For my second week in Elliot Lavine’s 50’s film noir class, we’re presented with a dynamic double-bill: a film full of women where few hold any power, and a film with only men – and, for once, a woman in charge.
Before the “women in prison” film devolved into pure exploitation, there was Caged. This 1950 film noir stars Eleanor Parker as Marie Allen, a naïve, pregnant young widow sentenced to serve one to fifteen years for armed robbery. Despite the efforts of a kindly, reform-minded warden (Agnes Moorhead), Marie’s incarceration is a descent into hell. She falls prey to the sadistic matron (Hope Emerson) and casts her lot with a group of hardened criminals who want to speed up her parole and then place her on the outside as a professional shoplifter. Marie, a good girl, endures and resists . . . until her family abandon’s her. Her baby is born and put up for adoption, her best prison friend commits suicide, her parole is denied by a noxious, all male board, the sadistic matron shaves her head and throws her in solitary, and the kitten she smuggled in as a pet is killed in a riot. In the end, an embittered Marie is transformed: her soft voice becomes a snarl, she smokes cigarettes like Bette Davis in All About Eve instead of Bette Davis in Now Voyager, and she exits the prison, her parole fixed by the mob, and steps forward into a life of crime. Warden Benton watches the girl go and then turns to her secretary and says, “Leave her file open . . . she’ll be back.”
I’ve seen Caged several times in my life, and I never laughed once, despite the tendency to dismiss the plot as a string of cliches. Part of this is because the film is beautifully acted. Parker’s transformation transcends melodrama. Carl E. Guthrie’s camera hovers over her tear-streaked face as her innocence slowly drains from it. The fine array of actresses playing her cellmates – including Betty Garde, Ellen Corby, and Olive Deering – allow us to glimpse the humanity underneath their angry, broken exteriors. Best of all, Hope Emerson, as Matron Evelyn Harper, is simply terrifying in her depiction of cold-blooded sadism. Her ample form and cold, dead eyes show us that not all bad girls in noir have to be femmes fatales, although, clad in her gaudy print dress, Emerson gives it the old college try.
The other aspect of Caged that lifts it above the litany of prison movies and TV programs that followed is its backstory. The screenwriter, Virginia Kellogg, had earned an Academy Award nomination a year earlier for the James Cagney crime drama White Heat. In order to properly research the prison system for Caged, Kellogg worked with authorities to get herself jailed on false embezzlement charges. She lived in four different prisons where she, ahem, soaked up the atmosphere.
It’s fascinating to compare the result to Brute Force, the 1947 prison drama we watched in our last noir class. There, Burt Lancaster commiserates with the guys in his prison block about how the women in their lives landed them in stir. Caged, on the other hand, is an indictment of a system where men victimize women. Marie is in jail because of her husband, a loser who unsuccessfully robbed a gas station, and her stepfather, who has enslaved her mother and rejected Marie. The other prisoners talk about the guys that did them wrong, turning them into criminals and prostitutes and, after one too many beatings, murderers. Then there are the men who float in and out of the movie: the elderly, unfeeling parole board, the oily politicians who promised eighty thousand dollars for a medical budget and deliver eight. One well-placed pol is Evelyn Harper’s cousin and continually prevents her suspension or firing for all her misdeeds.
Prison reform movies – and Brute Force is another example – tried to shine a light on how society shuns prisons, failing to provide the funds and the education to rehabilitate inmates, working too slowly to replace the cruel staffs of the past with enlightened reformers. (There’s always an impassioned speech by the warden reminding us that prisoners are human beings, which usually serves to show us how ineffectual a reform-minded warden is without the support of the government and the compassion of the citizenry.)
Marie learns her lesson about men. Her whole transformation is a result of male indifference for the female prisoners’ plight (although, in a brief scene at the end, we see that civic-minded women lack the same compassion.) Finally, Marie is faced with a decision: the powerful lesbian Smoochie (Jan Sterling) offers her criminal work outside, while Millie, the oldest inmate there (Gertrude W. Hoffman), implores her to stand up tall, find a decent job and a good man, or, like Millie, she’ll end up a lifer. After all she’s gone through, is it any wonder that Marie sides with the lesbian?
Our understanding expands if we view Caged from yet another lens, that of its director, John Cromwell. A prominent stage and screen director since the early days of sound, Cromwell distinguished himself as a purveyor of films with strong social issues and powerful, sometimes controversial, performances by its stars. He guided Bette Davis through a role no other actress wanted, that of the heartless waitress Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934). He successfully launched the American careers of Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr in Algiers (1938). He transformed Carole Lombard from a screwball comedienne to a compelling dramatic actress in Made for Each Other (1939). And Cromwell helmed one of the best WWII pictures about the families left behind: Since You Went Away (1944).
By 1950, despite a long string of prestigious films, Cromwell was in trouble. A lifelong Roosevelt Democrat, the director’s political activities had captured the interest of the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee. Working at RKO became increasingly intolerable for Cromwell once it was bought by Howard Hughes, a notorious anti-Communist. He was loaned out to Warner Brothers in 1950 to make Caged, and by 1951, he was blacklisted. He would only make one major film after this (1958’s The Goddess) and returned to the stage for the rest of his career.
This information is important because it offers another lens through which we can watch Caged – as an indictment on the men who have allowed our systems to rot through indifference, greed, and hypocrisy. The prison system is hopelessly corrupt, and the female inmates’ fates are decided by men who neither understand them nor care about what prison has done to them. Marie enters this world and, after a pep talk by the ineffectual warden, is introduced to the Matron who explains that girls who “do her favors” – meaning those who can get her money from their families, who show her respect and shower her with gifts and information – these girls will live the good life in prison. Marie has nothing to offer, and so despite being pregnant, she is made to scrub the floors.
Thus Caged can be viewed as an indictment of another corrupt government system – HUAC, which systematically ruined one life after another with phony charges, all for a cause based more on fear and power-mongering than on truth. The men who step momentarily step onto the screen in Caged don’t know or understand the women whose lives they control and whose arbitrary decisions, based on their desire to hold onto their position or a bad mood caused by a faulty hearing aid, lead these prisoners to suffering, ruination and death. And if that sounds melodramatic, read a book about the House Un-American Affairs Committee; that’ll open your eyes.
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“This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours – or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.”
This week’s exploration into female empowerment in noir was a double bill, and yet in our second feature there is nary a woman in sight. The Hitchhiker (1953) has the distinction of being the first and only classic noir to be directed by a woman and the only one without a single woman in its cast. In the middle of a thriving acting career, Ida Lupino had stumbled, albeit willingly, into directing when Elmer Clifton, hired by Lupino to direct Not Wanted in 1949, suffered a heart attack and couldn’t continue. As a producer/director, Lupino found herself drawn to hard-hitting films of social significance with female protagonists tackling polio, rape, and other challenges never presented onscreen with such candor.
For The Hitchhiker, Lupino and her ex-husband Collier Young took a story by Daniel Mainwaring (another victim of HUAC’s machinations) based on the real-life exploits of a serial killer named Billy Cook, who in California in 1950 murdered six people and kidnapped three others, including a sheriff’s deputy who he forced to drive him out to the desert where the deputy was left to die but managed to survive and return to civilization. Cook was captured, tried and sent to the gas chamber in 1952.
Escaped con Emmett Myers (William Talman), the “Kansas Desperado,” is on a killing spree, hitchhiking his way across the states, robbing and killing each person whose car he stops. The headlines are plastered with his exploits, but that doesn’t stop two friends, Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) from picking Myers up in Baja, California on their way to a fishing trip in Mexico. Although he has quickly dispatched his other victims, the sadistic Myers has deeper plans for Roy and Gil. They are to drive him to the edge of the Baja peninsula, where he will grab a ferry in Santa Rosalia and cross the Gulf into Guaymas. Along the way, he torments the men with ominous threats and forces Gil into a shooting match, with Roy forced to hold up cans as targets. As they stop to camp, Myers taunts his hostages with the fact that their lives are essentially over; it’s only a matter of how well they cooperate that dictates the moment he will kill them.
When I think of Edmund O’Brien, I immediately jump to his tour de force performance in 1950’s D.O.A.. It is . . . not subtle, but it is effective. As for Frank Lovejoy, it feels like this 50’s noir class is amounting to a Lovejoy film festival. The first week (which I missed) included the film Try and Get Me! starring Lovejoy as a family man turned criminal, while the actor played good guy detective Brub Nicolai in In a Lonely Place. Here, both men prove to be masters of subtlety, turning in deeply affecting performances of men in dire circumstances, whose friendship never wavers. But this movie belongs to William Talman as Myers. I knew Talman was something of a Hollywood bad boy. His outrageous lifestyle got him suspended from Perry Mason, where he played Hamilton Burger, the most inept district attorney in fictional history. Only the pleadings of Raymond Burr (doing his best Mason impression, I guess) could get the producers to allow Talman to return. As the murderous hitchhiker, the actor creates one of noir’s most frightening monsters, possessed of one bad eye that never closes, controlling every moment of this journey up to the second-to-last shot.
As they travel through Baja toward Mexico, Myers compares his life, where his parents “took one look at my puss and told me to get out” with the comfortable married lives Gil and Roy have. “You guys are soft,” he tells them. “You’re up to your necks in IOUs.” He forces Gil to hand over the watch his wife gave him and boasts that he had the same watch when he was seventeen. “And I didn’t buy it – I took it.” Myers brags that he has always been on his own, taking what he wants. All Gil and Roy want is to survive. “As long as he needs us, we’ll stay alive,” Gil tells Roy before cautioning him not to act rashly. “When he gets ready to jump us, we’ll jump him, not before. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.” Myers taunts their desire to protect each other, calling it a weakness.
This taut, three-character morality play is interspersed with documentary-style scenes of the federal authorities closing in on Myers, who has already told Roy and Gil that once the police realize the connection between them, he will kill them. For Myers, strength is bestowed upon the man holding the gun. His downfall is in underestimating the friendship and faith of his two captors, and the intelligence both of the authorities and the Mexican people Myers has disparaged throughout his journey.
Both in her direction and her writing, Lupino displays a mastery of noir, a genre she in which she had performed in films like They Drive by Night and On Dangerous Ground. She is fortunate to have cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca at the camera. Musuraca was a veteran of noir, filming Stranger on the 3rd Floor, one of the earliest examples of noir, and Out of the Past, one of the best. He was responsible for two of Val Lewton’s most striking films at RKO, Cat People and Curse of the Cat People.
Lupino only directed a few more films, including one of my childhood favorites, The Trouble with Angels, before moving to TV, where she acted and directed (her episode of The Twilight Zone, called “The Masks,” is one of the creepiest in the series). Still, with one film, she showed how noir could be just as tough filtered through a woman’s perspective, even as The Hitchhiker’s focus on male relationships deepens the story and lifts it above other low-budget thrillers of its kind.