“You know it’s real funny. Since I’ve been on the force I’ve been around hoods and thieves and killers, the real stinking part of the human race. I always wondered if it would rub off on me. Now I know.”
Most people who stumble upon 1960’s Cage of Evil won’t linger much before they start trolling for something else to watch. Yet it’s the sort of thing that I luxuriate in: 70 minutes of pulpy goodness, with sharp stylish dialogue and a second-rate cast giving it everything they’ve got. It’s made on the cheap, with every B movie trick in the book: unfamiliar performers, cheap sets, rear projection, long takes, and so forth--half the plot is related through voiceover narration. Even with its 1960 release date, it still exists in that magical, purely cinematic world that lent itself to such delightful crime films--the one in which a police officer who skews towards brutality wasn’t looked at with scorn by his fellow officers and the LAPD brass. Such cops and cultures don’t function well in the world away from the screen (as the long and storied history of the real LAPD easily demonstrates), but they sure make great fodder for films and pulp novels.
In the case of this film, a culture inclusive of the brutal police officer is quite necessary: Cage of Evil would never get off the ground if its protagonist’s violent behavior made him a suspect in the eyes of his colleagues. Instead, he enjoys the support of his fellow officers and the encouragement of his captain. He’s clearly the sort of officer that Dudley Smith would want in his LAPD. (Edgy detectives would become the heroes of seventies films, then cartoonish superheroes during the eighties. By the early nineties they would demonized in a spate of “internal affairs” thrillers.)
The film stars Ron Foster, the kind of squinty, oily actor who does every scene with a cigarette in his hand. Plenty good looking enough with carved features and a dour expression, Foster was cut from the right cloth to play Detective Scott Harper, a cop who gets passed over one time too many and decides to take his chances on the opposite side of the law. His slicked-back jet hair and habit of looking at his costars crossways only add to his unctuous credibility. Harper’s hardboiled bona fides are established early on, when he beats up a hapless diamond cutter on the slight suspicion the man may have abetted in the diamond heist central to the story. It costs him dearly: even after having placed third on the lieutenants’ exam, Harper gets passed over for the promotion when the jeweler signs a complaint.
Foster has had a surprisingly long career in Hollywood considering how spotty his resume is. After starring in a number of B films in the late fifties and early sixties with director Eddie Cahn (including this one), he spent most of the last fifty years appearing sporadically in character roles on television. He had a recurring role in the cop series Highway Patrol, but his longest run was during the mid-nineties on the CBS soap Guiding Light. More recently Foster has lent his voice to popular video games such as Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto.
Pat Blair plays Holly Taylor, the ‘hostess’ who acts as a go between for the diamond thieves and their San Francisco fence. Harper goes undercover to get next to her, and naturally they fall for each other--in pure Phyllis Dietrichson style, she sweet talks Harper into crashing the exchange and murdering everyone involved, but on the other hand she sticks with him even after she finds out he’s a cop! Like many other cheap crime movies, Cage of Fear is heavy on plot and light on character motivation; anyone who forgets that going in is bound to exit disappointed.
Blair is a doll: pushing six feet in heels, she runs the risk of towering over the guy opposite her, but she and Foster have surprisingly good chemistry. It took me a little while to make up my mind about her--her facial features and statuesque figure make her come over more like a contestant in the Miss America pageant, but after a change in hairstyle and wardrobe I was on the same page as the casting director. I knew Blair previously as the second female lead in the better-known 1956 film noir Crime Against Joe, but she surpasses that work here. There are still a few green moments during the Cage’s final action sequence, but for the most part Blair shines--especially in those sultry moments opposite Foster. Blair is somewhat more conspicuous than Foster: she had a seven year run opposite Fess Parker on the popular Daniel Boone series.
The arc of the story should be familiar by now: cop gets the shaft, meets a bad girl, and does the crooked thing. Cage of Evil ends along those same lines, though it manages to spin a few of the more tired clichés along refreshing lines. The climax cleverly borrows from Kubrick’s The Killing in a way that almost feels more like homage than outright theft. It’s also slickly ironic: in a sea of films that find their protagonists desperately attempting to make it across the border into Mexico, ours manage to do it in style--yet they bungle their getaway nevertheless.
Cage of Evil is not shot in the noir style, but I was still struck by the economical filmmaking. Cahn almost always uses middle-length shots with a single camera set-up and TV style lighting. This technique has ruined plenty of good material, but he manages to pull it off through pans and zooms, particularly when his characters relocate from one spot to another on a given set in between zooms. He gets a lot of bang for his production dollar by moving his actor about, and the movie feels more prestigious than it really is. Rear projection is used whenever characters are driving around Los Angeles, but those shots are bookended quite effectively with on-location exteriors at assorted LA locales.
One of these rear-projection moments is striking: as Harper and Taylor are making their getaway, he uses the pause at a red light to explain to her why they have to run, “you can never surrender on a double-murder charge.” As he speaks, a large sedan barrels toward them from behind. The car’s arrival on their back bumper coincides with the best part of Foster’s monologue. Though it’s possible the moment may have been inadvertent, the notion of pursuing fate as embodied by heavy Detroit metal makes the moment powerful. The sense of clever B moviemaking evaporates just afterwards, as the rear projection shows Harper’s car turning into the airport parking lot, while his hands remain stalwartly at ten-and-two.
None of this stuff should amount to anything, but Cage of Evil is a much stronger film than I imagined it would be, and it lends a great deal of credibility to the notion that a movie rendered in earnest doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive.