It’s a scorcher of a summer heatwave when Malcolm Hilyard decides to go out of town to see some friends. He’s stressed out and needs a break…mainly from his mother, Cornelia Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland). He lives with her and she is recently recuperating from a broken hip. Their relationship is strained, although Cornelia doesn’t seem to notice any problems between herself and her son.
To move around her three-story mansion, Cornelia has an elevator to transport her between floors. There are no worries to be had for her as she is left alone in her big empty house. She has not a care in the world until the power is knocked out (accidentally by her son, no less) and she becomes trapped in the elevator which is stuck between floors. With the jail-like bars of the elevator door, she is literally a lady in a cage.
Cornelia is not too scared at first because her elevator is equipped with an emergency alarm. The alarm works perfectly, but the front speaker box is drowned out by traffic noise and the one at the rear of the house only draws the attention of a wino. The wino promptly enters the home and steals what valuables he can carry to unload for a few bucks.
The wino, George, lets his prostitute-friend, Sade, in on his little secret. The house is defenseless, the woman can’t phone help from her cage, and the place is stocked with enough expensive baubles they can do what they want. With Sade in on it, they return to the house.
The problem for George and Sade is that while George was selling his haul, he attracted some attention from a group of hooligans: Randall, Elaine, and Essie. Randall (James Caan) and his crew show up at the house, very uninvited and unwanted, and claim the mansion as their own. They are not above killing anybody who has a problem with it.
Bedlam erupts, and poor Cornelia has a front row seat to it all. She watches the brutality and barbarism from her mid-air prison. She thinks all she has to do is bide her time until her son returns. Randall lets her know he found a letter from dear young Malcolm which suggests he may never be coming home, not alive anyway. With her hopes dashed and facing the bleakest of outcomes, minus air conditioning, Cornelia realizes she isn’t completely powerless.
Lady in a Cage is the kind of movie that will stick in your head. There are memorable images in it. I saw it for the first time one summer day when I was a kid, it was the midday movie on a local syndicated station, and something about the woman dangling in an elevator above a hotbed of violence and horror fueled my nightmares.
It doesn’t push the envelope as it once did, but it has aged gracefully, if not better, than some other, more famous films. I’m not saying it is as great as Psycho, but they pair wonderfully together since they are two sides of the same coin. You decide which is the wine and which is the cheese.