(1964) Directed by William Castle; Written by Robert Bloch; Starring: Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, John Anthony Hayes and George Kennedy
Available on DVD
“Today I saw a different Lucy. A woman who’s trying to look and act as if those 20 years had never existed. A woman who’s trying to re-capture her past. But for her, the past is dangerous.” – Dr. Anderson (Mitchell Cox)
“It was an asylum! And it was hell! 20 years of pure hell! But I’m not ashamed. I paid for everything I did. You’ll never know how much I paid...” – Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford)
After participating in The Bette Davis Blogathon it seemed only natural to give Ms. Davis’ archrival equal time. Many thanks to Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for inviting me to contribute to The Joan Crawford Blogathon.
Producer/director William Castle, writer Robert Bloch and star Crawford joined forces for the suspense film Strait-Jacket. Unlike many of Castle’s most notorious titles (The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, The House on Haunted Hill, etc…), Strait-Jacket didn’t arrive with elaborate gimmicks, although the trailer promised “Strait Jacket depicts axe murders.” As Castle aficionado/filmmaker John Waters remarked, casting Joan Crawford was the biggest gimmick of them all. It’s hard to believe she wasn’t the first choice to headline the film, but when Joan Blondell suffered a disfiguring accident, Castle needed to re-cast the part. He begged Crawford to star in his film, and she doesn’t disappoint.
Crawford, who was 58 at the time Strait-Jacket was filmed, plays 40-something Lucy Harbin, freshly released from an asylum. In the opening scene we witness the incident that sent Harbin off the deep end. When she catches her two-timing husband (Lee Majors) and his lover in bed, she murders both with an axe, which her young daughter witnesses. Instead of being substituted by another actress, Ms. Crawford plays her younger self (probably at her insistence). The results are laughably incongruous, but this is one of several instances in the film when you must suspend your disbelief. Scenery chewing and over-the-top dialogue aside, Crawford creates another riveting performance. While we’re laughing at all of the histrionics, we feel for Lucy’s predicament as she tries to pick up the pieces of the life she lost. She can’t get those 20 years back, and she wants to move forward, but the past has a nasty habit of catching up, as two people who cross her path end up dead.
Diane Baker does a fine job as Lucy’s grown daughter Carol,* and manages not to be upstaged by Crawford. Carol has spent the past two decades living with her aunt and uncle on a farm, and spends her spare time sculpting.** She does her best to integrate Lucy back into her life, but must contend with her ambivalence about being saddled with the burden of being her mother’s keeper. She’s also wary about how Lucy will be perceived by her fiancé Michael’s (John Anthony Hayes) wealthy parents. As Lucy’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic (in one squirmy scene, Lucy attempts to seduce Michael), Carol finds herself attempting to cover up her mother’s tracks.
* Baker was a last-minute replacement for the role, after Crawford demanded to work with a different actress. According to Baker, “I was brought in there fast. It’s like somebody wanted me there yesterday.” (From featurette, “Battle Axe, The Making of Strait-Jacket”)
** Fun fact: In one scene, Lucy admires a bust of herself as a young woman, created by her daughter. The bust, which was provided by Crawford for the production, was commissioned when she was an MGM contract player, circa 1930s.
While the two leads were solid choices, the same can’t be said about all of the casting decisions. At Crawford’s insistence (and due to her ties to Pepsi), PepsiCo’s vice president Mitchell Cox appears as Lucy’s psychiatrist from the asylum, Dr. Anderson (his performance is about as wooden as you’d expect). He stops to check on her on the way to a fishing trip, and is met with resistance from his former patient. On the other end of the acting spectrum is George Kennedy in a small but memorable early role as the scruffy farm hand Leo. He soon learns a little knowledge is a dangerous thing after he gets too snoopy, and ends up on the business end of an axe.
Strait-Jacket doesn’t come close to Psycho in terms of suspense or story, but that doesn’t stop it from being good kitschy fun. Mr. Castle knew how to entertain us and push our buttons, and does both with suitable aplomb. Strait-Jacket is another notable entry in the curious sub-genre of thrillers that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis dominated in the early to mid ‘60s, including Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and The Nanny (1965). It might not represent Crawford’s finest hour, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either.