Caged proves to be a stark, even uncompromising picture for the 1950s. Director John Cromwell had a long career in Hollywood, helmed some quality film noir, and became a subsequent casualty of the Blacklist, but this just might be his finest effort.
Furthermore, despite being an actress of some acclaim, I must admit that even I forget about Eleanor Parker aside from her well-remembered appearance in The Sound of Music (1965). But if Caged is any indication, she is most certainly worthy of more credit. She freely channels a bit of the flustered timidity of Joan Fontaine early on only to transform into a completely different person entirely.
It’s a film that dances on the complete opposite spectrum of George Cukor’s The Women (1939) another film that is dominated by the lives of female characters. In that case, the narrative is preoccupied with the intricacies of their frivolous catty ways and malicious gossip. Caged has not even a pretense for laughter.
Likewise, the scenes of incarceration bring to mind images of The Snake Pit (1946) and Shock Corridor (1964) but even those films were about mental illness and the lack of quality care, not so much the abominable corruption that begins to coalesce within prison walls.
Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is one of the first-time offenders who comes in with the new batch of prisoners. At only 19 years of age, she seems like no more than a girl and yet she’s already been married, had her husband fatally killed during a bank robbery, is pregnant with a child, and has an accessory rap pinned on her. That’s how Marie got where she is even if she doesn’t seem meant for such a hardened life.
Agnes Moorehead delivers one of her most sympathetic performances as a champion of rehabilitation who unfortunately is fighting a losing battle against the system as we soon see.
Some might remember the imposing Hope Emerson from Cry of the City (1947) but she leaves an even more indelible mark on this picture as the ever-necessary sadistic prison guard — an individual who sees little worth in her inmates — believing them to be animals to be treated as such. She is indicative of the institution as the cog that lays down the law and narrowly believes that there is no worth left in these women. They’re trash.
When everyone thinks that it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And in time as she comes up for parole and then has it spit back in her face, the changes begin to show in Marie’s face. It’s hardened. Her voice is tougher. She’s more defiant.
Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption (1994) was another character with unfortunate circumstances but he maintained his humanity in a dank place. You either get busy living or get busy dying. Yet being an impressionable girl Marie takes to heart the words of her veteran prison mates, “You get tough or you get killed.”
Maybe Caged outcome is easy to read and it ultimately succumbs to melodrama but there’s still something unnerving about the film on the whole with its overarching unsentimentality.
When I saw the name of famed composer Max Steiner as part of the production that was a tip-off but Caged rather audaciously functions in many sequences without any scoring and that lends to the overall sense of realism that pulses through this prison noir.
The utter irony is that the notes of “Rock of Ages” can be heard wafting through the corridors as Marie prepares for her final parole hearing and she makes it this time. But by now there seems little chance for redemption. She is intent on calling her own shots and not about to rely on anyone else. She’s gone beyond clinging and seeking shelter from the world around her. She doesn’t seem to need anyone. She’s become part of that world. The before and after are startling. They make for a harsh indictment of a flawed prison system.