You ever watch one of those movies that disturbs you just enough to want to go back and dig around in its innards? Figure out what about it caused you to walk away thinking about it? And have it stick in your head?
I have been watching “film noir” movies lately. Don’t ask me why, other than my psyche loves their sick, twisted approach. Gaslight. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Bette Davis was robbed of that Oscar!) Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte. (Why did no one warn me?? That was amazing, but at the same time, holy hell, Batman! And I can’t even say why without revealing a massive spoiler! WAH!)
Last night, I watched Lady in a Cage. And for some reason, that one is sticking with me enough to want to talk about it. In it, Olivia de Havilland plays a woman with a recently broken hip, who gets stuck in her temporary elevator in an electrical blow out, in the middle of a holiday weekend’s heat wave. Her frantic buzzing for help draws a drunk into her home, who takes a few things and goes home to recruit a prostitute to help him “clean out the place.” All of them get more than they bargained for when three hoodlums track him to the house with her stuck in a cage eight feet off the floor.
You could call the film “trashy,” and it is – in a clean 60’s sort of way, it makes all kinds of horrific implications that would have been shocking at the time, but it never shows much, tantalizing the audience with information but leaving them horrified at the underlining message the director is sending… the general “apathy” of human beings. We cringe along with Cornelia, stuck sweating in her elevator, when the hoodlum, Randall, beats up his girlfriend upstairs (and she likes it). We watch in disbelief and horror as people pass an alarm bell and ignore it, or drive past a house being robbed, or don’t see a woman screaming for help on the side of a busy street. The director sets up this apathy early, when he shows cars careening pat a dead dog lying in the street. Someone’s pet has died, and no one gives a damn. Just as they don’t give a damn until the climax literally stops traffic.
It’s an effective movie in its underlining menace, suspense, and the mounting horror of knowing a murderous psychopath is loose in the house. At first, Randall wears a stocking over his head. That doesn’t stop Cornelia from taking a jab at him – oh, he’s a product of the foster system, “so this is what my tax dollars are paying for!” she snarls.
Then, he takes off the stocking. And she gets worried. Now, she’s seen his face. She can recognize him. He knows that. It’s all to make her suffer the dread of her impending but inevitable death. He kills someone in front of her. The audience also watches what she cannot see—him almost drown one of his cohorts for ogling his girl in the bath. The actor is James Cann, better known a few years later for playing the brutal but likable Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Here, he slithers around the house like a snake, and you are not just sure what else he might have in mind for the “rich lady.” There’s enough sexual menace in his performance to make you worried.
The movie isn’t perfect and it doesn’t tell us what happened with a plot twist at the end, but it sticks with you. And, it made me think. It works, because home invasions are real. Murders are real. There are recorded cases of people paying no attention to screams for help or to someone stumbling around bloody and battered. It wasn’t their concern. None of their business. So they didn’t do anything. Women are vulnerable. Invalids are vulnerable. And psychopaths exist. That’s why it works, why it scares us, and why thrillers are an effective form of storytelling, because everyone has a basic survival instinct. We want to see the main character survive.
But why do we “look”? Why when we pass a dead dog, even if it makes us sad, do we still look? Why if we pass an accident do we look? Are we hoping to see something or nothing? Is it morbid curiosity? A strange detachment? Vague curiosity about death and others’ misfortunes? Why do we scare ourselves with psychological thrillers or horror movies? Why does evil interest us so much? Is it because it’s against our nature, or very much a part of it? Do we look at it to avoid looking too deep inside ourselves? If we did, what would we find? Or is it we love the jolt of adrenaline fear gives us, like the terrified kid who rides the roller coaster six times for the “high”?
I love to be frightened. In a safe way. And I love to think about the mental mindset behind evil, because I can’t fathom it, can’t understand it, and in the end, that’s a good thing. It means I am not a psychopath.