"Lucy Harbin was declared legally insane today," a young woman narrates in the opening moments of Strait-Jacket (1964). Lucy, as played by the indomitable Joan Crawford, is described as, "very much a woman, and very much aware of the fact."

One evening, Lucy arrives home to find her husband in bed with another woman. With her oversized jewelry jangling like jingle bells, she sneaks up on the post-coital couple and hacks them to death with an ax.

"I'm not guilty!" Lucy screams as they haul her away in a straitjacket. "It was a mistake!" she hilariously adds. Sure, Lucy. That ax just happened to slip out of your hands and it just happened to decapitate your philandering husband.

 

Lucy's young daughter witnesses the entire gruesome scene. While her mother does time in the loony bin, Carol Harbin spends the next twenty years with her uncle Bill on his small family farm. "My mother, a murderess," a grown up Carol (Diane Baker) now tells her fiancé. "She's coming home… today."

Long estranged mother and daughter are reunited when Lucy comes to stay. Carol shows off her art studio and proudly unveils a bronze sculpture she's made in her mother's likeness. In fact, the bust is of Crawford, made thirty years prior during her early days at MGM.

Early in the production, Crawford insisted that the actress playing her daughter be replaced. Crawford (who had worked with Diane Baker in The Best of Everything, 1959) most likely suggested Baker for the role of Carol. In Battle-Ax: The Making of Strait-Jacket, Baker speaks fondly of Crawford and of how supportive she was during filming.

Every day objects take on a whole new meaning when Lucy is around. An artist's chisel seems menacing when in the hands of a "reformed" murderess. That evening, when Carol's well-to-do fiancé arrives to have dinner, Lucy disappears. While looking for her, they find an old family album. All the photos of Lucy's former husband have been neatly cut and decapitated!

 

The next day, mother and daughter become reacquainted while indulging in some retail therapy. Years in an asylum have left Lucy tired and gray, but after getting a head-to-toe make-over, she looks exactly as she did twenty years earlier. Crawford makes a grand entrance by dramatically pulling back a set of dressing room curtains to reveal her characters "youthful" rejuvenation. "Are you sure it doesn't make me look too young?" she coyly asks, as if it were possible for an aging Hollywood star to ever look too young.

 

While in the store, Lucy hears a strange voice that mocks her with childish nursery rhymes about her murderous past. That night, she awakens to the same taunting voice as well as a pair of disembodied heads on her pillow! When uncle Bill comes to check the room, there's nothing there. Could Lucy's reintroduction into society have caused a relapse in her psychosis?

Eager to impress her daughter's fiancé, Lucy puts on her best dress and prepares for a casual cocktail hour. The highlight of the film comes when Michael (John Anthony Hayes) arrives and Crawford begins to vamp it up in an embarrassing attempt to seduce a man half her age.

"Really, Mrs. Harbin, I'm just a country boy," he demurs as she caresses his youthful physique. Thankfully, the telephone interrupts the awkward seduction. There's no telling how far Lucy (or Crawford for that matter) would have taken the unflattering May/December insanity.

 

A doctor from the institution has decided to pay Lucy an impromptu visit. Mitchell Cox, a Pepsi Cola executive, plays Dr. Anderson. Cox had no acting experience, but Crawford promised him the role as a favor. At the time, Crawford was married to the president of Pepsi and served as the soft drink's unofficial spokesperson.

Lucy makes a show of appearing nonchalant in front of the doctor. Memorably, Crawford lights a cigarette by striking a match on a spinning phonograph record. But the doctor's sudden appearance has shaken her already rattled nerves.

"Lucy, how do you spend your time?"

Her hilarious answer, "Knitting."

His line of questioning becomes too much to bear and she literally comes unraveled. After she storms out, the doctor consults with Carol. He is concerned that Lucy is, "trying to recapture her past, but for her, the past is dangerous."

"But she is sane now."

"Sanity's a relative term."

You can say that again. It isn't long before the doctor falls prey to Lucy's ax wielding ways.

 

Hours later, Carol suspects the worst when she finds the doctor's car still parked in the yard. When the hospital telephones the farm trying to locate him, Carol assures her mother that, "I won't let them take you back."

The next day, Carol discovers slovenly farmhand George Kennedy painting the doctor's automobile. Using "finders keepers" logic, he has claimed the car as his own. Since the doctor disappeared under mysterious circumstances and she tried to hide the evidence, he knows that there's nothing Carol can do about it. She storms off while he continues to paint and casually whistle the film's theme song.

Hopefully the car was worth it. Kennedy soon meets his graphic demise at the hand of a swinging ax.

Though Carol is concerned about her mother's questionable mental state, she agrees to a family dinner with Michael's parents. On the drive over to the estate, uncle Bill chimes in, "Just remember, we're going to a party, not a funeral." With Lucy in tow, that remains to be seen.

 

Lucy has a minor freak-out in the guest bathroom, which is understandable given the prison-like décor. When the subject of Carol and Michael's engagement is brought up, his parents make it clear that they steadfastly oppose the marriage. They soon start grilling Lucy about her questionable past and her mental illness. "It wasn't just a sanitarium was it?"

No one backs Lucy into a corner. Crawford fires back with all guns blazing, "No, it wasn't! It was an asylum and it was hell! Twenty years of pure hell!"

When you're confronting a woman whose grip on reality is tenuous at best, it doesn't pay to threaten her family. "My girl is going to have what she wants out of life. Carol and Michael are going to be married and nobody's gonna stop it!" Lucy bellows before fleeing into the night.

Later, the foreboding jangle of a charm bracelet can be heard as Michael's parents prepare for bed. Father is hacked to death while fetching his slippers from the bedroom closet. When mother comes to investigate, she is also attacked by an ax wielding Lucy. Suddenly, Lucy arrives to apologize for her earlier behavior. Wait a second… Two Lucy's? As the killer lunges for her, Lucy wrestles her doppelganger to the bed and removes the imposter's disguise. It's Carol… she's the murderess!

 
     
 

When Michael comes upon the scene, Carol tries to convince him that it's her mother who's finally lost her mind, "She tried to kill me! She tried to kill us all!" When he sees the mask in her hands, he knows the truth. It seems that severe childhood trauma has made Carol just a little bit nutty.

In the film's knockdown, drag-out, over-the-top finale, Carol pounds her fist into the rubber mask she's made of her mother's face. "I love you. I hate you! I love you! I hate you!" she wails, spiraling down into insanity. Not to be outdone in the histrionics department, Crawford grandly sobs and acts as if the future of another Academy Award hung on this pivital, dramatic moment of her performance.

"You see, it was all part of Carol's plan," Lucy explains to uncle Bill in the film's wrap-up. Carol used the bronze sculpture to create the mask of her mother. The severed heads, the vandalized photos and the mysterious voices were also part of her scheme. She planned to kill Michael's disapproving parents and frame her unstable mother for the crime. The doctor and the farmhand got in her way and had to be disposed of.

Lucy suddenly becomes a paragon of virtue, a self-sacrificing mother figure. "I'm going to Carol," she states in a mellifluous tone that'll be familiar to any true Crawford fan. "Carol needs me. Maybe now, I can help her."

With loving care from Mommie Dearest herself, Carol should be back to "normal" in no time.

 

The Strait-Jacket DVD features a widescreen (1.85:1) version of the film and some fun extras. There is a brief, but enjoyable, ax-swinging screen test, as well as Crawford's costume and make-up tests. It's fun to see Crawford, ever the professional, conduct the tests while "in" character. A teaser trailer for the film is narrated by Crawford herself and trailers for 13 Ghosts (1960) and Mr. Sardonicus (1961) also appear on the disc.

In the making of featurette, several film historians cite the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) as the main influence for Strait-Jacket. Producer and director William Castle was so taken with Baby Jane that he set out to make his own horror/thriller with a well-known star. Castle got Robert Bloch (Psycho, 1960) to write the script and cast Joan Blondell as his leading lady. After an accident forced Blondell to back out, Crawford eventually signed on as the murderous Lucy.

As a filmmaker, William Castle gained a certain reputation for the outrageous gimmicks he used to get audiences into theatres. Despite the inflammatory language in the ad campaign (Warning! Strait-Jacket vividly depicts ax murders!) Strait-Jacket is Castle's serious attempt at an "A" picture. Which isn't to say that Castle didn't also have a sense of humor. When the studio logo appears at the end of Strait-Jacket, Columbia's Lady Liberty is missing her head.

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