Monday, October 13, 2014




In my review for the Joan Crawford psycho-film BERSERK! I wrote:

Though there are some perceptive psychological motifs scattered throughout the Herman Cohen-Aben Kandel script for BERSERK, I can't help feeling that if they'd been doing this script in college we'd have witnessed them peeking over Robert Bloch's shoulder to read his notes for STRAIT-JACKET (1964).
Upon re-viewing JACKET, though, I have to add that Bloch's notes for that film would have had another previous source: that of his own 1959 book PSYCHO. This book, rather famously adapted to film by director Alfred Hitchcock and scripter Joseph Stefano, set the tone for the majority of the "perilous psycho" films of the 1960s.

The producers of both STRAIT-JACKET and BERSERK-- respectively William Castle and Herman Cohen-- were both showmen just as Hitchcock was. The great difference, though, was that Hitchcock usually chose scripts that were tight and at least apparently logical, while the other two preferred scripts built, almost transparently, around gimmicks. STRAIT-JACKET is the exception to the rule in William Castle's films, but any quality in the film arises predominantly from Robert Bloch's script.

As many horror-fans know, Castle had dipped his bucket in the PSYCHO well earlier, as he produced and directed a knockoff, HOMICIDAL, which appeared a year subsequent to Hitchcock's big success. HOMICIDAL has its moments, but it's not nearly as well organized as Bloch's script for JACKET-- which in turn, recycles many of the elements of Bloch's PSYCHO novel.  I don't suppose Bloch thought he'd duplicate the success of the Hitchcock film by collaborating with Castle, but JACKET is a much more layered script than one sees in most Castle movies-- or, for that matter, in most of Bloch's later screenplays.

If any readers ignored the spoiler warning, too bad, because right off I'm revealing that the daughter did it. Even though this is a Joan Crawford film-- sold as one of the "horror hag" movies more or less initiated in the 1960s by WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE-- the character central to the narrative is not Crawford's Lucy Harbin, but her daughter Carol (Diane Baker)-- who functions in part as Bloch's "female Norman Bates." I don't remember if I guessed "the real killer" in my first viewing of JACKET, but in retrospect there are no other suspects for the film's murders: one either believes that Lucy did it, or figures out that it's really her solicitous daughter. PSYCHO, the story of a boy's unhealthy obsession with his mother, diverted the audience's suspicions from Norman by creating the illusion of a vicious old knife-wielding biddy. JACKET focuses on a girl's unhealthy preoccupation with her mother, but Carol is never as twitchy as Norman, and usually seems to be a model of daughterly concern-- though some of her innocuous lines take on new meaning following the Big Reveal.

Norman's poisoning of his mother and her lover-- not seen on camera, and only recreated through dialogue--  has been interpreted by some critics as a violent reaction to the Freudian primal scene, every young boy or girl's first exposure to seeing Mommy and Daddy make the beast with two backs. Bloch's script puts JACKET's scene of primal-sex-and-violence right up front. Lucy, a low-income farm-woman, finds her husband in bed with another woman, picks up an axe, and chops them both to death. But this time a fourth person witnesses the transgression: grade-schooler Carol witnesses the murder of her father by her mother, in some ways becoming merged with the "eye" of the audience. Whereas the story of Ed Gein informed PSYCHO, JACKET's roots are in the story of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of killing both her father and stepmother with an axe. Bloch makes this evident by reworking the famed "Lizzie Borden took an axe" doggerel and inserting Lucy Harbin's name into the song.  Of course, Borden was acquitted by the law, if not by folklore, while the film's viewer never doubts that Lucy kills in rage at her husband's infidelity. When the film concludes, it will be Carol who has the closer resemblance to Borden, having been focused on killing a mother and a father-- though not her own.

Lucy is found guilty of manslaughter and condemned to an asylum for the next twenty years. During this time Carol is raised by her uncle Bill (brother to Lucy) and his wife Emily, who like Lucy and her barely seen husband are also low-income farm-folk. So Carol doesn't take a step down in terms of her economic situation, but at some point in her fictional life-- perhaps because she's mercilessly teased by schoolmates for being a murderess' daughter-- Carol decides to marry up by romancing Michael Fields, a scion of the upper crust. Michael's parents are a problem, though. Mister Fields is not entirely hostile-- in one scene he flirts jokingly with Carol, claiming "it's all in the family"-- but Mrs. Fields doesn't want the daughter of an axe murderer in the family.

Lucy's release sets up Carol's plot: while not realistic on the face of things, it is at least "apparently logical" in film-thriller terms. Carol gaslights her mother to make her uncertain that she's truly been cured, and designs a mask that will make observers (the audience?) think that Lucy has killed the Fields. But before Carol can even get to her real targets, she's forced to kill two men who pose a threat to her elaborate scheme-- one being Lucy's psychiatrist from the asylum, the other being farm-hand Leo, a sort of stereotypical "white trash" hick who represents the nightmare of low-income origins.

One of Bloch's best twists on his PSYCHO-plot revolves around Carol's Pygmalion-like efforts to build Lucy into a credible killer. Norman Bates' efforts to simulate his mother's continued existence fool no one but himself, but Carol is playing to a bigger audience. When Lucy is released into the real world, she looks like no sort of threat: she's a fragile, dowdy old woman. Carol actually re-models her aged mother to make her look as much as possible like the Lucy who killed Carol's father, with a flashy dress and a big black wig, not unlike Carol's hair. Carol succeeds so well in this makeover that Lucy comes on to Michael right in front of Carol's eyes. This scene probably does a lot to convince audience-members who expect Crawford's character to go axe-happy.

Other PSYCHO-references abound: edged objects like knives, axes and even knitting-needles appear not just to puncture things, but also to punctuate the narrative. Wigs and sculpted busts constantly remind the audience of the image of the severed head seen at the opening-- and may be Bloch having some fun with a Norman-motif that didn't appear in Hitchcock's film: the fact that Norman wasn't just a stabber, but also a head-chopper.  Yet all of these images, so often stage-managed by Carol, raise the question: is Carol really acting for sheer gain, or is she recapitulating these images as a sort of repetition-compulsion?

Interestingly Carol doesn't say much if anything about her murdered father; she certainly isn't committing murder because she lost her daddy, like the female psycho of 1971's BLOOD AND LACE.  And though Carol's real opponent is another woman, Mrs. Fields, whom she does plan to kill, Carol only ends up slaying males, her third and last victim being the blandly unassuming Mr. Fields. Carol may well be the first female psycho-killer who executes only male victims, even though she does plan to kill one woman and frame another.

Norman Bates kills his mother and her lover, and then kills women who remind him of his mother. Carol builds up her mother in order to destroy her-- but Carol can only do this by "becoming" her mother, by taking on the image of a violent, trashily-dressed slattern. It's in this guise that Carol is thwarted from killing Mrs. Fields when Lucy intrudes by accident and wrestles away Carol's weapon. Carol's last scene shows her pounding her fists on the mask she made of Lucy's face, alternately crying out both hatred and love for her mother. Carol may even show more ambivalence than Norman, given that in a sense Lucy's husband betrays not only Lucy, but also his daughter, by sleeping around. On some subconscious level Carol may admire Lucy's fearsome use of force, rather like the "daughter of the Ripper" from HANDS OF THE RIPPER, who walks in on Daddy murdering Mommy and decides she'd rather be more like a live Daddy than a dead Mommy.

Like PSYCHO, JACKET ends on a downbeat summing-up scene, but lacks the powerful final image of the Hitchcock film. Strangely, the title really doesn't take on much meaning either in a literal or figurative sense. There's a scene or two in which Crawford's Lucy is seen in an asylum strait-jacket, but this may have been nothing but a marketing-strategy, intended to sell the film with something that had "madness assocations."

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