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Handicapped by a hip injury, a wealthy mother is trapped in her house elevator only to be terrorised
Olivia de Havilland looks a little uncomfortable in this shocker, a debut feature from a director who had previously worked in TV suspense shows (including The Untouchables, also criticised for its violence). Not only does she have to perform for most of the film from her lift cage prison, but has to contend with a purple script, and participate in scenes of violence and degradation entirely alien to her screen persona to date.
This is a film angry and ugly in equal measure. Jet planes fly overhead unconcernedly as Mrs Hilyard (de Havilland) is tormented, just as cars have already driven by with motorists ignoring the dead dog outside her house. A young black girl casually runs her skates over the injured legs of a fallen drunk. Women are either helpless (Hilyard), nympho druggies (Jennifer Billingsley, as Elaine) or faded whores (Ann Sothern, as Sade). Men are drunks (Jeff Corey, as Brady), mummy's boys (William Swan, as Malcolm Hilyard) or worse. It is a world full of indifference to the plight of others, of strangers who are casually cruel, of heat, claustrophobia and malice. Mrs Hilyard herself does not deserve her ordeal, but her snobbery (and self satisfied addiction to appalling verse, principally of her own composition) and expressed distaste for the "offal of the welfare state" is hardly attractive. Clearly Grauman intends her predicament to be an allegory both of her personal and social isolation, as Hilyard's experience occurs amidst an ominous backdrop of current events (at one point she thinks the bomb has dropped). Now and again the world intrudes through a broadcast or passing planes, which places the action in a larger context. This of course is lost on Mrs Hilyard. She is just as much out of touch with society at large as with her own son's (who is deserting her) emotions. Ultimately her captivity by the Randall gang is merely a physical realisation of what, morally, has long been the case. There's a shot that emphasises this: the masked Randall, Elaine and Essie (Rafael Campos) stare fixedly at Mrs Hilyard over the banisters as the camera pans from their silent faces to the victim's, and over to the window, where the sun appears as a burning globe. Their presence it seems is as permanent, and as pervasive, as the harshest elements of nature - and as unreachable.
This was James Caan's debut, and his is quite a presence as Randall, stalking panther-like around the looted home. His sadism and shallow greed make the greatest impact in a film that is full of such gestures. When burping his contempt for his captive, Caan expresses in a few uncouth noises ("I am an animal," he proudly confesses at one point) more than much of the other speechifying put together. The ironic equivalent of Hilyard's poetry, his grunts sum him up as neatly as Mrs Hilyard's affected and dated poeticism does her.
Paul Glass' score is a standout and makes for a gripping opening titles sequence. Its discordance and violence reflecting exactly the film's aggressive, alienated tone - one which, as has been noted by other viewers, anticipates the controversy surrounding A Clockwork Orange a few years later. Interestingly during the titles the director's credit appears on a conditioning unit, as if he intends his work to let some fresh air in on the foulness he will uncover. Whether or not he succeeds is up to the viewer to decide, but it doesn't make for an easy ride, and one banned in Finland and Australia. Interestingly Grauman's next film was the much more restrained and conservative 633 Squadron and after a couple more obscure films he retreated back to TV.