Caged (1950) DVD Review: Polished Prototype of a Sleazy Subgenre

You know when the words “Pile out, you tramps! It’s the end of the line!” are uttered by a grumpy, disgusted prisoner transport driver at the opening of a movie that you’re in for a good one. And while they say nothing quite changes a man like prison, it goes doubly so for women – something we all learned from numerous late-night viewings of those wonderfully sleazy Women In Prison (WIP) movies we watched as horny adolescents (and which we still view on occasion today as grown, oversexed men). But long before the days of those mouth-watering, gratuitous scenes of perfectly-shaped women soaping themselves up in the showers and wrasslin’ away within the South American jungles only hours after their escape from tyrannical wardens near and far, there was a different kind of women’s penitentiary picture.

In fact, 1950’s Caged makes for a grand double bill with Riot in Cell Block 11, as they both focus on the poor prison conditions. But that’s beside the point. For Caged, writer Virginia Kellogg – the same dynamic hand behind the penning of one of James Cagney’s best, White Heat – actually went undercover as a convict just to learn the dirty rotten truth about how women’s prisons were run in the late ’40s, and the end-result was a thrice Oscar nominated production that relentlessly tugs at your hamstrings. Well, by 1950 standards, that is. I admit subsequent subgenre films have tainted our sensibility for such a subject matter, but Caged still delivers a pretty hard-hitting slap across the kisser.

Here, gorgeous Eleanor Parker (one of the award nominees) delivers a standout performance as Marie Allen, an innocent 19-year-old girl who made the misguided mistake of helping her desperate husband as he tried (and failed) to commit a robbery. But her dearly betrothed is now nothing more than dearly departed, and Marie’s overwhelming new surroundings become all the more claustrophobic when she learns she is two months pregnant. As the months go by, young Marie is forced to give up her premature baby up for adoption when her selfish mother refuses to raise another child, and does her best to resist the charming promises of early parole and an easy life of crime by an in-house shoplifter (Betty Garde) with ties to slightly-big criminals on the outside.

Things take a turn for the worst for poor Marie as her corrupt, brutal bitch of a matron (the aptly-named Hope Emerson, whose towering, imposing, and downright fugly physique and overall diabolical performance earned her the second Oscar nomination) tightens her grip on the girls in her wing upon the arrival of a career “vice queen” (Lee Powell) with ties to reallybig criminals. Elsewhere, amongst the civilized population, the prison’s sympathetic superintendent (as played by the great Agnes Moorehead) argues with her evil matron and the local political bastards about how to properly run a correctional facility that lacks any sort of support from the state. Ellen Corby has a memorable supporting role as a wacky, slightly-insane inmate, and Taylor Holmes and Don Beddoe are the only prominently-featured men in this tale whose onscreen cast only lists its women (so there).

Originally included as the odd girl out in the since-discontinued triple feature pack Cult Camp Classics 2: Women In Peril from 2007, Caged flops its back to the outside world in this Warner Archive Collection re-release. Presented in a top-notch 1.37:1 aspect ratio with a crisp and clear mono English soundtrack, the disc also sports English, English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles and the film’s original theatrical trailer, which seems to be passing the film off something entirely different if you ask me. In addition to its three award nominations (the third of which went to writer Kellogg and co-screenwriter Bernard C. Schoenfeld, by the way), Warner remade the film in 1962 as House of Women – a title that sounds like it was more deserving of inclusion in a Cult Camp Classics pack more than Caged, as Caged most certainly knows how to hold its own.

Highly recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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