1/20/10

Straight Jacket (1964): Ms. Crawford Goes from Wire Hangers to Bloody Axes

That’s right it’s time again for another Wednesday With William, and this week I’ve got a film that I’ve wanted to see for a long, long time, 1964’s Straight Jacket. There are several reasons why this film enticed me, and I would be lying if I said one of those reasons was not the appearance of Joan Crawford. I could not resist seeing the star of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and the subject of the bio-pic Mommy, Dearest as an axe wielding psycho. I also couldn’t resist a cast that included Diane Baker and George Kennedy, a script written by Robert Bloch, and, of course, the direction of Mr. Castle. All combined it sounded like a recipe for a great time if you axe me. (See what I did there. I said axe instead of ….oh, never mind, let’s get on with the synopsizing.)

Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) was out of town on the evening that her husband Frank (an unaccredited Lee Majors in his first film role) decided to take an old girlfriend back to their house for some fun. Unfortunately for the lovebirds, Lucy decided to come home early. Lucy catches the pair in the act and she beheads them with an axe while their daughter Carol looks on. Twenty years later, Carol (Diane Baker) is living with her Aunt and Uncle when she gets the news that her mother is cured and has been released from the asylum. After an awkward reunion, the mother and daughter become friends, and Carol takes Lucy out shopping. Carol dresses her mother in a wig and outfit that remind her of what she remembers her mom looking like, and Lucy soon starts to feel like her old self. When people start to missing, some begin to suspect that she’s feeling a little too much like her old self.

Before I get any further into the film I want to talk about a couple of things that were conspicuously missing from Straight Jacket. First off, there’s no intro from Mr. Castle on this film, and this lends itself directly into the second thing that was mostly missing, the gimmick. Unlike some of the more spectacular gimmicks (or spectacular claims) that Castle came up for his films, Straight Jacket’s tie in was simply a tiny, cardboard bloody axe. Castle had been advised by the money men to eliminate his gimmicks and instead send Crawford on tour to promote the film. It was only at the last minute that Castle decided to have the axes made. It’s too bad that Castle had to compromise on this one. I would have really liked to see what he would have come up with if he was unencumbered. By his next film, 1965’s I See What You Did (again with Crawford) he was back to his old tricks and installing seatbelts in the back row of the theaters to form a “Shock Section”.

Now to the film at hand, Straight Jacket was a very enjoyable watch even if it was devoid of some of Castle’s usual flair. What makes up for much of this is the tightly wound script by scenarist Robert Bloch. Bloch is most well known for his novel Psycho which led to the Alfred Hitchcock film. Straight Jacket is cut from a similar cloth with the villain being a flesh and blood murderer with not a trace of supernatural. The central mystery of the movie is fairly easy to unravel, but Bloch left enough wiggle room to where it was not completely obvious until the finale. The only deviation from his script comes in the last few moments of the film when an extra scene, which feels tacked on, was filmed at one of the star’s request. This portion of the film would almost take away from the proceedings, but for a final treat, Castle included the Columbia pictures logo at the end again. The woman with the torch is shown with her head resting at her feet and her torch blown out.

The script can’t stand alone and Castle really cast the hell out of this film. Joan Crawford, only a few years removed from Baby Jane, gives a great performance. Sure it’s a bit over the top, but I would expect no less from Miss Crawford. Her performance is delightful from every arch of her eyebrow to every sour expression. Miss Crawford didn’t think as much of her collaboration with Mr. Castle. “I hate being asked to discuss those dreadful horror pictures I made the mistake of starring in. They were all just so disappointing to me. I really had high expectations for some of them. I thought that William Castle and I did our best on Strait Jacket, but the script was ludicrous and unbelievable and that destroyed that picture.” It’s unfortunate for Joan that she could not step outside herself and travel into the future where maybe she could appreciate the camp value of her performance.

The film is clearly Crawford’s, but Castle always seemed to be careful to weave in a story of young love to appeal to the teen set. In this cast it is between Carol, played by Diane Baker, and Michael (John Anthony Hayes). Baker really shines even opposite Crawford, and it was really great to see her pop up in something again. The same year Straight Jacket was released Baker co-starred in Hitchcock’s Marnie as Sean Connery’s conniving sister. Hayes on the other hand did not have much of a career before or after, and he left little impression so it’s no wonder. On the other hand long time character actor George Kennedy, probably best remembered now for his performances opposite Leslie Neilson’s Naked Gun Films, really impresses in a small role as an ill fated farmhand.

Even though Castle did not infuse the movie with a lot of gimmicky flash, he still displays the steady directing hand that makes his movies so watchable. Lots of great shots are constructed around shadows, and cinematographer Arthur E. Arling came up with some really interesting angles. All combined, Straight Jacket is a solid film that comes up a tad short on the grand scale of Castle’s event pictures, but holds its own as a campy, well scripted, Psycho knockoff that benefits from Bloch’s presence and Castle’s steady hand. For Castle fans this is a must see, but it should be required watching for any fan of the one and only Joan Crawford.

Below the trailer I'm linking a video that contains Crawford's makeup and costume test for the film. I especially liked watching Joan being casual and playing with a puppy.

Bugg Rating


7 comments:

  1. I love this movie.

    A few years back I watched it with my Dad and he made mention that the song that keeps playing over and over (the one she dances too when she's drunk and flirting with Carol's boyfriend) was called, "There Goes That Song Again"...well I went on a mission to find it (that loud jazzy version used in the film). Unfortunately, I could only find Sinatra and Brook Benton's version (with lyrics).

    Be that as it may, this is one of Castle's better movies, and Joan is so damn great in it - its criminal!

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  2. Pax, That is very interesting about the song in the film. I thought it was striking, but figured it to be a a bit of stock music. Interesting that its was recorded by some heavy hitters. I have a little soft spot for Mr. Benton both because of "Rainy Night in Georgia" and because he hails from South Carolina.

    Now, I really enjoyed the film. Don't get me wrong. Yet it just didn't stand quite as tall as some of his other flicks. Joan, however, was just great. I always love to see her, and Straight Jacket was perfect material for her even if she didn't know it.

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  3. I'm a fan of this one, and not just because it stars my favorite Mommie Dearest. Solid little film with a great twist that feels truly nasty once you get over the initial surprise. A fine review, and it's true--the film does lack Castle's charm, but hello screenshot of Joanie wielding an axe!

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  4. I'm a fan of this one, and not just because it stars my favorite Mommie Dearest. Solid little film with a great twist that feels truly nasty once you get over the initial surprise. A fine review, and it's true--the film does lack Castle's charm, but hello screenshot of Joanie wielding an axe!

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  5. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJanuary 21, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    Diane Baker wasn`t a bad looking bird back in `64, not an incredible bird by any means but still a reasonably tasty bird.

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  6. Love this film. Joan Crawford is so over the top here that it's fantastic. A 60 year old woman trying to play like she's 20 years old in the beginning - hilarious! The twist is pretty predictable and the epilogue probably unnecessary (although JC wanted that added in for more screen time), but it's still a fantastic film. They sure don't make them like this anymore. Where else can you see the Liberty Columbia symbol decapitated? Great review.

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  7. We had watched many Joan Crawford movies, but had never seen this one and happened upon it on Netflix yesterday. It was more entertaining (funny) than suspensful, but that twist at the end was great! Also, the first film appearance of Lee Majors.. wow. Does anyone know what ever happened to John Anthony Hayes? He never appeared in anything after this movie? Maybe that scene where Crawford came onto him really spooked him!??

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