Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband 40 whacks….. …..when she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend 41.
Strait-Jacket is produced and directed by William Castle and written by Robert Bloch. It stars Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Howard St. John, Rochelle Hudson and George Kennedy. Music is by Van Alexander and cinematography by Arthur E. Arling.
Lucy Harbin (Crawford) has spent 20 years in a mental asylum for the brutal axe murders of her husband and his mistress. Released back into society, Lucy goes to live at the farm of her brother Bill (Erickson), where Lucy's grown up daughter Carol (Baker) also resides. Pretty soon, though, Lucy is plagued by horrible visions and begins to hear upsetting things, and now it seems that the people she is coming into contact with are being brutally murdered….with an axe.
Grand Dame Guignol
It seems on odd blend on first glance, Oscar winner Crawford paired up with Castle, maestro of the gimmick led movie, producing a film written by Bloch, author of the novel that would become Hitchcock's Psycho. Yet while it's hardly a true horror picture, the kind to have you gnawing away at your nails, it's unashamedly fun whilst carrying with it a bubbling under the surface sense of dastardly misadventure. Sensibly filming it in moody black and white, Castle, who certainly wasn't the most adventurous of directors, did have a sense for tone and an awareness of what worked for his target audience. Strait-Jacket is a solid murder mystery on the page, and on the screen it's coupled with some flashes of axe wielding terror. Having a woman who is the protagonist-who may be the antagonist-also adds bite to Castle's production, but he, and his film, are indebted to Crawford and her wonderful OTT trip into self parody.
Joan Blondell was all set to play Lucy Harbin, but an accident at home meant she was unable to fill the role. Castle got lucky, he needed a star, and with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Reinvigorating Crawford's career two years previously, Crawford was once again a name actress. Bumping into Crawford at a party, Castle sold the pitch to her, even bluffing her that the part was written with her in mind. It was a goer, but Crawford held sway with all the decisions, including script rewrites and choice of staff to work on the picture with her. It paid off, because after what was largely a trouble free shoot , film was a success and Castle had one of the best films of his career. Here Castle had the ultimate gimmick to sell his film, Crawford herself, although he couldn't resist some sort of tie-in so had millions of tiny cardboard axes made up to give to paying punters at the theatre.
Sure it's a film that nods towards Psycho and Baby Jane et al, but the denouement here more than holds its own, while there's also a glorious bit of fun to be observed at the end with the Columbia Torch Lady logo suitably tampered with. Those actors around Crawford invariably fall into her shadow, but it's a mostly effective cast and Arling's photography blends seamlessly with the unfolding story.
So not outright horror, then, more a psychological drama with some horror elements. But, which ever way you look at it, Crawford's performance is value for money as she files in for a bit of psycho- biddy. 7.5/10