Thursday, February 7, 2008

STRAIT-JACKET (Columbia 1964) Sony Home Entertainment

By 1964, Joan Crawford’s career had effectively run its course. Crawford, who had built her reputation first, as the embodiment of a devil-may-care flapper in a series of silent classics, then as the ever put upon shop girl who makes good in the 1930s, and finally, as the supremely martyred femme fatale of the late 40s and early 50s, had rounded out her popularity on a high note with Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Ostensibly, she should have known when to quit. However, for a war horse workaholic like Crawford, the very word ‘quit’ might have been hateful to the ears.

Hence, Crawford continued to exercise her talent in a series of movies throughout the 1960s that were increasingly less than exemplifying the best in her overall body of work. Of this latter ilk is William Castle’s Strait Jacket (1964), a brutally tacky Grand Guignol that aspires to the hem of Baby Jane’s undergarment but tragically winds up with skid marks and droppings inside the crinoline instead.

Crawford is Lucy Harbin, a patient released from the state mental ward for the criminally insane after serving her tenure for the brutal crime of murder. Seems Lucy came home one evening twenty years before to find her husband and his young amour in bed together. The discovery sent her over the edge and she hacked the two with an axe; a crime of passion witnessed by her then three year old daughter, Carol.

Now, Carol (Diane Baker) is all grown up and living with her fashionable friends; married couple Bill Cutler (Leif Erickson) and his wife, Emily (Rochelle Hudson). But a dark brooding sense of ennui begins to develop almost from the moment Lucy arrives at the Cutler’s home. Carol encourages her frumpy – and still shell-shocked – mother to don a series of unflattering black wigs and squeezes her into tight dresses that accentuate her still reasonably toned female form.

Lucy mistakes Carol’s interest in her attire as a way of invigorating her positive mental outlook. But Lucy’s doctors are not at all convinced that she is ready to reenter the mainstream. Their suspicions appear to be confirmed after the hacked body of the Cutler’s hired man (George Kennedy) is discovered in an abandon field. As the body count rises with a series of like-minded axe murders, Lucy becomes the prime suspect. But did she really commit these crimes?

Director William Castle – often described by film historians as a ‘road show Hitchcock’ - is up to his armpits in bloody carnage, most of it thankfully inferred or illustrated through shadows. It’s rather clear that Crawford’s supremacy in the cinema firmament had slipped by this point in her career. But for once, it also seems as though Crawford herself is simply going through the motions of this rather pedestrian screenplay by Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame).

Poor production values aside, Strait Jacket is terribly third rate. The dramatic lulls between chopping-fests are lugubrious at best. Reportedly, Diane Baker’s part was dramatically cut at Crawford’s insistence so that the focus of the film would remain on her even though the purposeful reveal at the end of the story clearly favors Baker’s character instead.

Sony Home Entertainment’s DVD transfer is adequate, but not outstanding. The B&W elements are in reasonable shape, though age related artifacts and a hint of pixelization make for an image that is, at times, not very smooth. Tonality is fine as are contrast levels. Blacks are deep. Whites are usually clean. Fine details are lost under a slight patina of soft focus and haze. The audio is mono but adequately represented. There are NO extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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