Strait-Jacket (1964) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Despite the lurid (and irrelevant) title and advertising campaign to match, this is a pretty typical late Joan Crawford vehicle, a bit camp and over-the-top, but full of interest none the less. Robert Bloch’s tale of a convicted axe-murderer who returns home after 20 years in an asylum is handled by producer-director William Castle without recourse to any of his usual gimmicks, though there is plenty of deception here – indeed, this is a very good example of a film marketed as a Grand Guignol horror that is actually a whodunit.

This review is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Lucy Harbin took an axe,
Gave her husband forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave his girlfriend forty-one.

Plainly inspired by the Lizzie Borden story, in the film’s prologue we learn that our protagonist, Lucy Harbin, found her second, and much younger, husband (played by Lee Majors, in his first film) in the arms of another woman and in an act of fury killed them both with an axe. In her first shot, Crawford is introduced looking very glamorous and sexy stepping off a train as the camera pans from bottom to top, a shot that recalls her famous entrance thirty years before in Rain.

Straight-Jacket03

After the titles, we transition to twenty years later and the shot is repeated, though Crawford allows herself to look pretty dowdy now, her hair grey and out of place, her dress little better than a sack. She is reunited with her daughter (cute as a button Diane Baker) and her brother (Leif Erickson) at the out of the way farm where they have been living to escape the notoriety of the murders. One of the interesting things about this film, and it is not a spoiler, is that while a note of possible ambiguity is introduced (for the alert viewer), we are never actually asked to question that Crawford did in fact kill her husband and his (blameless) lover, which is pretty surprising really. And as we go ahead we are asked to consider if she has in fact recovered, as she seems to be suffering from bouts of anxiety, semi-catatonic states and an unhealthy-attraction to sharp objects. Her daughter is trying to make a go of it as a sculptress and is in love with the son of a rich local family – but even though her mother’s appearance might jeopardise things, she doesn’t want to abandon her in her time of need. And then the axe killings start again …

Straight-Jacket02

After the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Joan Crawford was (inevitably?) going to be cast in films of a somewhat grotesque nature. In 1964 she was meant to appear in the follow-up film, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but a few weeks into production she left (due either to ill health or her fights with co-star Bette Davis, depending on who you believe). Well, she certainly doesn’t have to share the limelight in Straight-Jacket! The film we have here, over which Crawford exerted quite considerable control, was designed to follow in that path, but in fact for the most part plays more like a conflation of two of her best Warner movies of the 1940s – Mildred Pierce (for its background of social climbing and the fraught mother-daughter dynamic) and Possessed (where she is driven to murder by infidelity and then has a breakdown, seemingly recovers and then teeters on the edge of relapse). Straight-Jacket was made on a pretty tight budget, so it looks on par with the kind of TV shows that Bloch was very busy writing for Thriller and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents / Hour shows, but the contrast between the working-class farmers and their wealthier neighbours is nicely realised by the great production designer Boris Leven, leading to a decent climax and a Psycho-style surfeit of exposition right at the close. There is also a very strange sequence in which Lucy appears locked in a weird stripey padded cell that is presented as a nightmare but turns out to be just a bad case of decor overload. It looks great (you can see the still above)and downright surreal, but has nothing to do with the film at all – an intriguing example of irrationality and showmanship overcoming any sense of logic!

Lucy Harbin: Leave me alone! Leave me alone! I’m not guilty! I’m not guilty!

The strain of making this both a horror/thriller and a Joan Crawford vehicle in her style does manifest itself in unusual ways – there is for instance a fascinating subtext in which she plays two distinct roles: the older woman, frail and unsure of herself, and then, when her daughter buys her clothes and a wig that recall her womanly heyday from 20 years before, Lucy reverts briefly to her old character, cocky, sensual and brash – she even tries to seduce her daughter’s boyfriend!

Most audiences would have turned up for the scares but it is very intriguing to see how Crawford’s old persona is here modified to suit new tastes and commercial needs. Bloch is unusually expansive about Crawford and the making of the film in his autobiography (the film was originally due to star Joan Blondell and Anne Helm instead of Crawford and Baker, and the murderer would have worn a ‘fat suit’ apparently) and it seems he loved the experience, though he must have been aware that the film, as it stands, is a bit dull in the middle and overlong. On the other hand the surprise ending actually arrives with a jolting frisson as the two aspects of Crawford’s persona, murderous and meek, collide literally and psychically.

DVD Availability: This is available in a good-looking DVD release in Italy and as a made-on-demand release in the US. It was originally available there as a pressed disc that also had several extras, including a nice little making-of featurette, which is currently available to view online (see above). Also, if for nothing else, you have to love this movie just for the fun it had with the Columbia logo, which made me really chortle (see below):

Straight-Jacket01

Straight-Jacket (1964)
Director: William Castle
Producer: William Castle
Screenplay: Robert Bloch
Cinematography: Arthur Arling
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Van Alexander
Cast: Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Howard St. John, John Anthony Hayes, Rochelle Hudson, George Kennedy, Edith Atwater, Lee Majors.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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64 Responses to Strait-Jacket (1964) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Joan Crawford was definitely a force to be reckoned with on film, Sergio, in terms of her strength of personality. I’m not sure I’m expressing that well, but I hope you understand what I mean. So it makes sense that we’d see that coming through in this film. It’s an interesting premise, too, just made for the touch of noir. Thanks,m as ever, for the thoughtful and well-articulated review.

    • Thanks Margot – I definitely know what you mean, an indeed BABY JANE is one of the few where she plays a slightly subservient role. Definitely toys with that side of things here!

  2. realthog says:

    I’m due for a rewatch of this — many thanks for such an evocative reminder!

    Um: Strait-Jacket.

  3. le0pard13 says:

    Have always loved that decapitated Columbia logo! 🙂

    • I know! Really laughed at that, great way to finish the movie – apparently the ‘heads that be’ (sic) at the studio truly took some persuading about it … 🙂

  4. Colin says:

    A good, entertaining film, although I agree it does sag a little in the middle. I think I first saw it on TV, I think a late night Channel 4 screening long ago, and picked it up on DVD much later when Sony put out that 5 disc William Castle set.
    I generally find Crawford a bit hard to take though – I’m not 100% sure why but there’s something about her (and I get it from almost any performance and any era) that grates.

    • I will agree, not a huge Crawford fan either and she wasn’t very versatile. On the other hand, I think she was great in films like Clarence Brown’s POSSESSED (always good opposite Clark Gable, though I like the Curtis Bernhardt film of the same name she made at Warners too) and of course MILDRED PIERCE

      • Colin says:

        Yeah, I don;t think she had a huge range but you’re right that she was just fine in the right roles, and she tended to choose the ones that best suited her, although her later career has a number of serious misfires. She wouldn’t put me off watching a film but she wouldn’t draw me to it either, if that makes sense.

  5. vinnieh says:

    I’ve noticed when looking through films of the 60’s that there was a significant amount of horror/mystery films that starred actresses from classic Hollywood. Baby Jane, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, Lady in a Cage and this.

    • Know what you mean Vinnieh – Baby Jane was a huge hit with its mixture of nostalgia, horror and celebrated actors from the Golden Era now seemingly prepared to let rip, so of course there were plenty of imitators to follow. As a sub genre it kept going until the 1970s in fact …

    • Colin says:

      Definitely a trend of the those years. Seeing as you mention it, I never could like Lady in a Cage, it’s far too mean-spirited for me.

      • Lady in a Cage is the only one of these late-career movies I’ve seem; unfortunately I was only 13 when I did and it sickened me. There are images that still bother me occasionally. I still find it hard to believe they let two unaccompanied 13-year-old girls in to see that movie. I guess we thought it was like The Haunting or something. Um, nope.

        • Of the films of this sub-genre, this is actually one of the very few that I have not seen and which I have always thought I would find too sordid to really want to see. Some fo the titles that are perhaps more worthy in the same style would include:

          What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
          Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
          The Nanny (1965) – which I reviewed here
          Fanatic (1965)
          What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969)
          What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)
          Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971)

        • Colin says:

          Yes, it’s a very unpleasant film. It’s been a while since I last saw it, and I honestly wouldn’t care if I never caught it again.

          • Well that seals, thanks to you both – I am definitely dodging that one – might did up FANATIC with Tallulah Bankhead, though it has been ages since I saw that one but I remember liking it quite a lot.Screenplay by Richard Matheson as I recall …

          • Colin says:

            Good choice, much wiser and a whole lot more rewarding.

          • Taking it off the shelf right this … second! And just noticed it has the US title on it, DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!

          • Colin says:

            Yes, my copy has too – I forgot about that.

          • Same with BLIND TERROR / SEE NO EVIL (review of that one very shortly here at FEDORA by the way)

          • Colin says:

            You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that. I’ll look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.

          • Rather like it – small scale thriller, but very well put together. The UK DVD is completely barebones but technically pretty much flawless. Interesting companion to Brian Clemens earlier AND NOW THE DARKNESS, though I prefer this one overall

      • I have never been drawn to that one – I’ve seen pretty much the rest I think …

      • vinnieh says:

        It’s a shocking movie that can be difficult to watch at times because of the depravity on screen.

  6. John says:

    Unlike HUSH, HUSH… and BABY JANE I haven’t seen this one multiple times and haven’t completely memorized most of the dialogue. I have only a few recollections of some of the scenes like when Crawford wakes up in bed with a head on the pillow beside her. Just looked at the cast list: George Kennedy and Lee Majors (he must’ve been a boy!) in supporting parts. Plus Rochelle Hudson! My father always claimed she was a dead ringer for my mother — or was it the other way around? Will have to get a copy of this for a reviewing.

    You have to wonder why Olivia de Havilland allowed herself to be degraded by appearing in LADY IN A CAGE. Truly an ugly misogynistic movie. I’ve never seen it to the end, BTW. Had to turn it off.

    I have the original novel that FANATIC was based on (I have only known it as DIE! DIE! MY DARLING) and I keep meaning to do a book/movie comparison as I’ve done with THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK, SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON and PRETTY POISON. Maybe next month? No promises though.

    • Thanks for that John -well, it is certainly a lot shorter and zippier than either of the Aldrich films, you’ve got to give it that! I would love to know how FANATIC / DIE! DIE! compares to NIGHTMARE. Well, in the end I suppose CAGE just must have seemed like another in the aged lady in peril cycle but I really can;t see myself ever watching it now!

  7. Sounds completely over the top, and good fun. I’m familiar with Hush/Charlotte & Baby/Jane but not this one. I need to see it…

  8. Kelly says:

    I recently watched Crawford in THE UNKNOWN, and it was my first time seeing her as a luminous young ingenue. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the tough broad she evolved into. We got TWO spectacular actresses out of her, in a way.

  9. Santosh Iyer says:

    An enjoyable film though it is often slow and drags at times.

    SPOILER ALERT !

    Actually I guessed the culprit and hence the ending was not a surprise to me. When the culprit’s face was shown during the last murder and the attempted murder, initially I thought that my guess was incorrect, but it turned out to be correct.

    • Well, yes, thank was my reaction too, so I was quite pleased by that final deception as it made it much more of a surprise. In fact, I wondered if it was going to turn out that Crawford didn’t commit the original murders, which in a way would have made more sense, especially in view of the Crawford persona in some of her most famous movies of the 1940s.

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