Release Date(s)1950 (June 27, 2023)
Studio(s)Warner Bros (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Caged was made at a time when prison conditions for incarcerated men and women were ignored by governments and the general public alike. A drama seen through the eyes of a young, newly arrived inmate at a women’s prison, the film is a raw, unglamorized portrait of day-to-day existence behind bars.
Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is a 19-year-old arrested and sent to prison after unwittingly serving as an accomplice to her husband’s aborted attempt at robbery. He’s killed during the crime, leaving her a widow with a baby on the way. As she goes through booking, with indifferent employees processing the new inmates in assembly-line fashion, she’s introduced to what life in prison entails. Recognized as a complete innocent, Marie is accepted by most of the hardened inmates but finds her life made miserable by floor matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), a massive, intimidating presence.
When we first see Marie, she’s being unloaded from a paddy wagon for intake. The film is entirely about her experience in the prison. Looking shocked and nearly catatonic in early scenes, Parker breaks down at night when the lights go out and she realizes her nightmare is just beginning. As the film progresses, she adopts a more self-assured demeanor, since she’s been acclimated to the ways of incarceration.
Parker plays Marie as naive, bewildered, and fearful of what will await her. As she becomes accustomed to the hardships of her new life, her manner of speaking gradually exhibits greater confidence. She relies on reactions to the brutal treatment she receives and the awful images she sees. Rather than overplaying, she gives a restrained, gripping performance. Her desperation and despair are evident in her lowered head, darting eyes, hunched shoulders, and clenched hands. She looks as if she wants to curl up and disappear. Though she looks older than Marie’s age of 19, Parker nonetheless conveys a quiet immaturity and shyness.
Hope Emerson makes the hateful Matron Harper one of the most chilling villains of the decade. Her size makes her tower over her charges, and there isn’t a trace of a smile except when—dressed to the nines for a night out with her boyfriend—she torments the inmates by suggesting her evening will wind up with more than dinner. Harper lords it over all the other prison employees as well as the inmates because she has friends in high places who insure that she remains immune from authority.
Warden Benton (Agnes Moorehead) is an enlightened overseer who has previously won beneficial reforms in other prisons but is fighting a losing battle in this one. She’s aware of Harper’s abuse of her position but can’t get her fired. So she must cope with a cancerous situation as best she can. Benton is not the typical warden in a prison tale—brash, insensitive, brutal. The contrasting roles of Harper and Benton emphasize that while some prison workers are evil and exploit the helpless inmates, others are decent and advocate for improved conditions.
Director John Cromwell doesn’t hold back in portraying the mundane routines of prison life, favoritism, physical and psychological brutality, and how those in powerful positions make a profitable sideline of selling desired items to inmates. The power of the film is still felt 73 years after its initial release. The Oscar-nominated script by Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld is built around intelligently written characters who are individuals rather than stereotypes. Olive Deering, Betty Garde, and Jan Sterling are all excellent and distinctive in their roles as inmates. Kellogg arranged to serve time in prison for research purposes, which likely explains the film’s authentic feel.
Caged was shot by director of photography Carl E. Guthrie with spherical lenses on 35 mm black-and-white film and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Warner Archive Blu-ray is sourced from a new 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative and looks terrific. The grey range is exceptionally well rendered, and the blacks deep and rich. Details such as Eleanor Parker’s hair, objects in Matron Harper’s drawer, Warden Benton’s office, and bunk beds in the prison dormitory are well delineated. The opening shot is especially memorable. We see only a light in the upper frame. When a door is opened, light falls on women prisoners in a paddy wagon. Parker, closest to the camera, looks like a deer caught in headlights. A close-up of Parker’s eyes when she’s gagged and her head is shaved conveys her terror. Sets are austere and appropriately institutional. The monochromatic photography captures the gloomy atmosphere of life in prison.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an option. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Parker speaks in a low, nervous voice when she’s processed at the prison. Matron Harper’s speech is cold and emotionless as she issues orders with impunity. A Christmas celebration sounds festive yet sad, as the inmates try to make merry, knowing that Christmas in jail is nothing to cheer. Ambient sounds of clanking jail doors and women moaning and screaming in the night enhance the horror of being powerless and alone.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Screen Director Playhouse Radio Broadcast (59:42)
- Big House Bunny Cartoon (7:10)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:05)
Screen Director’s Playhouse – This NBC radio program was based on the film Caged and broadcast “by transcription” on August 2, 1951. Eleanor Parker and Hope Emerson star, with a brief introduction by Eleanor Parker. The program includes original commercials.
Big House Bunny – In this 1950 Looney Tunes cartoon directed by Friz Freleng, Bugs Bunny escapes hunters by leaping into his rabbit hole and tunneling to safety. But he tunnels into the Sing Song prison where a guard named Sam Schultz assumes he’s one of the inmates. Soon Bugs is in stripes, but is able to trick Sam over and over as the hapless guard does his best to contain him. Bugs even resorts to a hangman’s noose and an electric chair in his contest of wills with frustrated Sam.
Caged is not only a gripping melodrama, but a powerful case for liberal reform. Instead of the rehabilitation it’s intended to accomplish, prison serves as a breeding ground for criminality. Day-to-day routines strip inmates of self-respect. We see Marie enter the “system” as a naive innocent, but she leaves a hardened criminal. Unlike many films of the period, the film does not have a neat, happy ending. As Marie is released from prison, we can only speculate whether she will be back.
- Dennis Seuling