Something has always bugged me about the 1964 William Castle horror/thriller flick Strait-Jacket ever since I first saw it as a kid. Nope, it’s not the too close to Psycho plot points courtesy of writer Robert Bloch (who also wrote that classic). And it’s certainly not Joan Crawford’s wide and wild-eyed performance as Lucy Harbin, the freed after twenty years in an asylum ax murderess now going through a potential relapse victim as the bodies start piling up again. It’s also definitely not Castle’s direction that downplays some of the camp potential of the material and goes for a handful of genuinely nifty 60’s era shocks.
Nope. What bugged me about the film that still bugs me today is how the hell George Kennedy’s creepy farmhand Leo painted three quarters of a car with the smallest damn can of paint and what looks like a two or three-inch wide brush. HOW DID HE DO THAT?!!
No, seriously. Just go watch the film and see for yourself and I’ll bet you a dollar that you have the EXACT same question. The scene in question rolls up maybe about two thirds of the way in after Lucy’s doctor goes missing. After she refuses to answer questions about what happened to the doc, her daughter, Carol (Diane Baker) drives that car into an old shed and slaps a padlock on as Leo lurks nearby. The next day, Carol pops out to head into town with her beau, but sees Leo painting the formerly black (or blue? The film is in black and white, so I’m guessing here) car a hideous shade of flat light grey. Or was it yellow? it’s definitely not white unless it was a really off-white. Maybe it was ecru? You know, as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes black and white films can be really annoying to watch when you have to guess what color something is, grrrrr!
Anyway, we see Leo holding that tiny can of paint in one hand and the brush in the other as he’s working on the left front fender. From the different camera shots you can make out that He’s got the left side, trunk and most of the right side done. As in all he’s got left to paint are up both front side fenders and the hood. With that two or three-inch wide brush. Okay, let’s stop for a minute to add some potential logic to this sticky situation. We’ll guess that Leo has a few gallons of enamel paint tucked away as well as maybe a gallon of thinner. Maybe he’s been pouring paint into that smaller can and giving the car a Maaco quality job over the last few hours before the hot summer sun and those paint fumes put him down for the count. Whatever he’s doing, I just don’t buy it.
For starters, look at the finish he’s getting. Other than the part he’s working on when Carol walks up, it looks way too flat and smooth to be done with a brush. That and waaaaitaminit… look how fantastic a job he did on that trim! Check that roof line and around the windows! Man, that Leo may be a certified creep who likes killing chickens and staring at frozen dead pig carcasses, but he’s got quite the steady hand! Wow. Anyway, I’d go ask Leo how he did it, but it seems that he lost his head shortly after that painting scene. Rats. That scene bugged me as a kid because I used to build models and completely despised the painting part. But if you didn’t paint your models, they tended to look like plastic toys and not actual cars, planes or spaceships.
Wait, where was I? Oh, right. Poor Leo gets offed soon afterwards (you can see it coming a mile away, but it’s a great scene) and we never see that car again afterwards. Now that I think about it, it’s quite too bad no other horror movie director picked up on this as far as I can tell. Or any other genre director for that matter. Now, if I were making a horror film, I’d have put a 3/4 painted rusted-out ride (same model and year if possible) in the background of some flick and set some actors loose with a bit of dialog around it. Not about the car, mind you. But I’d have it placed so that the audience got a whiff of red herring to keep them off the scent of a plot twisteroo or two. Sure, only one person out of a few hundred thousand would have gotten the gag. But hey, that’s how I roll, folks. Right on into obscurity, people… right on into obscurity.
Oh, and the rest of the film isn’t bad at all, by the way. A bit too much of Crawford pulling the strings (note the massive Pepsi product placement in one scene and her always acting over Baker’s work in their scenes together), but that’s the lady at work. Considering Joan Blondell was initially to play the part but had to pull out thanks to an accident (maybe this one? Ha and ha-ha), Joan getting the gig insured this flick would be a lot more memorable today. It’s a great guilty pleasure like a bunch of those other genre flicks that got older actresses some decent to middling late career work. Of Joan’s 60’s “B” horror film output, I’d place this one behind Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and well above the goofball circus murder-fest Berserk! by a few yards.
The latter film slips a bit (or a lot depending on your tolerance level for abrupt stupidity) thanks to one of the worst “we’re running out of film” finales for such an otherwise great-looking movie. Well, that and the fact that that silly circus would have been shut down for weeks while those murderers were being investigated. Anyway, the next time Strait-Jacket is on the air (probably via TCM), check it out and prepare to be in awe of Leo’s skills with a brush! Oh, and I think Leo was painting the car yellow so he could open a taxi service. That farm certainly wasn’t making a fortune selling halved frozen pigs, headless chickens or Pepsi by the case, that’s for sure.