Max Steiner does the music for Caged, which is strange to think about because Caged barely has any music. Director Cromwell instead emphasizes the silence, especially as the film opens. Right after the opening credits, which do have music, Caged gets very quiet. “Silence” reads all the walls in the women’s prison where protagonist Eleanor Parker finds herself. At its most obvious, one could say Caged is the story of Parker going from first time offender to repeat offender, which is besides the point. Parker’s fate is decided right from the start. There are four principal characters in Caged, two inmates, two prison employees. None of them have any free will, it’s just how they come to realize it.
Cromwell, thanks to Carl E. Guthrie’s photography and Owen Marks’s editing, is able to do a lot with the filmmaking. Caged’s silences–waiting for a noise, praying for more silence–is just one of the many techniques Cromwell uses to get the viewer into the cage with Parker and everyone else. Caged should feel stagy at times; same sets, over and over. The outside world is just a glimpse and a bland glimpse at that. There’s not even a world over the wall, when the inmates are in the yard. They, along with the viewer, know there’s a world out there but it’s left to the imagination for everyone. Caged just concerns this place and these people.
Virginia Kellogg’s screenplay juxtaposes innocent Parker and Agnes Moorehead’s compassionate superintendent. Both women have bad role models–Parker has Betty Garde’s hardened con woman while brutal matron Hope Emerson wants to sway Moorehead back to viciousness. Once it becomes clear Parker isn’t just the subject of the film–Caged might have some social commentary to make, but it isn’t trying to propagandize–but the protagonist and the viewer has to stick with her, follow her hardening, it becomes even more frightening. Most of the scares happen in the first half of the film, but the second half, as despondence sets in, is even more terrifying.
Parker is singular. There aren’t adjectives to describe her performance. Moorehead’s great, Emerson’s great, Garde’s great. The supporting cast is all good. Look fast for Jane Darwell.
Caged is an outstanding film.