Posted on March 22, 2020

Lady in a Cage: Early, Devastating Home Invasion Film

Dawn Keetley

Lady in a Cage (1964) is a deeply disturbing film. I was, to put it bluntly, shocked that a film this dark was made in the early 1960s. It anticipates some of the more nihilistic horror films of later decades—notably Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997 and 2007), and Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers. Indeed, these films seem at times explicitly to reference the earlier film.

Luther Davis wrote the original screenplay for Lady in a Cage, and the film was directed by Walter Grauman. Aside from its unremitting bleakness, the film is also notable for its stars: Olivia de Havilland plays Mrs. Hilyard, the eponymous “lady in a cage,” and one of the invaders of her home, Randall Simpson O’Connell, is played by a young James Caan in his first substantial role in a feature film.

Watch Paramount’s very cool trailer for Lady in a Cage, which begins with a warning!

Lady in a Cage begins on a hot summer day at the start of a holiday weekend. Mrs. Hilyard, physically disabled by a hip injury, is trapped by a power outage in the private elevator that allows her travel up and down the stairs of her luxurious home. Despairing at first about the prospect of dying from dehydration, her problems soon become more immediate when her home is invaded by five people—first by a recovering “wino” called “Repent” (Jeff Corey) and a former prostitute, Sade (Ann Sothern), and then by three young “hoodlums,” Randall, Essie (Rafael Campos), and Elaine (Jennifer Billingsley). The two former characters are older and seem to want, fairly straightforwardly, to rob the wealthy Mrs. Hilyard. The three young characters’ motives are less clear and more disturbing. To a greater or lesser degree, they also have theft in mind, but they also seem to enjoy tormenting the wealthy woman suspended in the cage, especially Randall, who turns out to be a sadist of the first order. They are also willing to murder to ensure they get away with their ill-gotten gains.

Lady in a Cage could very easily have been a socially-conscious film about wealth disparity. The contrast between Mrs. Hilyard’s lavish home and the clear poverty of all five characters who invade it is starkly apparent. And the sight of Mrs. Hilyard dangling above them in a gilded cage is a powerful visual metaphor for the (seeming) untouchability of the very rich.

Before her entrapment, the mise-en-scène emphasizes de Havilland’s seemingly untouchable privilege

The film is not, however, a socially-conscious film about the plight of the poor in the post-World War II US. Lady in a Cage is about how despicable humans are—especially the poor. The two older characters who try to steal from Mrs. Hilyard have some redeeming qualities: “Repent” is trying to overcome his addiction to alcohol and Sade, in the end, proves herself to have some compassion for her fellow human beings. Murder, it seems, can still repulse her. But even “Repent” and Sade never seem to consider the possibility of helping Mrs. Hilyard escape from the elevator in which she is trapped. For them, her entrapment is an opportunity for a little enforced redistribution of wealth.

James Caan and Jennifer Billingsley as the invading sadists

The three young people, however, are depicted as pretty much irredeemable—hence my comparison of Lady in a Cage to films like Last House on the Left, Funny Games, and The Strangers. Although it should be said that the characters in Last House on the Left do, in the end, display some humanity, as Wes Craven gives us a scene in which the characters seem momentarily appalled by their rape and murder of a young woman. Lady in the Cage does no such humanizing.

Indeed, aside from the home invasion films I mention above, Lady in the Cage most reminded me of Adam Green’s 2010 Frozen. In this film, three characters are trapped on a ski lift as a blizzard moves in and as they contemplate trying to get down, wolves appear below, finally devouring two of them.

As in Adam Green’s Frozen, the animals gather under the trapped victims

The three young people who invade Mrs. Hilyard’s home are akin to Frozen’s wolves—utterly devoid of humanity as Mrs. Hilyard dangles above them. Indeed, Lady in a Cage explicitly aligns the young people with animals. As Mrs. Hilyard says at one point, “Even animals would have more simple compassion than you.” She herself declares her humanity, “I’m a human being. A thinking, feeling creature,” and from then on Randall calls her, sarcastically, “our human being,” as if he agrees with her claim that they themselves are not human beings. Indeed, Randall directly accedes to her claim that he is an animal: “Right now I am all animal. . . . A lot of time, I can’t even make animal. I’m what is called inmate. An animal is better.”

That Randall is poor and a clear product of the criminal justice system could have induced sympathy for him, but his portrayal repels sympathy. He evinces no real desires other than to torment and to kill. Of the three young invaders of Lady in a Cage, he is the least interested in financial gain. That’s not what motivates him. In one of the most telling moments—one that directly anticipates Bertino’s The Strangers—Randall declares he is going to kill them all. “Repent”—whose name implies he clings to Christian moral law—asks Randall, “Why? What have we done? Why us? What have we done?” Randall simply replies, “You’re here. . . . You’re here, pop. That’s what you done.” A virtually identical line is reprised in The Strangers, when one of the victims asks the three silent, masked invaders, “Why are you doing this to us?” One of the intruders replies, “Because you were home.” The masks of Bertino’s intruders also evoke Lady in a Cage—and I’d be surprised if Bertino hadn’t been at least unconsciously influenced by Grauman’s film.

The masked invaders of Lady in a Cage

Something of a controversy erupted around Lady in a Cage when Bosley Crowther condemned it in his New York Times Review of June 21, 1964. He called the film “socially irresponsible” in that “it tends to become a sheer projection of sadism and violence for violence’s sake.” He continues that, as far as he saw it, the “obsessive purpose” of the film was “to generate what amounts to a kind of mania or intoxication of horror in the viewer.”

You can read the New York Times review here: SOCIALLY_HURTFUL_’SPAN_CLASS

In response, Lady in a Cage’s writer and producer Luther Davis wrote a letter to the editor defending his film, arguing that he had tried “to dramatize and make emotionally comprehensible one of those seemingly inexplicable outbreaks of violence which are the hallmark of our times.” He tried to argue that everyone –“all men and women”—were likely to identify with the tormentors, and “exhilarate” in doing so. “I wanted to turn the screen into a giant mirror that would suddenly show those of us watching our own faces.” He wanted to show that the villains in Lady in a Cage are not, as in so many popular melodramas, a “race apart.”

You can read Davis’s letter to the editor here: Lady in a Cage, Davis, Film_on_Violent_Youth_Agitates

In this, I have to say that I think Davis failed. The young tormentors, at least, are in fact depicted as a “race apart,” despite what Davis claims he tried to do. It’s hard to believe that too many viewers did—indeed could—identify with them. I’m reminded of Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (2016), which similarly depicts three intruders intent on stealing someone else’s wealth. Alvarez did a vastly better job of humanizing all of his characters, of blurring the lines between victim and victimizer. Lady in a Cage humanizes no one, although it comes closest in Olivia de Havilland’s character, who at least—by film’s end—comes to realize some of the ways in which she is a monster.

Olivia de Havilland’s final (and only partial) moral reckoning

Despite what writer Luther Davis says, Crowley is right when he says that Lady in a Cage—like Funny Games and The Strangers—offers “a sheer projection of sadism and violence.” But that’s alright. That’s in part what horror films are for. We need art that explores aspects of human nature that are, well, inhuman. What is powerful and deeply disturbing about Lady in a Cage is precisely one of the functions that horror film serves in our culture. It reminds us of the capacity for inhumanity in the human race.

You can stream Lady in a Cage on Amazon:

Related: Check out our article on Frozen and Everest and our review of the brilliant The Strangers.

And here’s my list of 7 thought-provoking home invasion horror films. I would definitely add Lady in a Cage to that list.

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  • Wade Harrell May 29, 2020 at 6:22 pm

    Thank you for this review, I saw this years ago on TV and I too was shocked about how disturbing it was, especially considering when it was made. I tuned expecting to be amused by some dated exploitation cinema and instead came away genuinely disturbed! You didn’t mention the spectacular opening credits sequence! Various scenes of urban decay that suddenly change to stark expressionistic abstract images, all set to discordant music. That alone was like a surrealist film by itself, and ramps up the tension before the movie even starts. The little girl casually rolling one roller skate across a drunk (or maybe dead?) wino on the street was especially memorable!

  • Adam G September 20, 2021 at 4:03 am

    I first saw this film as a kid on TV in the 1970s and I remember how shocking it was. I was very taken aback at the time at how weird it was and how uncomfortable it made me feel. And as a result it probably made me more cynical and mistrusting of people (strangers especially) in general. Yes it had that strong of an effect! And then the ending, someone’s head being run over by a car — graphically. I still can’t believe they showed that on TV. And yet at first glance it has that old-timey, benign B&W look to it that puts you into a false sense of security. Thinking about what typically went on in early/mid 1960s movies (aside from Psycho) at that time you wouldn’t really expect this to be that disturbing. That I still remember it after all those years after deliberately putting it out of my mind really says something! Not a pleasant movie to watch but still somehow very effective. I just happen to run accross the movie poster/DVD cover on the internet and that brought it all back to me.

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