Wednesday 10 October 2018

Dark Eyes Retrovision #2 - Strait-Jacket (US 1964: Dir William Castle)

Showing at London's BFI as part of the 'Fierce: The Untameable Joan Crawford' season, it's always good but sadly quite rare these days to see William Castle's films on the big screen.

One of the many post Psycho films emerging from Hollywood in the years following Hitchcock's genre defining masterpiece, Strait-Jacket had a greater lineage claim than most in that its screenplay was written by Psycho author Robert Bloch (the first of two scripts provided for Castle that year, the other being The Night Walker). Apparently Castle was annoyed at Hitch for making a movie which in both style and content trespassed onto his cinematic territory (he immediately responded with the small town murder mystery Homicidal in 1961) so there was probably some satisfaction in securing Bloch for the project, requiring him to up the ante with the choice of murder weapon, from knife to axe.

Strait-Jacket saw the return of Joan Crawford to the 'psycho biddy' thriller sub genre, two years after the brilliant Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? which Castle has admitted was an influence; although to throw people off the scent he also mentioned taking elements from the story of 19th century axe murderer Lizzie Borden. Regarding the involvement of Crawford, one story has Castle pitching the role to her at a party as his first choice - although in reality the studio's pick for the lead role was Joan Blondell, who had injured herself at home and couldn't go ahead. Another has Castle and Bloch summoned to the offices of Columbia's president to be told that Joan had got wind of the role and was interested.

To be honest whichever story is believed is irrelevant - Crawford put her stamp on the production, what with her $50,000 salary, profit share and requirement that Anne Helm, originally cast in the role of Carol, be replaced with Diane Baker, with whom she got on better, having appeared with her in The Best of Everything in 1959. In a later interview Helm said (of Crawford) "she was a very hypocritical woman. She really wanted me off the picture, and I know that. But by that point there was no way I even wanted to be in the picture. She was a very sick woman." According to one source Crawford made rehearsals with Helm very difficult, before finally getting her way.

Castle acquiesced to all his star's demands, possibly seeing Crawford as his latest film's 'gimmick.' He later commented: "All the rumours I head about Joan Crawford being difficult were false. She is truly a great artists. Directing her was one of the greatest experiences of my life."

In Strait-Jacket Crawford plays Lucy Harbin, a woman sentenced to a twenty year prison sentence  for axing her husband and his lover to death. On release she goes to live on a farm with her brother Bill and her adult daughter Carol. Carol and her boyfriend Michael want to get married but Michael's parents forbid it. A string of new axe murders points to Lucy as the main suspect, but the truth reveals that Carol, dressed as Lucy, is the killer, who has been conspiring to off Michael's parents leaving the coast clear to marry him.

'Lumberingly directed' was the conclusion of the Monthly Film Bulletin when it reviewed Strait-Jacket on its UK release in 1964, with 'more threat and thump than wit.' Across the pond US critics were equally unkind, while remaining respectful of its star. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther described it as a 'disgusting piece of claptrap' and Elaine Rothschild in Films in Review, defending Crawford, wrote that 'even in dreck like this she gives a performance.'

Although Crawford may have felt the role rather beneath her, she nevertheless put the hours in when it came to promoting the film, making personal appearances in a number of US cities, courtesy of hired limousines and an extensive drinks rider of course. To market the movie Columbia made a rather nifty four minute short, How to Plan a Movie Murder, which had Castle, Crawford and Bloch and some of the rest of the cast introduced to the audience.

While Castle and Crawford would reunite for the 1965 movie I Know What You Did, sadly Strait-Jacket marked both the director and star's last film with Columbia studios. Castle would have just another few years at the top of his game before the new breed of horror directors would make his style of horror and suspense feel decidedly outmoded.

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