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.
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 …
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 expressionistic 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):
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.