Sunday, May 28, 2023

Prince Albert in a Can: Out of the Dark/Child's Play (1964), by Ursula Curtiss and its film adaptation I Saw What You Did (1965)

To a great extent, children were neither seen nor heard in Golden Age detective fiction, though they certainly pop up in Dorothy L. Sayers' humorous short story Talboys, say, Margaret Cole's novel Scandal at School (1935), where the murderee is a blackmailing teenage girl, and Agatha Christie's Crooked House, where--well, I'd better not say more about that one!  

I have the impression that the depiction of children in crime fiction owes rather more to the Americans than the Brits, Americans like like Craig Rice with her classic Home Sweet Homicide and the various mid-century mistresses of domestic suspense, like Ursula Curtiss.  Indeed, Curtiss, the mother of five children, went so far as to base her 1964 crime novel Out of the Dark (Child's Play in England), on her own family.  

The book reads something like Shirley Jackson's popular domestic child-raising comedies, Life among the Savages and Raising Demons, crossed with a tale about a psychotic killer.  It's a rather weird combination, to my mind inadvertently making the case for keeping kids out of crime stories, unless they are themselves killers like the sociopathic tot in William March's The Bad Seed--tales of morbid psychology, in other words, where anything narsty goes.  

Tales about the mirthful doings of wacky kids, on the other hand, don't really mix well with murder, in my view.  But that is rather what we got here!

The basic scenario in Child's Play--the title I'm used to, and the better one I think--is clever, and it's not surprising the novel was adapted as a film by that great American impresario of horror schlock, William Castle.  In the novel a pair bored girls, "home alone" as it were, decide to make a series of prank phone calls to unsuspecting victims, and soon get in over their heads.

It's the old "Prince Albert in a can" ruse, I suppose you know that one?  It's where kids call a store asking if they have "Prince Albert in a can?,"  referring, don't you know, to the Prince Albert brand of tobacco.  If the victim unsuspectingly answers, "yes, we do" then the kids scream: "Let him out!"  Hilarity ensues.  I did this one myself, but disappointingly the person on the other end of the line anticipated me by saying, "No, we let him out.Stephen King used this bit in his horror novel It and it appeared as well in the television adaptation.  It's referenced in the Curtiss novel as well.

Let him out!
In the Curtiss novel, which is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the author's place of residence from 1960, the teen girl pranksters are Libby Mannering and her visiting friend from Chicago Kit Travers.  In the book Kit--a sort of urban sophisticate who seems older than her fourteen years (Libby is fourteen as well)--is the instigator of the phone calls, uttering to her victims, all for fun, the threatening line: "I know who you really are, and I saw what you did...."  

This lands the girls in trouble when they utter the line on the phone to a man who years ago got away with a terrible murder....

As I mentioned above, this is a classic suspense scenario and kudos to Curtiss for being the first, apparently, to use it. 

Unfortunately, however, from my perspective, Libby happens to have four younger siblings, three brothers and a baby sister, and their antics, lovingly dwelt upon by the author, undermine the suspense.  It seems that Curtiss, herself the mother of five children, based the kids in the book on her own.  She told the Albuquerque Journal that the novel "was written around the five Curtiss children, Katy, 15, John, Paul, Kieran and Mary, 8."  Based on the antics in this book I would say that the Curtiss children must have been quite the hellions!  More than a match for any mere murderer, indeed.

But the book is not a murder comedy either.  To me it's schizophrenic.  Early on there's a rather frightening depiction of the original murder that makes clear the killer is a very bad dude, a sociopathic type, and it should make us fear powerfully for the safety of the kids, but it really doesn't.  I could never really make myself believe Curtiss' brat pack was in true danger, despite the atmospherics. (The somewhat feckless Mannering parents are spending the night in Santa Fe and had gotten the kids an adult babysitter, who never shows.)  

Perhaps had Curtiss confined the cast of kiddie characters to just the two teenage girls, it might have worked better.  If three's a crowd, five is a calamity, at least as far as suspense is concerned.  The author's slightly earlier suspense novel, Hours to Kill, a superb study in terrifying isolation, is much stronger as pure suspense, I believe. 


Some reviewers voiced similar complaints about the book as mine, but on the whole the novel received boffo reviews (specially in England) and it became one of only two Curtis novels to be filmed.  The 1965 film version of Out of the Dark, entitled I Saw What You Did, is an interesting movie to thriller fans, though ultimately I think it is deeply flawed.  

It was directed by William Castle, the last film by him, I believe, that anyone ever talks about, though he would direct five more.  Its main stars were two teenage unknowns, Andi Garrett and Sara Lane, as Libby and Kit respectively.  (Lane was fifteen at filming; I'm not actually certain how old Garrett was.) 

Girls Night In

However, the main adult co-stars in the film were big movie stars then in their fifties: Joan Crawford, 58, and John Ireland, 50.  Both stars had drinking problems and if anything looked older than their ages.  It's stated a couple of times that John Ireland's character is, or looks like, around forty old, which is laughable, while Crawford, saddled with a horrendous beehive hairdo and some sort of costume jewelry collar contraption that looks like it was lifted from the Temple of Doom, is positively matronly.  (Originally Barbara Stanwyck was supposed to play the role, which would have been more plausible, though Stanwyck was only a year younger than Crawford.)  However, Joan and John still lend an air of needed seriousness to the film.  

John Ireland can't figure it out either.

Fifty-three year old actor Leif Erickson is in the film too, in the throwaway part of Libby's father, like Crawford and Ireland looking old for his age.  The only other sizeable part belongs to nine-year-old Sharyl Locke, as Tess Mannering, Libby's baby sister.  Libby's three brothers from the book, all have been expunged, surely a necessary move for cohrency's sake.  However, little Sharyl does enough mugging for all of them.  

more glamorous days
Joan Crawford and John Ireland in the 
melodrama Queen Bee, from 1955
For the film, it must be noted, is as schizophrenic as the book, if not more so.  The teenage actresses have been much criticized as terrible, but I don't know that this is such a fair charge.  Basically they are tasked with playing a pair of silly teenage girls and at that job I think they succeeded well enough.  (Andi Garrett gets a bit goofy at times though.)  

The biggest problem I had with the film is the godawful silly sitcom music on the soundtrack, which made the film seem like more like a wacky episode of the contemporary "identical cousins" sitcom, The Patty Duke Show.  The lightness of the portions with the kids doesn't blend well with the murderous goins-on among the adults, which, come to think of it, is a pretty fair translation of the book, only more so!  

In particular, the first murder--a blatant rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock's infamous shower scene from Psycho--is quite violently presented and rather off kilter with much of the rest of the film. So, what's the first murder, you ask (if you haven't seen the film already)?  Well, John Ireland, playing Steve Marak (Leonard Whelk in the book), knocks off his pretty young wife Judith (Joyce Meadows) in a rage because she is leaving him.  When he gets a call from Libby, in the sexy guise of Suzette, telling him, "I saw what you did....and I know who you are!," he goes bananas of course.  

Joan Crawford, who starred in William Castle's 1964 horror film Strait-Jacket (a much better flick), has been shoehorned into this film in the part of Amy Nelson, a seriously overdressed neighbor who has the hots for Steve and is always spying on him from her window.  Amy comes up with the brilliant idea of blackmailing Steve, with her knowledge of the murder, into marrying her, which predictably only succeeds in prompting Steve to slay Amy too.  Before Amy--okay, let's just say Joan, cause this is who Joan really is playing here--kicks the bucket, however, she has a great scene confronting Libby, who has come to get a gander at Steve (she thinks he sounds sexy on the phone), scolding and shoving her and denouncing her as a tramp.  Why, if they had gotten Joan's daughter Christina to play Libby, Joan wouldn't have had to do any acting at all!  

"Get outa here, you tramp!"
the scariest thing in the film
Apparently in real life, however, Joan got along with the teenagers just fine.  It was the adult and sexy Joyce Meadows whom she felt threatened by and banned from the set.  (Joan and John Ireland had had a fling during the filming of Queen Bee a decade earlier.)

"Amy" really wasn't much of a part for Joan, in truth, but after I Saw What You Did all she would have left to do on film was two indifferent English horror flicks, Berserk (1967) and Trog (1970).  The Oscar-nominated Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in the end proved no career-saver for Joan.  Soon we may take a look at the late career of Joan's arch-nemesis from Baby Jane (and real life), Bette Davis, and she how she fared!

Murder's nothing a nice little drinkie won't solve!


  1. There is a child, Panty, playing a large role in Ngaio Marsh's Final Curtain. She may even be the book's most memorable character.