Caged (1950)

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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.

4/5 Stars

 

Cry of the City (1947)

cryofthe1Cry of the City is a lesser noir from director Robert Siodmak with an often arbitrary plot, but since he is a mainstay of the genre it’s still an interesting foray on a number of fronts. It’s visually striking and features a number of interesting characters, especially female characters of all sorts of ranges.

The film opens with thug Martin Rome (Conte) laid up in the hospital after shooting a policeman dead and receiving some crossfire. The police, including Lt. Candella (Mature), wait around uneasily wanting to make sure that the perpetrator will make it out alive, so he can pay for his crimes. He gets a visit from a specter of a woman (Debra Paget), who disappears as quickly as she arrived. Then a crooked lawyer tries to get him to take the rap for a robbery he didn’t commit. It would take the heat off one of his other clients.

The cops begin to canvas the streets for the mysterious girl since Rome will give them nothing. And then he escapes the prison ward, fearful that he and his girlfriend will be framed. But he’s still feverish and weak from his wounds so he calls upon the assistance of his family and an old girlfriend (Shelley Winters).

He then leads the coppers to the crooked masseuse (played by the imposing Rose Givens), but time is running out for Rome, and he is finally receiving retribution for the killings he committed and all the people he has used. It’s a chilling ending worthy of the noir world.

There’s something about Victor Mature that I don’t really care for. Maybe he just feels a tad plastic as an actor. However, it is a great deal of fun watching Richard Conte, because he can play meek fellows and baddies. In Cry of the City he plays someone in between who is wholly corrupt, but his family gives him a sliver of humanity.

The film has a Godfather-like Italian culture, and it draws a fine line between the good and bad guys since in many cases they come from the same background. In this case, Rome chose the road of excess and corruption while Candella took the so-called straight path that’s a lot less glamorous. The plot, on the whole, has uneven patches, unexplained jumps, and unanswered questions. Shelley Winters felt like a rather random addition to the storyline. And Debra Paget mysteriously shows up, disappears, and comes back again. Although the film doesn’t have much of a score, Alfred Newman’s music sounds vaguely familiar — could it be from another film? I think so.

3.5/5 Stars