There’s so much to enjoy in CAGED — thanks for recommending it, everyone. Trashing the later, inferior WOMEN’S PRISON with its very first line (“Pile out, tramps: end of the line!”) the movie benefits from the application of Warner Bros grit and gristle, making it an effective female counterpart to I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. Wisely, it dials down the brutality a little, but stresses psychological cruelty, corruption, and lack of empathy as being just as destructive as physical violence.
Agnes Moorehead plays the sympathetic governor, Eleanor Parker is the unworldly new girl, and a dorm-full of supporting players add physiognomic and dramaturgical variety (but no colour: while WOMEN’S PRISON kept its black cons in a separate cell, this stripy hole has apparently segregated them elsewhere entirely). But the movie’s secret weapon is twisted screw Hope Emerson. Coming on like a cross between a John Waters grotesque and Emile Myer in drag, she’s brutal, vicious, stupid and crooked in fifty diverting ways. It’s interesting to see a villain who isn’t very bright but is still horribly dangerous, just because of the barbaric situation and near-unlimited power she wields.
Kudos to Warners, and screenwriter Virginia Kellogg, whose other major credits are T-MEN and WHITE HEAT, showing her to be no slacker when it comes to the darker side of the screen. While on those movies she generated the original ideas and research but did little of the final drafting, she developed CAGED from scratch for ace producer Jerry Wald and wrote most of the script, with some assistance from Bernard C, Schoenfeld. According to Lizzie Francke’s book Script Girls, Women Screenwriters in Hollywood, Kellogg visited numerous prisons and even arranged a two week stay in one.
“Out of my prison observations, the most frightening thing of all was the realisation that the conditions that I saw exist even in our most enlightened states, and that few Americans have any idea of what is going on in their own back yards. Club women often visit the women’s penitentiaries in their states (on carefully guided tours). Invariably they come away impressed with the clean, modern buildings and the superintendents, most of whom are the capable officials recommended by penal-reform organisations. But the club women cannot see the rot inside the buildings.”
Despite these words, Kellogg’s script, as realised by John Cromwell, an able stylist able to fully channel the Warners look (noirish, darkly glossy yet “real”), is unsparing when it comes to the institutionalized emotional brutality and the way the effect of a prison sentence is to concentrate criminals together so that they become more corrupted than they were when they went in. There’s no human sympathy on display whatsoever until we meet Moorehead, and perversely, despite being the boss, she’s almost the least powerful figure in the film, sandwiched as she is between the politicians above and the staff below, neither of whom give her any respect or listen to her ideas.
Also, bracingly, the movie lays much of the blame at the door of men — the cons are in stir because of the men in their life, and the prison is a hell-hole because of the men who run it. A concerned doctor is the single male voice of reason, and the film sensible shoves him out the door as quickly as it can (unlike in WOMEN’S PRISON where Howard Duff hangs about preaching in his deep manly voice until you want to shiv him). Hope Emerson provides a note of variety since there’s no hint that any mere man has made her into such a spectacularly rotten a human being.
A round of applause too, to Max Steiner, for achieving some unusually subtle effects (he’s normally Mr Bombast, and we love him for it, but sometimes you have to put the big guns away). Cromwell’s use of sound and silence is exemplary too, with the myriad creakings and clankings of metallic bedframes making the dorm at night sound like a typing pool until the inmates settle. And a major character’s final choice to accept a life of crime rather than to play ball with a crooked system is played out, remarkably, under the distant echoing sound of a hymn being sung. Chills.