Ah, the women’s prison movie. Typically, these films are on the bottom end of the class spectrum and feature gratuitous nudity and violence—watch Machete Maidens Unleashed! for a nice round up of at least part of the genre. In the case of Caged, though, what we have is something more along the lines of an exposé about women’s prisons. In that sense, it’s like The Snake Pit or I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. There’s no gratuitous sexiness here, no lingering shower scenes or forced lesbian romps with the prison guards. No, Caged is meant to be sobering.
Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is 19, pregnant, a widow, and headed to prison as an accessory in the botched robbery that killed her husband. Poor Marie is painfully naïve and as innocent as a newborn lamb. She’s completely unprepared for the reality of prison, and in fact is unprepared for her own pregnancy. A kindly superintendent named Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead) is sympathetic to Marie’s plight and promises her a job working in the prison laundry, since that will be physically easier. Sadly for her, Marie is placed in the ward belonging to prison matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), who is both on the take from the wealthier prisoners and a sadist.
Slowly, very slowly, Marie’s innocence is lost. When her child is born, her mother tells her that she can’t take the baby—her husband (Marie’s step-father) won’t allow it and she doesn’t have the ability or the nerve to leave him to take care of the child. Marie is forced to give the baby up for adoption. Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), who ran a shoplifting ring on the outside, offers Marie a job boosting from department stores when she gets her parole. Marie, intent on this being her one criminal offense, declines the offer. It’s something of a catch-22, though. With her step-father unwilling to let her return home and no job lined up, Marie can’t get paroled despite wanting to go straight.
Things change significantly with two events. First is the arrival to the prison of Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), who runs a vice empire and was an outside rival of Kitty’s. Second is the denial of Marie’s parole at her first hearing. Marie gets hardened from this denial, and seeing the new rude treatment of Kitty hardens her even more. Elvira bribes matron Harper into throwing Kitty into solitary, which Harper does with pleasure, throwing in a random beating for free. By this time, Marie is becoming hardened to prison life and is starting to walk and talk like a criminal. Even her former high-pitched quaver of a voice has dropped to a throaty growl.
The real emotion turn of the film comes when Marie finds a kitten that has wandered through the bars of the prison. Having a pet is against the rules, but Marie wants nothing more than to keep this cat for herself. It’s never stated but strongly implied that this kitten is something like a surrogate child for her. When matron Harper discovers the kitten, all hell breaks loose, and Marie ends up in solitary with her head shaved. At this moment, Marie’s future is determined and the film becomes almost bleak.
I have to admit that I wasn’t really expecting a great deal from Caged and I was pleasantly surprised by it all the way through. Yes, it’s pretty melodramatic, but it also feels pretty real in a lot of respects. The transformation of Marie from over-her-head innocent into a hardened felon happens a little too quickly as well, but is also pretty believable. When she has her hair cut off, the change is complete; she even looks like the criminal she is becoming.
Caged earned three Oscar nominations, and I’m hard pressed to disagree with any of them. The script is tight and well written. Each of the characters is given a sense of personality, although I’d love to see more from some of them. Eleanor Parker is excellent in this and at every stage in her evolution from innocent to criminal, we can tell how she got there. Hope Emerson is the template in many ways for characters like Nurse Ratched. There’s a palpable evil to her that comes out in every scene she is in and every sentence she utters. She’s pure malice, and nearly perfect in the role.
For as lurid as this film promises to be, it isn’t. It’s just damn good, and it’s worth your time.
Why to watch Caged: It’s film noir with nothing but femmes fatale.
Why not to watch: It ends even darker than most noir.