Saturday, June 16, 2012

#670. Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Directed By: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten

Tag line: "Don't Tell Anyone What Happened In The Summer House!"

Trivia: Features the final film performance of Mary Astor

Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte reunites the director (Robert Aldrich) and star (Bette Davis) of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Joan Crawford, who also appeared in Baby Jane, was cast in Sweet Charlotte as well, but she became ill during the shoot, and was replaced by Olivia De Havilland). 

It’s been years since I’ve seen this film, and for the longest time, I was of the opinion it was the lesser of the two works. Now, I see I was wrong. Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is an edgy, often downright creepy Southern Gothic, with Davis hamming it up to perfection as the elderly belle with a dark, sinister past.

Decades after the brutal murder of her lover, Charlotte Hollis (Davis), believed by many to be the perpetrator of that heinous crime, is living alone in her desolate mansion, with only long-time housekeeper Velma (Agnes Moorehead) to keep her company. 

When the city threatens to take the estate away from her, Charlotte turns to her cousin, Miriam (Olivia De Havilland), for guidance. With the help of a local doctor (Joseph Cotton), Miriam tries to convince Charlotte that it would be best if she finally left the old place. 

But Miriam might also have an ulterior motive for wanting Charlotte out of the picture.

Whereas What Ever Happened to Baby Jane relied almost exclusively on the relationship between Davis and Crawford to send chills up its audience’s collective spines, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte establishes, in a well-designed pre-title sequence, that the horrors of this particular tale will be a bit more diverse. As the movie opens, we’re transported back to 1927, and watch as Charlotte’s father, Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono), confronts her married lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), telling him, in no uncertain terms, to leave Charlotte alone. 

The next night, at a society ball being held at the Hollis estate, John does exactly what the old man told him to do, taking Charlotte into a back room and promptly ending their relationship. Heartbroken, Charlotte runs off crying, shouting at John that she could kill him. 

From there, things don’t go very well for poor John, who, moments later, is hacked to death with a cleaver, losing his right hand and, presumably, his head in the attack. All the evidence suggests that Charlotte is the killer, especially when she shows up at the dance with blood on her dress. 

We then leap ahead some 30-odd years to modern tinmes, where a group of kids are approaching the dilapidated Hollis mansion, daring one of their number (John Megna, who played Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird) to go inside. “What is she catches me?”, he asks nervously. Yet the others are persistent, so in the boy goes, tip-toeing slowly through the once-great estate. Suddenly, a clock chimes, momentarily breaking the tension.  That is, until an elderly Charlotte rises from her chair, somewhat bewildered, calling out for her dead lover and sending the frightened boy scrambling for the exit. 

Shifting from direct horror (the murder) to suspense, and doing so in the opening few minutes of the film, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte grabs our attention right out of the gate, pulling us in and never letting us go.

Davis builds on the fine work she did in Baby Jane, bringing to Charlotte a believable intensity - peppered with the perfect amount of over-the-top bravado - that makes her tragic character appear unpredictable. And while the movie's ending gets a tad convoluted, even going so far as to borrow a key scene from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 classic Diabolique, Davis’ performance, combined with Aldrich’s always-interesting camera placement and De Havilland’s controlled turn as the cousin who is up to something, transforms Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte into a very different kind of film than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 

And, in some ways, perhaps even a superior one.


Jennifer Garlen said...

One of my favorites - a great Southern Gothic!

DVD Infatuation said...

JGC: Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment!

And yes, this is a great example of Southern Gothic...a dark, twisted film with excellent performances.

Anonymous said...

incredible movie. some of the best performances hands down for a southern noir.

Anonymous said...

I really like this movie! But after seeing the New York Times review, I feel like I should feel ashamed lol.

DVD Infatuation said...

@CometoverHollywood: LOL. No need to be ashamed! I think it's a good movie also.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

Raymond Shaw said...

Despite the brilliant B&W imagery, Aldrich or Biroc the cameraman included two horrible zoom-in shots in the opening ~ the first is to move from a long shot to the window of the house [then cut to inside where Bruce Dern is], the other to show us that the cleaver is missing from its place next to the case of wine. Talk about overkill !

Several other laughable zooms later in this picture. Ugly shots, and rather surprising that they abused the zoom lens so much, considering this was only 1964 and the real damage the lens did to the entire industry didn't fully explode until the 1970s.

But the entire look & feel of Hush Hush was meant to be garish and shocking, so maybe these terrible zooms felt comfortable to them at the time.