To celebrate the wonderful Eleanor Parker, I had originally planned to write a piece on her most famous creation: the Baroness Schraeder of The Sound of Music. However, while it is definitely a lovely performance, (and God knows we all adore her in it —especially in those gorgeous party dresses) I feel it is no among the very best of the great body of work she has left us. Taken as a whole, Ms Parker’s films are a fascinating array of variety, the best possessing a combination of style, heart, and an enduring vision which still speaks to the viewers of today. Such a film, I believe, is John Cromwell’s Caged, which has been sadly overlooked in recent years.
The opening sequence of Caged sets the sombre tone which pervades the rest of the film. The camera, and consequentially, the viewer, sits along with a group of women being carried off to prison. One of these is Parker’s Marie Allen, a naïve young woman charged with armed robbery. Even at the end, the circumstances of what happened are not particularly clear. What we do know though is that Marie is but nineteen, and lost her husband during the hold-up.
No one speaks, and yet there is no silence either; the clattering of machinery never ceases, and the wailing siren seems only to get louder. It is dark, save for a tiny barred window. In other words, what is presented here is the visual equivalent of the film’s title: the idea of being caged.
Caged was among the earliest films to deal solely and fundamentally with the theme of women in prison, and the first of many in Hollywood to be set entirely in a women’s correctional facility. Looking back now, it is difficult to fathom why the trend did not begin sooner. Undoubtedly, Caged was daring for its time, (and actually still is) but watching the film today —it’s almost as if black and white cinematography was made to photograph this stark and cruel world. The shadows of the bars obscure the prisoners’ faces, and light and darkness, swirling in a midst of shadows, also serve in illustrating the young Marie’s fall from grace.
Even today, I just can’t quite get over the transformation of Marie Allen. Some argue that it comes almost too abruptly, that the change from a wispy, silent little figure to the darkly bold and hardened cynic is much too sudden. I, however, think the opposite is true. The final scenes depicting what Marie Allen has become are shocking and upsetting, but they are not sudden.
To understand the progression of Allen’s character, it is necessary to look at one of the most crucial, and truly tragic moments of Caged. At the start of this scene, the young woman is in a state of quiet elation; Marie is the happiest we have ever seen her, for she has given birth finally to a healthy baby boy. As she speaks excitedly to her mother on the other side, a harrowing realisation slowly dawns on Marie; her mother does not want the child. Marie has no one else, and her little boy will have to be given up for adoption.
Her eyes begin to sparkle with tears, and her lips begin to quiver. She pleads with her mother, begging her to reconsider, but of course to no avail. As her mother gets up to leave, Marie raises her voice for the first time, crying and screaming for her to come back. It is this that marks the beginning of the end.
When Marie Allen walks out of prison, out of her ‘cage’ after fifteen months, she is indeed a changed woman. After fighting down the shady propositions of various inmates relentlessly, Marie does not fall at the final hurdle per se; rather she is stripped metaphorically and physically of any chance of returning to goodness. When a secretary asks the prison manager what to do with Allen’s file, the manager tells her to keep it at hand, because “she’ll be back”.