Sunday, September 19, 2010

Classic Film Review: Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Directed By:  Robert Aldrich
Starring: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten

"You're a vile, sorry little bitch!"
~Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis)~

I've caught glimpses of this film on TCM off and on over the years but had never sat down to watch the film in its entirety. Over the years I've slowly been working my way through Bette Davis' lengthy filmography. The woman had a long, illustrious career in Hollywood for a reason: she was a wonderful actress who never conformed to Hollywood's standards of beauty. Like Katherine Hepburn, Davis was her own person and no other actress in Hollywood could recreate her blend of talent and dark glamour. With her smokey voice and intense glare, Davis has fascinated me ever since I saw Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? when I was only 12. It was only a matter of time before I finally made my way onto watching Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte.

Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) is an aging recluse, living in her deceased father's secluded house with only her housekeeper, Velma (Agnes Moorehead) for company. A wealthy spinster, Charlotte is the subject of gossip in the small town in Louisiana where she lives. Charlotte has lived a life devoid of human contact for nearly 40 years, after the brutal axe murder of the love of her life, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), a married womanizer who promised Charlotte he'd run away with her. On the night of John's murder, Charlotte is found covered in his blood and, although she is never formally charged with murder, everyone in town suspects she did the deed out of anger and jealousy when John refused to leave with her after all. Later on, when Charlotte's old plantation house (which acts as a shrine devoted to both her overbearing father and John) is threatened with demolition she enlists the help of her cousin, Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), her last living relation whom she hasn't seen since the night of John's murder. Miriam even brings along Dr. Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten) to assess the mental stability of Charlotte. Along the way, there are twists and revelations that culminate into a dramatic and violent conclusion.

By early 1964, director Robert Aldrich had planned on re-teaming with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the feuding stars of his 1962 hit, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Crawford soon dropped out of the project (reportedly due to an illness) and Davis was paired with Olivia de Havilland instead; an actress known for her gentle portrayals of sweet and virtuous women (from Maid Marion in The Adventures of Robin Hood to Melanie in Gone with the Wind). It was a strange casting choice, putting de Havilland in the role of Charlotte's conniving cousin, Miriam; however, under Aldrich's direction de Havilland made her characterization of Miriam worthy of Charlotte's insults (see opening quote).

The film is part Southern gothic, part psychological thriller; something Aldrich excelled at when directing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and really capitalized on with Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte. The prologue of the film, which shockingly depicts the violent murder of John Mayhew, was incredibly chilling and graphic for a movie released in 1964. It's not hard to see why this would have upset audiences back in the day. It could still easily have the same effect on viewers today, even those desensitized by today's violent film standards. Not everything is constantly dark and violent, however, as the film manages to both amuse and terrify in equal measure. Witnessing Davis standing on her porch, pointing a rifle at trespassers and yelling at them in her thick Louisianna accent is downright campy and her performance is reason alone to check out the film. Yet, on a darker note, the longer Miriam and Drew remain in her house, the more erratic and dangerously unhinged Charlotte becomes.

A genuine whodunit, Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte is an eerie, violent and schlocky film blessed with two wonderful actresses in starring roles. As the film goes on, it gets progressively creepy and unsettling (example, the twisted nursery rhyme made up by townsfolk who believe Charlotte was the murderess: "Chop chop, Sweet Charlotte/Chop chop till he's dead/Chop chop Sweet Charlotte/Chop off his hand and head"). The film is over-the-top but very satisfying, although its main fault may be that it borrows too heavily from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Despite its campy and outrageous plot, this film will sit with you long after it's over.