Given it's lurid, sensationalistic title and subject matter, if CAGED (1950) had been made later in the decade it would have certainly been played as an exploitation film, redolent with camp elements. As is, CAGED is a tough, sober look into a modern women's prison. It's hard-hitting, frank and adult in its' approach to the subject matter.
Eleanor Parker stars as 19-year-old Marie Allen, who is sentenced to 1-15 years in prison as an accomplice to a botched armed robbery that left her husband, Tom, dead. Young Marie is all wide-eyed innocence, a lamb among the wolves. Oh, and she's pregnant.
She soon finds an ally in Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), who ran a shoplifter ring on the outside and now has some amount of influence within the cell block. The warden, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), is also sympathetic to Marie, as she is to all of the inmates. She believes in reformation rather than punishment and tells Marie she will eligible for an early release within nine months if she keeps her nose clean.
But that's easier said than done because Marie soon becomes the target of the wrath of sadistic matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), a tank-like woman who delights in tormenting the prisoners. One young woman, June (Olive Deering), commits suicide when she's denied release and Marie is sent to isolation with a brutally shaved head for inciting a near-riot, a melee sparked by Marie's illegal possession of a kitten. By the way, the kitten dies in the ruckus. Hows' that for hardboiled?
SPOILER: Harper is eventually killed by one of the prisoners and Marie strikes a deal with the devil, vice queen Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), who pulls strings and arranges Marie's release into the hands of her waiting mobsters outside of the prison gates. Marie's file is kept open by Warden Benton because she knows Marie will be back.
CAGED earned three Academy Award nominations including Best Actress (Parker), Best Supporting Actress (Emerson) and Best Writing (Story & Screenplay): Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld.
Director John Cromwell and cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie drench the film in noir shadows and claustrophobic framing, along with smooth tracking shots among the double bunks of the cell block where sixty women are incarcerated, punctuated by heartbreaking close-ups of shattered, broken women.
CAGED tracks the trajectory of an innocent young woman into a hard bitten, bitter and cynical criminal in waiting. Parker and Emerson are both magnificent and the supporting cast is uniformly fine. Recommended.