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DVD SAVANT

Savant Short Review:

Strait-Jacket


Strait-Jacket
Columbia TriStar
1964 / B&W / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 89 min.
Starring Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Howard St. John, John Anthony Hayes, George Kennedy
Cinematography Arthur Arling
Production Designer Boris Leven
Film Editor Edwin Bryant
Original Music Van Alexander
Written by Robert Bloch and
Produced by William Castle
Directed by William Castle

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

No matter how hard William Castle tried to get out of his B-movie ghetto, he kept getting upstaged by A pictures that garnered the breakout success he craved. This is perhaps because he kept imitating them so slavishly. When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? became a smash hit, Castle jumped on the bandwagon and lined up eccentric movie star Joan Crawford to star in this psychodrama about axe murderers, scripted by Psycho author Robert Bloch for his marquee value alone. As could have been predicted, Joan ran away with the film, which ends up a jaw-dropping exercise in excess and bizarre taste, almost completely dominated by her personality. As Crawford was known for this kind of behavior, Strait-Jacket is the dream vehicle for star cultists who dote on her ferocious egocentricity. No better constructed than Castle's previous films, it takes off mainly because of Crawford's perverse energy.

Synopsis:

Newly released from the asylum for the criminally insane, Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) has some difficulty getting used to living with other people again, but blossoms thanks to the efforts of her daughter Carol (Diane Baker), who sees that she's comfortable and takes her on shopping trips. But despite a makeover, Lucy can't find stability - besides succumbing to the temptation to seduce young men (including her daughter's date), she experiences hallucinations harking back to the axe murders that put her away: "Lucy Harbin took an axe / Gave her husband 40 whacks."

Strait-Jacket is a movie that has to be seen to believed. Mainly because the performance by Joan Crawford is practically beyond description. Just when it seems as though her hysterical extremes as Lucy Harbin have to be a big put-on, it becomes obvious that Joan is playing it perfectly straight. It's as if she didn't want to deny herself the right to chew scenery the way her arch-rival Bette Davis did in Baby Jane?, where Joan was stuck playing straight-man in a wheelchair.

Seeing a woman in her late fifties imitating a woman in her middle forties is bizarre enough; even weirder is the scene where Lucy, fitted out in a dress covered with big garish flower designs, a Mildred Pierce wig and big clacking bracelets, slobbers all over poor Diane Baker's boyfriend, while practically climbing into his mouth. She imitates a pitiful, grey recluse in one scene, and then strikes a match on a phonograph record and swaggers like Sadie Thompson in the next. Her entrance is actually a parody/hommage of Lewis Milestone's introduction for Sadie in Joan's early talkie Rain, 31 years before.

The bizarre thing is that Crawford gets away with it. Lucy Harbin remains sympathetic, and it's because we still identify with Crawford's mannerisms, no matter how absurd the subject matter. Tough-guy director Robert Aldrich had sometimes resorted to intimidation to make his battling co-stars behave like ladies long enough to get some film in the can. William Castle is no Robert Aldrich, and it's obvious that Crawford walked all over him. She dictated casting, eliminating an unknown ingenue lead who might have competed with her, in favor of Diane Baker, with whom she had formed a trusting relationship in two previous films. Naturally, Diane had to wear an unflattering wardrobe and hairstyle.

Joan either had major input into the script, or it was tailored for her in the first place, as it adheres to the post-Mildred Pierce formula for Crawford pictures: there's always a daughter figure, with whom La Joan has major problems. She abuses them, ruining relationships (Harriet Craig), bosses them (The Best of Everything), and slaps them around (Queen Bee). In both Strait-Jacket and Berserk! the mother is blamed for horrible crimes the daughters have really committed.  1 Naturally, the camp value this has when applied to her daughter Christina's book Mommie Dearest, is priceless. You have to conclude that Christina is a spiteful ingrate seeking to destroy Mom's reputation - but the Mom was a powerful piece of work herself, perfectly capable of using a tot for a whipping post.

Finally, Joan had the power to, in effect, direct the picture. When an ending scene gave too much attention to Baker's character, she quietly used her influence to return the focus back to Lucy, where Joan wanted it.

The strange thing is, that without Crawford taking every scene over the edge in the first 5 seconds, Strait-Jacket would be as dull as Homicidal. The mystery is completely transparent, the plot twists laughable, and the supporting cast either hamming it up, as does the frankly terrible George Kennedy as a dimbulb farmhand, or sitting it out on the sidelines. Leif Erickson and Howard St. John are particularly pitiful - Joan was probably such a handful that wasting time directing anyone else was seen as nonproductive.

Savant's of the opinion that Joan in this period was more than slightly unhinged, existing in a fantasy world of stardom, while trying to deny the hard reality that she was living 5 times above her means. But she gave us Johnny Guitar a decade before while behaving much the same way - pushing an 'easy' director around, and insisting that the entire ending be reconceived to keep her screen center at all times. And it turned out terrific, so she's forgiven. As long as she's not my Mom.


Columbia TriStar's DVD of Strait-Jacket is a crazy show in a bright red package that grabs your attention. The anamorphic transfer is spotless and the sound gets REAL LOUD every time an axe comes into play and heads start a rollin'. Jeffrey Schwarz's docu very nicely presents Joan in all her perplexing contradictions - gin on the set, dictatorial airs - while celebrating her unique charm. Of the other extras, an 'ax-swinging screen test' is some kind of pre-shoot check of a dummy mock up, which Joan summarily decapitates without a moment's hesitation. And a costume screen test is fascinating - a chance to see Joan perform only for the crewpeople around her, dutifully modeling her costumes, while exchanging warm smiles and jokes with people off-camera. Then the scary DOG comes into the frame .... a digression I have to explain:

Joan had this poodle, see, that figures in many of her endless photo sessions from about 1954 on. No matter what she's posing for, this crazy dog shows up in photo after photo - always as formally posed and self-possessed as Joan herself. You'll see some still of her at a makeup table - and there'll be the poodle from Hell, perhaps on the floor a few paces away, but holding its head up and staring down the camera as if its mistress'es hauteur (and camera radar) had rubbed off on it: "I'm Joan's dog, which makes me more important than You!" In some photos, the dog seems to be purposely canting its head, as if enraptured by its own glamorous idea of itself. When the Poodle entered one of the makeup tests on this reel, Savant reacted as if he had seen a ghost.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Strait-Jacket rates:
Movie: Fair (Camp rating: Excellent)
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: docu: Battle-Ax, Ax-Swinging Screen Test, Costume and Makeup tests.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 2, 2002


Footnote:

1. Savant edited a feature documentary on Joan Crawford last year, and was struck by this consistency. We screened an episode of The Man From Uncle where Joan guest-starred - and there she was, victimized by a wicked daughter! The mind boggles. In her final film, Trog, Joan seems to have finally won. The daughter is a wimpy non-character, and instead Joan has all her sensitive scenes with a hairy troglodyte caveman. You almost expect to see the monster wearing a name-tag reading, 'Christina.'
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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