You wouldn’t think that a major studio release from 1964 would retain the power to shock, but the nasty little Olivia de Havilland vehicle “Lady in a Cage” still carries a tawdry charge 49 years after it opened in theaters.
Warner Archive has just released a DVD version of the Luther Davis-scripted and Walter Grauman-directed shocker about a wealthy Los Angeles woman who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage and sees her home overrun by a quintet of debauched lowlife characters.
Cornelia Hilyard (de Havilland) is a poet who lives with her “bachelor” son Malcolm (William Swan) in a relationship that seems more than a little unhealthy in the opening scenes in which he is packing for a long July 4 weekend trip.
Cornelia recently broke her hip, but gets around pretty well with a cane. She can’t make it up and down the stairs, however, so an expensive, exposed elevator has been installed to get her from the living room to the upstairs landing (the “cage” of the title).
There’s a strong “Suddenly Last Summer” vibe to the proceedings as it becomes clear Malcolm is gay and his mother only slightly oblivious about why he would still be living with her (and going off on trips with — he says — married friends).
Director Walter Grauman gives us hellish glimpses of the outside world on a scorching hot day — a little girl running her roller skates up and down the battered leg of a man passed out in the street, cars packed with vacant fun seekers roaring past the Hilyard home (in a very creepy, surreal touch, the residential street is unrealistically packed with cars going much too fast in both directions, as if they are on a freeway).
We get snippets of news reports that give the opening an end-of-the-world vibe — the picture was shot right after the Cuban missile crisis pushed the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
Cornelia is heading upstairs in the elevator, just after Malcolm takes off, when a power cut leaves her suspended nine feet in the air — just a tad too high to jump down without serious injury.
The woman triggers an alarm that first draws a wino (Jeff Corey) into the house after he spies expensive liquor through a window.
Soon, the derelict is joined by a hooker (Ann Sothern) who starts gathering together expensive objects she can pawn.
Cornelia helplessly watches the collapse of civilization played out in her own home, from a cage hanging over the squabbling and increasing violence of the five invaders.
de Havilland is terrific in a role that often recalls her star turn in “The Snake Pit” — she begins to go slightly mad, plotting her attack on the vile intruders with pieces of metal she pries off the walls of the elevator (“Stone Age, here I come!” Mrs. Hilyard says to herself with bizarre glee).
The situation is set up so believably, and the behavior of the invaders is so perverse, that “Lady in a Cage” gets creepier with each new scene (we begin to suspect that everyone will suffer terribly before the day is over, including Mrs. Hilyard).
The fact that the central role is played by one of the classiest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age makes the movie almost unbearably gripping at times — if Olivia de Havilland can be sucked into such moral chaos, what hope do the rest of us have?
“Lady in a Cage” was just one of many horror/suspense pictures featuring faded Old Hollywood stars that came out in the wake of the huge success of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” in 1962.
But I doubt that Joan Crawford or Bette Davis would have been nearly as effective as de Havilland in this deeply disturbing thriller — she acts the hell out of the part, never falling back on movie star habits.