks than be forgotten.” If a performance like this makes you a freak, then who wouldn’t want to join the circus?
“Lady in a Cage” is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.