Master of the kitsch gimmick William Castle’s 1965 shocker I Saw What You Did is a cautionary tale about the terrible things that happen to nice teenage girls who make prank phone calls.
It’s also notable for being the last appearance in an American film by Joan Crawford. Though not her last film – 1967’s Berserk and 1970’s Trog were shot in the UK – it is like them a horror film, as befits a star who had been around since the 1920s and had become along the way a bit of a gargoyle.
However, it’s not really about her. Instead attention focuses on Libby and Kit, two teenagers having a fun night at Libby’s house while her parents are away and making prank phone calls to pass the time. What larks they are having phoning up people and pretending to be the husband’s breathy mistress to the bemused wife on the other end of the line. Or ringing up people with funny names and mocking them. And then they hit on the ruse of calling people and declaiming: “I saw you did and I know who you are.” Which is fine until they get through to Steve Marak, who has just this minute finished burying the wife he murdered earlier that evening.
The wrinkle in the story is provided by Joan Crawford’s Amy, Steve’s neighbour, who has the hots for Steve and is prepared to do anything to get him, which includes blackmailing him about the murder and forcing him to marry her. Overheated, huh?
Who to kill first, eh Steve? The interfering teenager who, you believe, knows what you did? Or the ageing busybody from next door who has a real suspicion about what you did?
The story is really about the girls, but such is Joan Crawford’s presence that she drags the whole film her way, walking about in that strange automaton stride of hers when not throwing herself forlonly against Steve’s manly chest. She is on screen for a total of nine minutes, says the IMDb but it’s a good nine minutes, if you can ignore the bizarre beauty-lighting treatment she gets and her character’s strange switchback temperament – at Steve’s feet one second and at his throat the next.
When she leaves the stage the film loses energy, as if in mourning, and never quite picks it up again, even as Steve heads into the third act, turning up at Libby’s house with a knife and an agenda.
For Castle this is a notably downbeat number. He was the guy who fitted cinema seats with buzzers to give audiences a jolt in The Tingler and stopped a film for a “fright break” in Homicidal, so audiences could get a refund if they were too terrified to continue.
No such gimmicks here. One page in the Wikipedia says he installed seat belts in some cinemas, to stop audiences being “shocked out of your seat” while watching I Saw What You Did, another says it was mooted but never happened.
There are a lot of stalled, broken and misconstrued relationships in this movie and all of them centre on Steve, who is played by John Ireland, a solid chunk of masculinity slightly less adept at playing the swivel-eyed slasher than the superannuated beefcake. Andi Garret and Sara Lane play Libby and Kit as the uncomplicated girls they are, but with a touch of womanly cunning thrown in – sex is rearing its head – and rather excellent in a minor role is Sharyl Locke as Libby’s little sister, who becomes more woven into the plot than little sisters usually do.
It’s a smartly written, brightly lit, solidly directed film with everything going on in the set-up and not very much in the payoff. The tone is all over the place, and it’s reflected in the soundtrack by Van Alexander, Addams Family jauntiness one second, scowling melodrama the next.
Watch for the ending, when the tone turns again, as if what we’ve been watching is a “kids do the darnedest things” sort of movie, rather than one about death, death and more attempted death. Odd, very odd.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023