Black and White is the New Orange

Normally, catching up on an old movie would be summarized in a quick paragraph for a Shorties entry. Today's movie, however, has a lot of backstory on this blog. 1950 is a banner year for cinema here at the Slice of Lime. I'm often talking about how All About Eve is essentially the perfect movie. I checked in on Born Yesterday in order to understand how Judy Holliday might have deserved the Oscar she won that year. Conclusion: She didn't.

In the comments on that entry, my friend Kevin and I discussed the difficulty of obtaining a copy of Caged, which he recommended. Guess what obstacle just got overcome! Netflix finally put it on their catalog, and I immediately jumped on board, excited to see how Eleanor Parker stacked up against the other Academy Award nominees of that year. Imagine my surprise at finding her performance the least interesting thing about this incredibly remarkable movie.

Caged tells the story of Marie Allen (Parker), a woman sent to prison for being an accessory to a $40 robbery her husband died committing. She is wide-eyed and innocent; her part in the crime almost totally involuntary. She's thrown in with hardened criminals and a viciously cruel matron who abuses her when Marie can't pony up the cash for favors. She makes friends, as well, and does her best to fight the temptations that are offered to her in exchange for help with the parole board or post-prison employment. Spoiler alert for a 65-year-old movie: She gives in, becomes a hard, brittle person, and although she is eventually released, it's implied that she won't be out for long.

The movie serves as a pretty open criticism of American prisons, and how they fail the people they claim to want to rehabilitate. Agnes Moorehead plays the warden, the sole character who treats the inmates as human beings, and who watches helplessly as the system chews them up. But that's just the surface story, and as I alluded to above, Marie struck me as a nucleus for the more noteworthy stories orbiting around her.

Hope Emerson portrays the sinister matron, who takes delight in physically and psychologically torturing her charges. The inmates are a varied bunch as well, from the brittle queen bee who runs a jailhouse syndicate, to the society woman who can't believe that someone of her breeding is in prison, to a girl whose tenuous hold on hope snaps when her assured parole falls through. Once these women start interacting, no amount of hysterical speeches or pregnancy can make Marie the focus of my attention; I just want to spend the whole movie with Kitty Stark.

Another aspect of the movie worth mentioning is its thinly-veiled moralizing about homosexuality. Since I'd never seen this movie before, I didn't recognize it when it was specifically referenced in the sad and important documentary The Celluloid Closet. In this movie, as in many movies of the era, lesbianism is a horrible curse that befalls hard-hearted women who come to decidedly unpleasant ends. I'm not specifically knocking this film for this message that nice girls better watch themselves, lest they be targeted by such women - just pointing it out as an artifact of the times.

Overall, it's a pretty ripping movie that I really enjoyed. The message never crosses over into preachy sermons. The prison action is never played for saucy exploitation. And the downbeat ending must have been quite a shock to audiences at the time, who were more used to seeing pretty young ladies tie up all their problems in a neat little bow by the end credits.

Certain years are considered benchmarks in the history of movies. 1929. 1999. After watching this, I think it's pretty settled that 1950 earns a place on the list as well.

Caged: A-


Post a Comment

Copyright © Slice of Lime