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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #19: Behind Bars (Opening Scene of Caged)

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 Why is this opening appropriate for a film about females at a women's state prison? In what ways has the design of this scene made the audience as "caged" as these characters in this opening sequence?

 

To me, I think that this is an appropriate opening for a film about females at a women’s state prison because I feel that it represents how metaphorically “caged” women were by American society at that time.

 

They are forced to ride in silence as two men lead them to a strange new place and they can barely see where they are going. Then once they get there, they soon learn that it’s just another box that is controlled by male supremacy hence the sexist and discriminating dialogue from the guard.

 

Metaphorically speaking, these women have already been in some type of prison in one form or another once they reach those doors.

 

They’re just trading their bigger prison (a domineering male society) for a smaller one (an actual prison).

 

In addition to this, I believe that the whole design of this scene from the long view of the caged windshield to the woman telling the protagonist “Take your last look at freeside, Kid” is meant to make the audience feel caged and helpless.

 

 What about this opening reminds you of the Warner Bros. house style? And why is that appropriate for this subject matter?

 

Since Warner Brothers was known for their fast-talking low-budget tough urban dramas with working class values, this opening reminds me of their attention to detail for toughness and realism.

 

For example, how the guard talks to the women and our view from the back of the prison truck highlight those themes.

 

In addition to this, I believe that their style is appropriate for this subject matter because we not only expect a degree of toughness and realism but we (the audience) want one when watching a film about prison.

 

To me, Warner Brothers figured out the right formula or style for movies that dealt with these subjects thanks to their work on other films like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang that looked to represent toughness and realism opposed to the often glamorous and escapist films that were being produced by other studios at that time.

 

Just based on this opening, how do you think film noir will influence this film's realism about life behind bars? In other words, why is the "substance of noir" appropriate for a story set inside a women's prison?

 

Although I haven’t seen this film, I believe that the “substance of noir” will be appropriate for this story set inside a women’s prison because it will give the audience the toughness and realism that it needs in order to experience and understand the journey of the protagonist along with her.

 

In addition to this, I also believe that the film noir style will create a dark yet realistic atmosphere for the world of the story and the characters of the film.

I also believe that this will be done with a twisted and often times cynical attitude that will represent the hopeless of the characters who inhabit the world of this story.

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  • Why is this opening appropriate for a film about females at a women's state prison? In what ways has the design of this scene made the audience as "caged" as these characters in this opening sequence?

It makes the viewer feel caged in a cell, and the only little bit of daylight you see is thru a little box, its to get you in the mood of the film.

 

 

  • What about this opening reminds you of the Warner Bros. house style? And why is that appropriate for this subject matter?

Warner Brothers means BIG, so your going to get a BIG opening, it starts with the main title music then it fades to only the sirens and the moving of the van in high speed. They were big in gangster films so this is no different. 

 

  • Just based on this opening, how do you think film noir will influence this film's realism about life behind bars? In other words, why is the "substance of noir" appropriate for a story set inside a women's prison?

We are that women in shock in the van, scared, frightened, (my guess innocent) and is scared for the new world she is about to enter. the last look of stateside/freedom is how we all feel, good bye outside world and hello to prison life.

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--Why is this opening appropriate for a film about females at a women's state prison? The image is constricted, down to a small square, as the view from a cell in a prison.

 

--In what ways has the design of this scene made the audience as "caged" as these characters in this opening sequence? We can’t see much. Most around the little bit of view is unseeable and unknowable. The closeup of the first character shows she doesn’t seem to know why she is there – and neither do we.

-- What about this opening reminds you of the Warner Bros. house style? And why is that appropriate for this subject matter? Starts with sound of siren, reminding us of the realism of Warner Bros. Treatment of the women is tough and the image of the city after “Grab your last look at freeside kid.” is the urban setting of Warner Bros’ style.

-- Just based on this opening, how do you think film noir will influence this film's realism about life behind bars? In other words, why is the "substance of noir" appropriate for a story set inside a women's prison? The violence and fear of film noir, the loss of control and feeling of fate controlling the future would certainly be appropriate for a story about prison.  The first character’s fear – her face shows she is overwhelmed with the situation and doesn’t seem to know why she is there – feels more real than the other women, who seem tougher and more accepting of their situation.

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There is a shift in noir films this week that leaves the mystery and hooks that were present in earlier noir films. Elements of noir such as dark lighting, gritty realism and engaging music are present, but the futility and hopelessness of situations enters. It's a side of life that is dangerous to enter, bleak for the soul and truly uncomfortable. As a viewer, I truly don't know if I want to enter.

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Caged,  at the beginning shows a typical style of the films that characterized Warner in the 1930s and 1940s. Vertigo, speed and police sirens in the background, we see the street from a few bars.... A group of women are taken to jail... Here begins the drama... We see face sorry and frightened of one of them... think without strength to get off of the car and is carried away by the guards with a vital reluctance, as if nothing mattered him already... one of the women, with more experience accompanies her, comforting her and guide to their new life behind a wall... A last look at the street shows the transit of a bustling city with its usual life. We have to see a classic theme within the police genre, life behind bars. The noir that we can detect, as well as the contrast between the dark inside the vehicle and the light that is filtered by a latticed window, is the drama that we begin to share identifying ourselves with one of the protagonists.

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The setting in a prison reminds me of another movie I watched for the first time last Friday, They Live by Night. In that film, we follow along in the footsteps of a young couple who are on the lam but nevertheless still imprisoned within the criminal underworld.  They want nothing more than to escape out into the daylight world of middle-class normalcy. They hold hands and watch from the sidelines as ordinary people play golf, go dancing, and go to work, and they long to break free of the underworld and join in such daylight activities of legitimate people. But that's just an impossible dream for them. They are always conscious that they are looking at the normal world from outside of it. That's sort of the sense I get from the opening scene viewed from the barred window of a paddy wagon.

 

There's one particular shot in the opening sequence from Caged that really seems to scream "Warner Bros." Right before the film cuts to the entryway into  the women's prison, we get a low angle shot of the side of a tall building from the point of view of the frightened woman who appears to be going  up  the river for the first time. She is looking up through a window (one without bars, this time) at the side of the  building, and on the window in the foreground there's this glob of dirt or bird poop or  something. For me, this shot is wonderfully emblematic of the Warner's house style: urban  realism shot from up so close that the camera's lens itself picks up some of the filth.

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The opening of Caged puts us in complete darkness save for the small screened opening in the metal cage of a vehicle. We hear a siren and we realize we are in a police wagon as it drives through the town. We can see the well-lit streets with everyday activities happening as we are actively watching out the screen and trying to make out where we are. We are in the wagon with whoever the actors are. We have not met them yet. We just know that we are active participants in this drama, unsure of our future and where we are.

The audience of the 1950s would not know much about women's prison. They might have seen prison dramas before, but mainly about men's prisons. Women's prison life was still a closed door to the public at large.

Warner Brothers were known for their gritty urban dramas and their concern for middle class issues. Telling a story of a women's prison and the conditions they face was definitely a WB specialty, and it didn't involve a lot of money as it could be filmed almost exclusively on the lot. Telling this type of story is perfect because the glitz and glamor of MGM would be out of place at a prison. No need for fancy clothes or posh living quarters. The more bleak, the better for this movie. This is a story about people considered "tramps," lower-class people that upper-class people spit on because they are not considered worthy of concern. Warner Brothers uses this movie to shed light on the conditions and the humanity/inhumanity of those inside the bars.  

This movie is about substance. It is about who these women are and who is in charge of them. How did they get here and how do they change once inside? It is the goal of the movie to humanize these women and to see that they are no different than we are when faced with impossible situations. Film Noir is perfect for this type of storytelling because it can get inside the head of the viewer and make them take part in the action - like the trip in the wagon. The viewer has to be a participant for the story work. We cannot watch it from above in judgment. We have to be down in it, experiencing with our senses what the women themselves are experiencing on the screen to create empathy for these women. Film noir gives this opportunity using formalism and realism to manipulate the viewer and achieve an emotional response.

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There is a truly bad bleak feeling, accentuated by the music, of looking to the bright outside through bars and even from some distance. Caged womanhood, no turning back? A reflection of being a grown up woman in the 40s 50s? When the shadow breaks it reveals the desperation, angst, by the trapped innocent. WB style, being a realistic urban setting seasoned by the tough cynical attitude. You look for a hint of sentimentality relief but that is overshadowed by the eyes of angst, underlined by the "grab a last look".

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Given my earlier remarks on the clothing worn by the female prisoners, I was delighted to come across THIS LINK (via BoingBoing) today showing some inmates from the early 1900s.

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You may not believe this, but I saw this film when I was a very young girl.  It was a special presentation on television.  I don’t know how I happened to watch it.  In those days television was kind of “safe,” so I guess my parents didn’t censor me from watching.  Well, anyway, I remember I was very upset by the movie because somewhere along the line there is a little kitten that gets killed in the prison.  Boy, did that upset me.  Even after more than half a century I can remember how I felt.  I am sure the kitten probably wasn’t injured, but at the time I believed it was.  The long and the short of it is I am not going to watch “Caged.”  I do love Eleanor Parker.  She was not only beautiful, but also a wonderful actress. I particularly loved her (dubbed by the singing voice of Eileen Farrell) in “Interrupted Melody,” which I saw many years after “Caged.”   But I absolutely do not want to see her holding that dead little kitten again.  You can never underestimate the power of the movies....

Thanks for the warning. I think I'll pass on this one in that case.

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The way in which the scene is designed and laid out for the viewer has us just as trapped as the characters within the film by withholding details and the sights of the outside world. We see only darkness and we can only hear some of the sounds of the street. As the characters are taken out of the vehicle that has transported them like trapped animals to their destination we finally see the outside only to realize we are bounded by circumstances that are not within our control and about to be confined to a world that will be much worse. A great fence shows that we are caged with the characters and are to endure what follows. The "substance of noir" will be highly appropriate for this film because with noir the grittiness, dark truths, and in-depth look into the prisoners' minds will be highlighted and we shall feel many feelings as we watch this film as opposed to a simple prison drama that may not add as much substance. Attributes such as existentialism may be explored in this film as the characters try to endure what they encounter, trauma, psychology and psychoanalysis may be explored as this may show how the conditions and their individual experiences will affect the characters' psyche, the way in which the "house" style and noir in general will show the many possibly interesting characters the prison may hold with attributes such as suave, grit, rough sensibility, cynical attitudes, etc. Noir also tackles the women's prison as well as opposed to just the men's and will show just how soft, kind, femme fatale like, rough, tough or sly they may be.

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Seeing only a small window with a grid in the middle of the screen definitely eludes to a claustrophobic and loss of freedom atmosphere that is in any incarcerated place such as a woman's prison. This “small window” effect also lets the audience see the POV of the 'caged' characters. The film noir elements such as dramatic music and the normal sounds of a patrol car alarm, squeaking brakes, and doors opening adds emphasis to what the audience sees and feels as a prisoner.

 

The opening scene shows an urban grittiness and social realism (that is the Warner Bros. House style) which works very well for prison stories such as in a woman's prison. Any prison life would be harsh and spartan and show grittiness to stay alive and sane in captivity.

 

The “substance of noir” is appropriate for a women's prison story because it is a fearful thing to be incarcerated. One is at the mercy of the prison guards, other inmates and one's own sanity.  In prison, one would be mostly in the shadows and occasionally let outside in the courtyard for exercise.

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The first person POV and narrow camera angle effectively arrests us and cages us with the protagonists. Once again, we're immediately immersed in the noir world.

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In my post about Border Incident, I mentioned the contrasts between the formalist angular composition of the "nightmare world" of noir characters (originating in Expressionist cinema), contrasted with the straight vertical and horizontal lines of the "normal" world. This effect is everywhere in this opening scene.

First, you see a kind of perspective of the inside of the paddy wagon as the credits appear, leading your eye to the tiny window, whereout lies "the real world."

Next, as the women are herded from the wagon, there are two sharp views of the prison exterior, either slightly skewed or emphasizing the angles of the structure. Then, the main character is told to take a "last look" at the town, and we see it through the iron bars of the prison gate, once again, all vertical and horizontal lines - "normal."

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Another opening leveraging the opening credits juxtaposed with some necessary action that might be too bland to eat two minutes on their own...like Kiss me deadly a vehicle that needs to get from point A to point B but the dialogue is not required - the siren and the music can convey the mood. Then you can literally drop into the action with some momentum. But until then, we're as lost as the characters are.

 

You can tell this is not a voluntary transport, but the screened/gated window is so small, who knows? Then with the remark "out you tramps" - and the first to descend are well dressed - one wonders whether this is an alcoholic roust as these don't seem to be criminals. Our main character seems to be confused, embarrassed and completely lost all at the same time...as are we until we see the prison sign and the call to get the last view of freedom for a long time.

 

Who are these people and what have they done? Fur lady seems to have been through this drill before. No one looks particularly dangerous or "hard", but this is a barred women's prison in a secured urban location. The driver treats the people with disdain, so it likely won't be getting any easier on the inside.

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Given my earlier remarks on the clothing worn by the female prisoners, I was delighted to come across THIS LINK (via BoingBoing) today showing some inmates from the early 1900s.

 

I absolutely ADORE their hats! 

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There was a statement made in one of the video lectures about scale...how these films were only ever intended to be seen on a giant movie screen...the window in this sequence makes that abundantly clear...what would've felt very real and imposing to the movie theater audience is turned teensie and barely visible by my computer screen. The "out you tramps" was very jarring but does set the scene more than anything else..that and the one girl who is the last to get out of the vehicle (indeed it seems to have been required that she be manhandled in order to get her out) her face is so descriptive. She's got a million thoughts in her mind, and you can see she's roaring between being terrified and being on the verge of tears. 

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In the 50’s one went to the movies knowing, generally, what he was about to see, thanks to Previews and press releases and magazine and newspaper articles. And so when we see the small window with the limited view of “the outside” we can be fairly certain that the camera is in a police van …the siren on the track reinforces this …and that we are on our way to a jail where the passengers will indeed be “caged”. Our expectations are fulfilled. (Thank god …this goes on far too long.)


            Once the door is opened the film proceeds, a la Warner Brothers with their fast action and dialogue …in eleven quick cuts…the static action energized by the editing.


            In the penultimate shot the camera shows us the view down the main street of a winsome all American little town. It seems to me rather preposterous that a state prison would have been built in that particular location and with a view of the prison foreyard. Thus I have lost the thread of this film already.


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The opening scene depicts a cage, especially with the wire mesh. But the surrounding blackness makes it seem more like a trap, like something you'd use to snare a rabbit. We know it is a vehicle and we know it is a police vehicle because of the sirens and the quick movements. It also shows how the world changes from light to darkness to depict there is a change taking place, a very dark change. This scene is telescoped so that it seems we are the ones catching our glimpses of what is taking placed outside the caged window. The window is small. As a viewer you find yourself straining to see more in order to make more sense of what is going on. This builds tension and places you in the scene.

 

All of this is very urban, a hallmark of Warner Bros. house style. There are only a few words spoken, but the guard's, "All right you tramps, roll out," and Agnes Moorhead's quip to get the last look of the other side are indicative of the quick, snappy, sharp dialogue of Warner Bros.

 

The darkness of noir fits perfectly with the story of a women's prison. You want the skewed camera angles, the dramatic lighting effects, the prominence of bars all to come forward. You certainly do not want the film to look like a Doris Day musical in color and cinemascope, all blonde, pink, soft, and polished. A women's prison should be gritty, hard, harsh, and bring out the thoughts of struggling women.

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Why is this opening appropriate for a film about females at a women's state prison? In what ways has the design of this scene made the audience as "caged" as these characters in this opening sequence?

- The window of the paddy wagon is small at first; one almost strains to see out of it.  When the siren stops, the noise of normal mechanical items gets louder and is quite prominent, perhaps overwhelming in the minds/emotional state of the prisoners-to-be.


 What about this opening reminds you of the Warner Bros. house style? And why is that appropriate for this subject matter?

- There are some parallels to Dark Passage and other movies by Warner Bros.  First person viewpoint of the narrow window of the paddy wagon is not unlike the view from the barrel in Dark Passage. This technique is also featured for a very quick moment in The Big Sleep (ringing the doorbell) and briefly in the opening of Mildred Pierce (we are the shooter when Zachary Scott faces us and falls). Other similarities to Dark Passage include the lack of dialogue at first and the siren that does not continuously wail—it rises, falls, stops for a second, then repeats.


Just based on this opening, how do you think film noir will influence this film's realism about life behind bars? In other words, why is the "substance of noir" appropriate for a story set inside a women's prison?

- Women had filled men’s roles in industry during WWII and it is reasonable to believe that women are now (post war) capable of crimes warranting imprisonment.  Social issues were becoming less taboo for the media (books/movies/press) to explore.

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Everything in the opening two minutes of Caged reinforces the idea of imprisonment: the barred window in the police van; the frightened look of desperation on Eleanor Parker's face as the van doors are opened; the condescending command of the guard: "Pile out, you tramps. It's the end of the line." (in more ways than one...); the prison wall/building; the bars under the "Women's State Prison" sign; the huddled group* of women looking towards the prison gate after Parker has been told to "Grab your last look at free side, kid." All of these images are IN. YOUR. FACE.

 

However, there are more subtle images/sounds at play. The opposite of being 'caged' is, well, being free. The idea of freedom is reinforced through the following images/sounds: the song of the birds** once the van has stopped; the low wail of a train whistle as the van doors open and the women get out; and, finally, the sight and sound of the cars racing merrily along on the other side of the prison gates.

 

As Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) would say: "It's all there, black and white, clear as crystal!"

 

 

*The group of huddled women also reinforce the idea of the loss of freedom/individuality in that they appear to act as one when they all turn their gazes toward the gate at the same time....

 

**The song "Goodbye Little Yellow Bird" from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) flashed through my mind. Just sayin'.

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Poor Marie, embalmed in a transport wagon, traveling towards a premature burial in the State Prison for a crime she didn’t commit.  If the terrified look of confusion at the fate that has brought her to this stone-walled cemetery isn’t proof enough, just look at the other women’s faces, as hard and unyielding as the building itself.   


The Warner Bros. house style is so characteristic of the noir period that we don’t even need to see their logo.  Our recognization can be immediately read on Eleanor Parker’s strained face, suffocating in time to the shrieking siren as we peer through the tiny window with her - disoriented, afraid - and trapped. 


Noir’s constricting view of life fits well inside a prison, where personal choices are made by others who hold the key to your freedom.  Women are used to being caged by society’s expectations, so most of these dames may not see any difference.  All they have to do is play by the rules just long enough to get out, if only to begin the cycle all over again.  Life through a noir lens - bleak, hopeless, and dog-eat-dog - might be a salvation to a meek woman like Marie.  After all, empowerment isn’t the same for all women, is it? 


 

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I feel like the opening of the film is appropriate in regards to female prisons because the film focuses on the fear and panicked look on Marie's face. We wouldn't expect men on the way to prison to look scared or express any fear they could be feeling because it is seen as emasculating. We operate under the impression that a man showing fear in a place like prison makes them a target. We would expect women to be scared because we assume women are easily scared. These are the kind of gender roles that run rampant in society and are expressed through film.

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Caged opens showing a frightened young woman entering the bowels of hell known as women's prison. Predatory guards, hardened cons, abused women victims of society in Dantesque inferno of a jungle. It's tight and dreary.

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