Modern home invasion movies have lost their creativity, at least when compared to the classics. Sure, movies like The Strangers, You’re Next, and Breaking In are terrifying, but they’re as formulaic as movies come. The classic home invasion movies like Wait Until Dark, When a Stranger Calls (and its sequel When a Stranger Calls Back), and Death Weekend all had a twist that kept the concept fresh. And so does the 1964 melodrama Lady in a Cage.
After a decidedly Psycho-esque, inspired-by-Saul Bass title sequence, Lady in a Cage introduces the audience to Mrs. Cornelia Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland from Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), an elderly woman who is recovering from hip surgery and, therefore, needs an elevator to travel between the floors of her palatial home. When the power goes out, Mrs. Hilyard finds herself trapped between stories in the elevator – a Lady in a Cage. Her cries for help attract an alcoholic bum named George (Jeff Corey from Seconds) who, instead of helping her, steals a fancy toaster and takes it to a pawn shop.
With some money in hand, George picks up a prostitute named Sade (The Manitou’s Ann Sothern) and brings her back to Mrs. Hilyard’s mansion in an effort to impress her. Unfortunately for everyone involved, a group of punks – Randall (Rollerball’s James Caan), Essie (Rafael Campos from The Astro-Zombies), and Elaine (The Thirsty Dead’s Jennifer Billingsley) – also follow George to the home with the intent of grabbing some loot themselves. When they find the helpless woman trapped in the elevator, Randall and his pals decide to torment and torture her just for kicks.
The idea for Lady in a Cage came to writer Luther Davis (Black Hand, The Old Man Who Cried Wolf) when he heard a story about a woman who was stuck in an elevator during a blackout and was raped by a pair of men who heard her cries for help. Director Walter Grauman (Are You in the House Alone?, The Disembodied) emphasized the schlockier elements of Davis’ script, so the movie itself isn’t nearly as unsettling as its inspiration. Instead, it’s a masterpiece of melodrama.
And at the center of the melodrama is a Olivia de Havilland’s wonderfully campy performance. Before de Havilland was cast in Lady in a Cage, Grauman also considered Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Rosalind Russell for the role, which kind of gives an idea of the vibe for which the director was going (interestingly enough, de Havilland would step in for Crawford again that year in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte). She may have been a fourth choice, but de Havilland nails the pitiful desperation of the trapped woman, so much so that it’s difficult to imagine another actress in the role (except for maybe Crawford herself).
Olivia de Havilland’s overacting leaves room for James Caan to be terrifying. The young actor was already somewhat of a television staple at the time, but Lady in a Cage is his first real feature film. Even at that young age, Caan acts like a pro; he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in, and he also is fully aware that he is the villain of the picture. Of course, his performance is schlocky as well, but he’s more horrifying than campy as the sadistic leader of the young thugs. He plays Randall with a calm demeanor that explodes randomly, making him the type of character that everyone, both friends and foes, walks on eggshells around. And when he does explode, it’s with a big bang. Lady in a Cage is a good primer to show the movie world what James Caan would become in the coming decade with films like The Godfather, Brian’s Song, and Thief.
(Another fun casting note – keep an eye out for uncredited appearances from Scatman Crothers as a pawn shop assistant and Richard Kiel as a strongman thug, years before they were in The Shining and the Bond movies, respectively.)
While there are some instances of brutal violence and a few disturbing images of gore, most of the fear generated by Lady in a Cage is built off of pure suspense, particularly during the scenes when Mrs. Hilyard is alone in the house, desperately trying to think of a way out of her predicament. Cinematographer Lee Garmes (The Paradine Case, Scarface) emphasizes the isolation and hopelessness of the situation with creative camera angles and forced perspective, making the phone look exaggeratingly far away or the elevator appearing to be more than half a floor in the air. The tension is manufactured, but that’s what moviemaking is all about, and Walter Grauman does it as well as anyone.
Composed and conducted by Paul Glass (Bunny Lake is Missing, To the Devil a Daughter), the soundtrack to Lady in a Cage is packed full of frantic and frenetic jazz music. The awesome stripped-down ensemble score creates a spastic atmosphere while providing a hip beatnik vibe not unlike that of A Bucket of Blood. The cool bebop soundtrack would also probably shift a few units if someone reissued it on vinyl today. It’s that kind of an hipster score.
Not all modern home invasion movies are run-of-the-mill. Some, like Hush, Panic Room, and Don’t Breathe put a creative spin on the concept. But they don’t make them like they used to, and Lady in a Cage is proof positive of that.