Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964). Director: Robert Aldrich.

"She's not really crazy. She just acts that way because people expect it of her."

This film seems to get better with the passage of time. Originally this was meant to be a follow up to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? re-teaming Bette Davis with Joan Crawford [who would have been great in the picture and should have completed it] but Crawford quit the production and Olivia de Havilland stepped in -- with happy results. As others have noted, watching sweet "Miss Melanie" of Gone With the Wind doing the things that de Havilland does as Miriam gives it all an added kick.

Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) lives alone in a forlorn mansion that is about to be torn down to make way for a bridge. She calls on the only family she has left -- cousin Miriam Deering (de Havilland) -- to come and help her, but Miriam has other things on her mind. For most of her life Charlotte has been the chief suspect in the mutilation murder of her lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), a sensitive soul who wrote a love song to Charlotte [the title tune] and put it in a music box. Charlotte is haunted by her lost love and by her feeling that it was her father (Victor Buono in a bravura turn) who killed him.

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte takes a cast of golden age stars and character actors and places them in a classy production with a sop to the teen audience via the graphic, well-executed [pun intended] murder scene that almost opens the picture, and which is actually bloodier than the Psycho murder of 1960 [we never do learn what became of the poor man's head and hand, which were apparently carried off by the murderer]. This alone predisposed many 1964 critics to dismiss the film out of hand, although the rest of the film is entirely tasteful. Not only tasteful, but extremely well done. Aldrich's direction and handling of the suspense scenes is far superior to his work on Baby Jane. Joseph Biroc's cinematography is consistently outstanding and the production values first-rate -- this is one good-looking movie. [Frank] DeVol's musical score is extremely effective. One could argue that Baby Jane had a kind of cheapjack feel to it, but that is definitely not true of Charlotte. The screenplay by Henry Farrell and Lukas Heller, while it may at one point borrow a plot gambit from Diabolique, is suspenseful and full of great dialogue. Most scenes, such as a murder on a staircase and the bitter arguments between the neurotic principals, are handled with great dramatic flair.

And then there's the acting. Davis gives one of her finest latter-day performances, getting across the pathos of the character as well as her mania. [Her pantomime at the end as she reads a letter with tremendously important information in it is marvelous.] As Miriam, Olivia de Havilland is on target from her entrance until the final moments. Witness her wonderful delivery of her rejoinder to Dr. Bayliss. "You were always free with your compliments. It was your ... intentions... that were a little vague." As the charming if reptilian Bayliss Joseph Cotten offers another dead-on characterization. Agnes Moorehead almost walks off with the picture as the unfortunate housekeeper Velma. Mary Astor, Cecil Kellaway, and others offer superior supporting performances.

Hush...Hush deserves to be recognized as a certified classic.

Verdict: Fascinating! ****.


Livius said...

You're spot on in your assessment of this one William. It's nowhere near as well known as "Baby Jane" but it's much the better picture. The characterisations just seem more real and warmer, And yes, the production values can't be faulted - everything looks great.

I haven't watched this one for a while, but I think I remember hearing that Crawford began shooting before pulling out and that it's possible to catch a glimpse of her in the car at the beginning when Miriam first arrives.

William said...

Thanks for your comments. Glad to know somebody else admires the film as I do. Crawford did shoot some scenes -- and there's a famous photo of her and Davis posing atop two gravestones in the cemetery -- so it's possible she's in the car in the long shots.

Best, Bill