LES FEMMES FORTES: Caged and The Hitchhiker

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.

Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) enters prison

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. 

Hope Emerson and her girls

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. 

The kitten

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.

Marie leaves prison – and all hope – behind her

*     *     *     *     *

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. 

Ida Lupino directs Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy

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. 

William Tallman

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. 

29 thoughts on “LES FEMMES FORTES: Caged and The Hitchhiker

  1. Sounds like you guys are going in very unusual directions. Never been convinced that CAGED was real Noir but will definitely give it another go after your detailed look at it. Lupino is a fascinating figure, great to see her work represented in the course. The pedant in me makes me point out that Musuraca also lit Lewton’s SEVENTH VICTIM (an incredible film), GHOST SHIP and BEDLAM as well as the CAT films. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d say that neither CAGED nor THE HITCH-HIKER are even remotely film noir. THE HITCH-HIKER gets labelled as film noir because people want to be able to say that Ida Lupino directed a film noir. It’s incredibly important for some people to be able to say this. But she didn’t direct a film noir. She directed a fine little crime thriller. I’d buy THE HITCH-HIKER as a psychological thriller, maybe.

      And she wasn’t trying to prove herself by proving she could direct a film noir because at the time she made the movie nobody in Hollywood had even heard of film noir. She was trying to demonstrate that a woman could direct a tough crime thriller and she made her point.

      If movies like these two are counted as film noir then the term loses all meaning.


      • I think Film Noir is so amorphous a term that it can withstand a WIP flick and a Lupino suspenser 😁 My DVD of CAGED was released originally by Warners as part of a “Cult Camp Classic” collection, so go figure. I sometimes think that it’s the arguments about Film Noir”s sheer indefinability that keeps it going. Who cares about the label, it’s what’s inside that matters.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I know that Caged is exactly the sort of film that ends up getting performed onstage in San Francisco in drag. I’m not surprised that the film has been packaged as a camp experience. It’s melodrama, and lots of people are going to want to push into the idea of camp. Not that I’m a spoilsport, but I think that, for the people who have never seen the actual film before and then view it only as a camp experience, it would be a damn shame.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It’s fiendishly difficult to make a women-in-prison movie that doesn’t have a slightly camp vibe, or a slightly kinky vibe. Partly it’s because it’s so hard to get an actress to produce a sufficiently powerful performance without going over the top. A subtle restrained performance won’t really work.

            I can’t think of any women-in-prison movies, whether from the 40s or the 70s or the 80s, that isn’t going to be treated by a modern audience as an exercise in high camp.

            In retrospect the explosion of interest in midnight movies, cult movies and camp movies back in the late 70s created a situation in which audiences can no longer properly appreciate a lot of the movies of the past. Since that time audiences have approached so many movies of the past in a snarky mocking way. They expect these movies, especially genre movies, to only be capable of being appreciated in a so-bad-it’s-good way.


      • If movies like these two are counted as film noir then the term loses all meaning.

        I’d say that statement is a trifle . . . melodramatic. I didn’t argue that Lupino was trying to prove anything, but I’m sure the idea of showing the boys she could make a “ripped from the headlines” crime thriller was highly appealing. She had been encouraged to produce and direct since working with Raoul Walsh in 1940. I know that she was dead serious about this film and went to Billy Cook himself to obtain his permission to tell his story; however, the rules of convicted felons not being allowed to profit from their crimes through the media stopped her.

        I’d be interested in hearing your arguments for why The Hitchhiker is not noir. Meanwhile, here are some arguments as to why I think Caged is: the fatalistic world view, the sense of hopelessness at the ending, the corruption in high places, the brilliant camerawork, including lighting and imagery that we see in other noir films. This film is a nice companion piece with Jules Dassin’s Brute Force – another noir prison drama. I think Caged is the better film.

        I don’t think film noir as a genre lends itself to nice, neat categorizations. I think it can be a powerful element that co-exists with other genres, so that there are noir musicals and noir romances . . . or at least noirish ones.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’d be interested in hearing your arguments for why The Hitchhiker is not noir.

          I don’t see any noir elements. No classic noir protagonist. There’s terror, but there’s not the classic noir sense of impending doom with the protagonist bringing about his own doom, there’s no femme fatale. It doesn’t look noir.

          That doesn’t mean that I’m knocking the movie, or knocking Ida Lupino. And it doesn’t mean I’m saying that it isn’t a hard-edged tough movie. Just because a movie is good and it’s tough and we like it doesn’t mean we have to call it a film noir. We should be able to say “this movie is not film noir but it’s a really excellent crime thriller.”

          I think that mostly these days the term “film noir” means “I really liked this movie.”

          All genre labels are difficult to define precisely but we use them because they’re useful. It’s useful to describe The Searchers as a western and 42nd Street as a musical. Film noir was once a useful term. It described a particular subset of crime movies that had certain distinctive features. But it’s been so devalued that it’s become useless.


          • I guess your classic noir is a flawed, doomed protagonist led on to destruction though his own flaws. Hey, sounds like classic drama! Maybe Macbeth is noir!

            I saw Talman in City That Never Sleeps and he was terrific again as a tough killer. I tend to think of that as noirish cause there’s so much focus on him but then there’s Gig Young as the nice young cop. I suppose you could say, again, that it’s “just” a crime, or police, drama.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I guess your classic noir is a flawed, doomed protagonist led on to destruction though his own flaws. Hey, sounds like classic drama! Maybe Macbeth is noir!

              If The Hitch-Hiker is film noir then Macbeth is noir. So is Othello.

              We need to stop being pedantic about definitions. Marnie is a western. It has horses, and guns. Mary Poppins is gothic horror. Mary Poppins is basically a witch isn’t she?

              It’s the same with novels. We need to stop being pedantic about definitions. Crime and Punishment is a detective story. So is Tess of the d’Urbervilles.


              • Well some people do claim Crime and Punishment as a crime novel. And The Great Gatsby.

                But, honestly, Macbeth would easy to modernize as a Forties noir film, wouldn’t it? Here’s a definition I got off a net search:

                a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace

                If that ain’t Macbeth, what is?


                • Well some people do claim Crime and Punishment as a crime novel. And The Great Gatsby.

                  Crime novels yes, but not detective stories. Crime fiction is a very broad term. Any novel in which crime plays a significant part is a crime novel. Detective stories are a sub-genre of crime fiction. Detective stories have distinctive features which set them apart from other crime novels. To qualify as a detective story a story has to have a detective (he can be a policeman or an amateur) and the process of finding a solution to the crime has to be central. There has to be a detective and there has to be detection. I don’t think any of this is controversial?

                  And I think that the distinction between detective stories and crime fiction as a whole is important. If someone asks me to recommend a really good detective story I’m not going to recommend The Great Gatsby or Red Harvest or The Postman Always Rings Twice. Or Macbeth. The distinction between crime fiction and detective fiction is useful.

                  The same applies to movies. Any movie in which crime plays a significant part is a crime movie. It’s a broad genre. Within that very broad genre there are sub-genres, movies which have certain distinctive features in common. In my view film noir is such a sub-genre. If someone asks me to recommend a good film noir I’m not going to recommend The Italian Job or Murder on the Orient Express.

                  The fact that the boundaries between film noir and crime movies in general are fuzzy doesn’t mean that it’s foolish to recognise that there really are distinctions.

                  To me, calling a movie that lacks a femme fatale a film noir is like calling The Maltese Falcon a ghost story even though it lacks a ghost.

                  If you define genres too loosely you end up calling Breakfast at Tiffany’s a musical because after all Audrey Hepburn does sing a song in it.


                  • I think it’s a mistake to require the presence of a femme fatale in a film noir, but I do think one could argue that one or two exist in Caged, certainly in Lee Patrick’s character (as she leads our heroine down the road to ruin) and maybe even Hope Emerson. Of course they don’t work the same as, say, Brigid O’Shaunessy (who appears in a film that many argue is not a film noir. Also, Red Harvest contains a detective – a very striking detective – and he makes deductions throughout.

                    I think it would be a mistake to 1) limit a lot of these tales to one genre and 2) think we are all ever going to agree on the genre placement of all the movies we see.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • I think it’s a mistake to require the presence of a femme fatale in a film noir,

                      That means abandoning the one outstanding distinctive characteristic of film noir.

                      At this point in time I think the term film noir is so meaningless that it would be better not to use it at all. For a genre term to be useful it has to convey some useful information or make something easier to understand or to provide some kind of context. Or make it easier to see interesting connections between movies.

                      At this point in time film noir is a misleading term which muddies the waters rather than clarifying them.

                      When people started talking about The Maltese Falcon and Mildred Pierce as film noir the term had already lost whatever usefulness it might once have possessed.

                      Maybe it would be more useful to describe crime movies as hard-boiled, medium-boiled and soft-boiled.


                • a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace

                  That describes a lot of gothic horror movies. So clearly it’s an inadequate definition.


    • Speaking of Ida Lupino, she was in a women-in-prison movie as well, Women’s Prison (with Cleo Moore) in 1955. Another Hollywood women-in-prison movie worth a look is Edgar G. Ulmer’s Girls in Chains (1943). And of course Ladies They Talk About back in the pre-code era.

      It’s a genre that kinda faded after the 50s. Until Jess Franco’s 99 Women revived it in spectacular style in 1969.


      • I think my favourite remains “Angel’s in Chains” – that episode of Charlie’s Angels when Sabrina, Jill and Kelly go undercover at the Pine Parish Prison farm. Surely the stupidest hour of 1970s American TV not produced by Glen A. Larson 😆


  2. Great ‘breakdown’ of these two films! I’d like to see more of Eleanor Parker’s work and Hope Emerson, what an ironic name for someone who generated such icy malevolence on screen. The Hitchhiker is an excellent piece of work. I wish Lupino had gone on to direct more big budget features.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s amazing that Lupino got this far in a period that frowned on any sort of female empowerment. I don’t think we always give her the credit she deserves for the ceilings she shattered.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t forget Lois Weber. She was directing feature films in Hollywood before Ida Lupino was born. Dorothy Arzner was also directing major Hollywood feature films in the 20s and 30s.


  3. I agree, for someone who knew him as Hamilton Burger, seeing his portrayal of a psycho killer in The Hitchhiker is something of a shock.


  4. What’s interesting about the Hollywood women-in-prison movies of the 40s and 50s is how dishonest they are. Not one of those movies dares to question the fundamental assumptions behind imprisoning women. Most of those women were in prison for prostitution. The women’s prisons were part of a misogynistic system set up to control women. Mostly it was a system set up to police women’s sexual lives.

    But those movies were made under the misogynistic moralising influence of the Production Code, which could also be seen as an attempt to police women’s sexual lives.


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