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Tag Archives: Agnes Moorehead

Caged (May 19, 1950)

CagedCaged (1950)
Directed by John Cromwell
Warner Bros.

“Pile out, you tramps. It’s the end of the line.”

With those words we are plunged into the dark, unforgiving world of Caged, a masterpiece of the women-in-prison genre from director John Cromwell.

Caged is a tough, tragic, and intelligent film; it’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the women-in-prison genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not only is Caged a great drama, it’s also a feminist film. Some of the prisoners in Caged are victims of abusive husbands, many of them were forced into a life of crime by their husbands or boyfriends, and all of them are subject to a justice system run by men. Even the woman with the most power in the film, the reform-minded warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), has to answer to the governor and his officious underlings.

Like most prison movies, Caged focuses on a first-time offender, or “fish,” who’s new behind bars and has to learn the ropes. Her name is Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), and she’s serving time for driving the getaway car for her young husband, who was killed during the commission of a robbery that netted a mere $40. “Five bucks less and it wouldn’t be a felony,” says the woman in the prison office who types up Marie Allen’s intake forms. (The arbitrary and sometimes brutally unfair nature of the criminal justice system is a theme that runs through the film.)

Eleanor Parker

Caged wasn’t the first movie to feature scenes in a women’s prison, but as far as I can tell, it was the first women-in-prison film to take place pretty much completely behind bars.

There were movies in the pre-code 1930s that featured scenes behind bars in women’s prisons. And about a year before Caged was released, Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) proudly boasted that its prison sequences were filmed in a real women’s correctional facility. But the prison sequences in The Story of Molly X were a relatively small part of the whole film, and were the kind of violent and lurid exploitation most people normally think of when they hear the words “women in prison.”

Caged, on the other hand, is a great film with great performances. It’s a tragic story about a young woman who barely needed rehabilitation in the first place, and yet has everything systemically taken from her until she is a hardened criminal with nothing but criminality to look forward to when she’s released.

There are plenty of filmed women-in-prison stories that I’ve enjoyed, but I honestly can’t think of a smarter or more affecting one than Caged until the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black came around in 2013. However, I haven’t yet seen So Young So Bad, which was released in theaters one day after Caged. It’s the next film I’ll review, and we’ll see how it stacks up.

Caged will be shown on TCM Friday, February 20, 2015, at 1:30 PM (ET).

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Johnny Belinda (Sept. 14, 1948)

Johnny BelindaJean Negulesco’s acclaimed film Johnny Belinda stars Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute girl named Belinda McDonald who lives on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Wyman was awarded an Oscar for her performance at the 21st Academy Awards on March 24, 1949.

Johnny Belinda is based on Elmer Blaney Harris’s play of the same name. Harris was 62 years old when Johnny Belinda opened on Broadway in 1940. He was a busy man, and by that point in his career he had many plays, films, and screenplays under his belt. Even so, it can’t have been easy for him when the play was savaged by critics. Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune dismissed Johnny Belinda as “cheap melodrama” that was full of “shameless sentimentality.” Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, was even less kind when he wrote the following:

Now that Johnny Belinda has reached the stage, there may not be enough drama left to last through the rest of the season. Elmer Harris has shot the works in one evening at the Belasco Theatre. The mortgage is in it; also seduction, childbirth, death by lightning, murder by shotgun, a snowstorm, a Canadian Mounted in scarlet uniform and a court room scene. As minor diversions Mr. Harris throws in a lesson on grinding grain on a water wheel and a scene with a spinning wheel. Being a thorough workman, he also includes the kitchen stove and the kitchen sink.

I’ve never seen the stage play version Johnny Belinda, so I can’t say how sensationalistic or melodramatic it is, but Negulesco’s film version is an excellent piece of work. He took controversial material that could have easily become histrionic twaddle in the hands of a lesser director and used it to craft a deeply affecting movie.

Johnny Belinda has a terrific sense of place. Ted D. McCord’s stark cinematography depicts a windswept, beautiful landscape populated by desperately poor, uneducated people. (McCord was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score reflects the mostly Scottish heritage of the people of Cape Breton.

Ayres, Wyman, and Bickford

Much of the success of Johnny Belinda is due to its actors. Wyman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Belinda, beating out Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

Lew Ayres (nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award) plays Dr. Robert Richardson, the deeply caring physician who teaches Belinda sign language. Charles Bickford (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award), plays Belinda’s father, Black MacDonald. Agnes Moorehead (nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), plays Belinda’s aunt, Aggie MacDonald. And Stephen McNally, who plays the vicious brute who rapes Belinda, is a despicable villain of the first order.

Johnny Belinda received 12 Academy Award nominations — the most of any film in 1948 — but it only took home one Oscar; Wyman’s award for best actress. I think Johnny Belinda is an excellent, well-acted film. My only reservation about it is the use of a dummy in a murder scene that is one of the most egregiously awful things I’ve ever seen. If you can overlook that (and I can … mostly) and accept that its treatment of its themes are of its time and place, then Johnny Belinda is a film worth seeking out.

Johnny Belinda will be shown on TCM on Thursday, April 11, 2013, at 2:45 PM ET.

Dark Passage (Sept. 5, 1947)

Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage is the red-headed stepchild of the Bogie-Bacall movies.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married in 1945, and stayed married until Bogart’s death in 1957. They made four movies together — To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage, and Key Largo (1948). Of these four, Dark Passage is the strangest and the least widely acclaimed.

It was a bit of a critical and box office disappointment at the time of its release, possibly because Bogart’s face doesn’t actually appear on-screen until the picture is more than half over, and possibly because of Bogart’s involvement with the Committee for the First Amendment.

The Committee for the First Amendment was an organization that was formed to protest the treatment of Hollywood figures by the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Bogart later recanted his involvement with the organization in a letter published in the March 1948 issue of Photoplay entitled “I’m No Communist.”)

Dark Passage is based on a book by oddball crime novelist David Goodis. The film does a good job of bringing Goodis’s strong characterizations and nightmarish, occasionally surreal demimonde to the big screen.

For better or for worse, it also does a good job of bringing to life some of Goodis’s less powerful aspects, like his convoluted plots and his reliance on coincidence.

But just like the best of Goodis’s novels, the film version of Dark Passage doesn’t need to be plausible to work. It plays by its own rules, and when it works, boy does it work.

In Dark Passage, Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a man convicted of killing his wife who breaks out of San Quentin by hiding in a 55-gallon drum on the back of a flatbed truck. He manages to roll himself off the truck and into a ditch somewhere in Marin County. He strips down to his undershirt, buries his prison-issue shirt, and takes to the highway to thumb a ride. He’s picked up, first by a guy named Baker (Clifton Young), and then — when that little ride goes sour — by a beautiful artist named Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall).

She hides him under her canvases and wet paint so they can make it through a roadblock at the entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge, then she takes him to her luxurious bachelorette pad in North Beach. Why is she helping him? Because her own father was unjustly imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, and because she followed Parry’s trial, even writing letters to the editor protesting his treatment by the press.

For the first 37 minutes of Dark Passage, Bogart’s face is never shown, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. This P.O.V. style of filmmaking was pioneered by Robert Montgomery in his film Lady in the Lake (1947), but the technique works much better in Dark Passage, for a variety of reasons. First, the editing is more aggressive than in Lady in the Lake, which was essentially one long tracking shot designed to put the viewer in the shoes of the protagonist but that never quite worked. Second, there are third-person shots of Bogart in which his back is turned or his face is in shadows, which helps to break things up and make them more visually palatable.

Once Parry makes it to San Francisco, Dark Passage gets really weird. Irene gives him $1,000, new clothes and a hat, and a place to stay, but if you thought that qualified Parry as the luckiest escaped convict in history, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

He’s picked up one night by a cabbie named Sam (Tom D’Andrea), who not only recognizes him but believes Parry got a raw deal from the court system, and hooks him up with his buddy, Dr. Walter Coley, a plastic surgeon who can change his face.

Nervous about staying with Irene, Parry goes to see his friend George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson), a trumpet player who gives Parry a key to his place. Incidentally, we get our first shot of Parry’s “real” face on the front of a newspaper laid across his friend George’s chest as he lies in bed. The real Parry has a mustache, and doesn’t look much like Bogart.

But he looks exactly like Bogart after his trip to see Dr. Coley, who’s played by 67-year-old actor Houseley Stevenson. Dr. Coley is the most ghoulishly fun character in Dark Passage. Wrinkled, liver-spotted, and chain-smoking, Dr. Coley asks Vincent if he’s ever seen a botched plastic surgery job right before he puts him under, and the kaleidoscopic nightmare Parry has while undergoing plastic surgery is a real standout.

Even after the surgery, we don’t fully see Bogart’s face until more than an hour into the picture.

Until then, he’s covered with bandages, smoking cigarettes with long filters and communicating with Irene using pencil and paper. (Throw a pair of shades on him and he’d look like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man).

While the plot may be contrived and coincidence-laden, the characterizations are sharp, and the actors are all really good. Lauren Bacall has to carry the film for much of the first hour, and she delivers a really good performance. She’s much better at interacting with the camera than any of the actors in Lady in the Lake were. Consequently, the P.O.V. technique draws less attention to itself, and works fairly well.

When the bandages finally come off, Parry looks at himself in the mirror and remarks, “Same eyes, same nose, same hair. Huh. Everything else seems to be in a different place. I sure look older. That’s all right, I’m not. And if it’s all right with me it oughtta be all right with you.”

The fact that Bogart and Bacall were married in real life gives this line a little humorous subtext.

Hidden behind his new face, Parry is faced with another murder to solve, cops on his tail, a chiseler who hopes to blackmail Irene after he finds out she’s been shielding Parry, the presence of Irene’s old beau Bob (Bruce Bennett), and her shrill friend Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), who keeps dropping by and nosing around.

That Parry goes about solving his problems in a haphazard, roundabout way should come as a surprise to no one who’s familiar with the fiction of David Goodis.

Dark Passage may not be a perfect film, but it’s an intriguing and involving one. Sid Hickox’s cinematography is gorgeous, and the location shooting in San Francisco is really effective. It’s worth seeing at least once, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to see it again.