Written by Robert Bloch
Directed by William Castle
Starring Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, John Anthony Hayes, and George Kennedy
William Castle was a man who liked his gimmicks. He’d have theaters rigged with swooping skeletons or buzzers placed under seats. There were glowing coins and votes for how the film should end. But his greatest gimmick may have been casting Joan Crawford as an axe murderer who’s spent 20 years in an asylum. It’s not a glamorous role, but it’s a juicy one; and it’s far better than the usual parts for older actresses at the time (or even now, sadly). With a script by Robert Bloch (author of the novel Psycho was based on), Crawford may have even been optimistic about its reception. Sadly, it would not live up to the incredible What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which she’d made only a few years previously.
Before the title card is reached, the film delivers the entire backstory through the heavy narration of Carol (Diane Baker), who witnessed her father having sex with his girlfriend. Carol also saw her mother Lucy (Joan Crawford) kill the couple with a conveniently placed axe. While the footage is sufficient to explain the situation, the narration packs in a lot of additional details, which are interesting but not ultimately relevant.
The narrator does, however, provide a hook to connect the past to the present. In one of the best sequences of any Castle film, the horrified eyes of child Carol become the anxious eyes of adult Carol, and we learn that it is she who is speaking–explaining her shameful family secret to her fiancé, Michael (John Anthony Hayes). To be sure, it’s a cheap transition, but it ties Lucy’s psychotic break to Carol’s prospect of happiness in a visceral way that more artful approaches might not. The threat which Lucy’s return represents to Carol and Michael is the center around which Strait-Jacket revolves, so this tight link at the beginning serves the movie well in firmly establishing the main conflict.
For the bulk of the running time, this picture of the unstable mother and her helpless daughter is the lens through which we see events unfold. Crawford overacts with magnificent abandon, projecting a desperate anxiety that is impossibly uncomfortable to watch. It’s astonishing to see her commit so wholly to Lucy’s humiliation and fear. When everything is finally purged at the end, and order is restored, she is a transformed women, calm and in charge of her destiny.
It’s unfortunate, then, that daughter Carol isn’t as well realized. Baker’s performance is stiff and uninspired, making it difficult to empathize with her struggle to reconcile her past with her future. I’m not sure that I put the fault entirely on her; this was far from her first role, and her career has lasted to until at least a few years ago, which is hard to do if you flat-out can’t act. The mixture of resentment, love, and fear that Carol embodies can’t be easy to portray, and Castle was never the kind of director that could help make subtle acting choices. The end result is that the stressors on Carol are much more interesting than her reactions to them, which isn’t a good position for what should be the main character.
One of these more engaging sources of Carol’s anxiety is Leo, a worker on the farm where Carol and Lucy live with relatives. Leo is played by the ever-reliable George Kennedy. Perhaps best-remembered today as Leslie Nielsen’s captain in the Naked Gun movies or as Joe Patroni in Airport and its unlikely series of sequels, at the time he was more likely to be a tough or a heavy. Here, he’s a threatening figure skulking about the farm, watching Lucy and Carol for opportunities. In a slasher movie, he’d be a red herring, the creepy voyeur who’s a natural suspect. Here, he’s gasoline on Carol’s smoldering anxiety.
Leo happens to see Carol hiding the car of a murder victim. The next day Carol finds him painting it, claiming it’s his. In the ensuing argument, Leo’s growing control is shown through Kennedy’s calculated ease. Every drawn out glance, slow bit of prop handling, and laconic line of dialog asserts his power over Carol, and although Baker isn’t up to the task of portraying her frustration she at least tries. Kennedy carries the scene, making it work through force of presence. This dependability is what positioned Kennedy as a leading character actor, earning him good roles in bigger movies to come, such as the convict Dragline in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke.
Strait-Jacket is a movie that’s easy to dismiss. Aside from a lead that wasn’t up to the task, the story is unfocused. Although it’s really all about Carol, the movie also wants to focus on Lucy. You see, she’s not just failing to re-socialize; she’s being gaslighted. So on top of the drama about Carol trying to keep her worlds from colliding disastrously, there’s also the mystery about who’s trying to drive Lucy mad again. It’s a combination that could work, but Bloch is not the writer to pull it off. Yes, the movie Psycho was really good, but Bloch wrote the book that Joseph Stefano turned into a script to meet Alfred Hitchcock’s needs. On his own, Bloch could generate ideas, but he had a knack for approaching narratives from precisely the wrong angle. Here, he creates two characters who could be the focus, but instead of picking one and telling her story, he tries to have it all and fumbles. Presuming that the mystery was the more important piece, Lucy should have been the main character. That would not only have chosen which story was the focus but also have allowed Crawford to provide a strong center for the film. I’m imagining the car scene played between her and Kennedy, and it’s pretty good cinema.
For all of the fault I find in it, I do love Strait-Jacket for what it might have been. There’s been much written about the line connecting Psycho to the American slasher genre by way of Italy’s giallo films, and it’s a pretty safe argument. But lineages don’t always take neat straight lines. This is one of many films that helped keep the slashers’ roots strong while other shoots grew overseas. The killer’s calculating insanity is the strongest connection here, but the same gleeful attitude toward the deaths is also on display. Though Castle wasn’t about to risk ticket sales by being outright gory, he did make sure to show as much as possible using shadows and quick cutaways. The murders weren’t just present as plot points but as entertainment, a step on the way to the grisly slasher set-pieces. That makes it pretty cool in my book.
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