TIFF’s The Hard Way – The Films of Bette Davis Review: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

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Cast: , ,
Director: Robert Aldrich
Country: USA
Genre: Drama | Horror | Thriller


Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s The Hard Way: The Films of Bette Davis which runs from November 15th to December 8th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.

The specter of murder and madness looms high over Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).  Intended as another vehicle to pair Bette Davis with Joan Crawford until apparently Davis drove Crawford off the film and she was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, the film covers a lot of the same themes as Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) with some notable differences.

The story is about Charlotte (Bette Davis) who is presumed to have murdered her lover (who was married) after he broke off their relationship.  He was murdered with a cleaver, his right hand and head severed from his body.  Twenty-seven years later, she is a recluse living in her big Louisiana plantation mansion all by herself with only her maid Velma (Agnes Moorehead) for company.  She’s being forced off her land due to a requisition to build a new road and bridge that will cut straight through her property.  She refuses to leave and writes to her cousin Miriam (de Havilland) to try and help keep the land and the house (which will be demolished in two weeks).

Intended as another vehicle to pair Bette Davis with Joan Crawford until apparently Davis drove Crawford off the film and she was replaced by Olivia de Havilland…

Miriam arrives and immediately takes control of the house away from Velma, who really doesn’t like Miriam.  The night of Miriam’s arrival, she has dinner with Charlotte and Dr. Drew (Joseph Cotton) and Miriam says she’ll help as best she can.  Charlotte believes Miriam knows that she was called in to try and save the house for her, but Miriam reiterates that there is nothing to be done and Charlotte must leave.

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Around that time, someone starts to dredge up the memory of the murder.  There starts to be things that pop up that may or may not be in Charlotte’s mind.  Charlotte starts to lose her tentative grasp on what little sanity she has left as Miriam gains more control.

The rest of the story has more twists than a pretzel factory.  Something new is discovered in nearly every scene and the film builds to a startling climax.  There is much more here than the story of a reclusive southern belle who has been weathered by time and stress.  There is a plot against her that grows in strength and intensity throughout the latter half of the film.

Aldrich does some amazing things with angles and lighting in Sweet Charlotte.  The dinner scene I mentioned above is lit in an incredibly interesting way.  Light cuts in across the principle’s faces while shadow hides their bodies.  Lines of light and shadow cross over them like prison bars (this is especially evident on Davis, who is a prisoner to her own memories) and all of it appears natural, not someone with a key light off screen.  All of the lighting is natural and atmospheric and really quite well done.  In addition to the dining room scene, there is a scene later in the film in the ballroom/parlor set at night.  Charlotte is in there alone, dressed up like she’s waiting for her lover and not admitting to herself that he’s dead.  She begins to lose it again and smashes all the mirrors.  The lighting seems to all be coming from the windows, giving lots of shadows and room for her to see what may or may not be lurking just on the edges of the light.

Then, as always, there’s Bette Davis.  She plays Charlotte with tremendous vigor.  She teeters on the edge of sanity so artfully it’s really something to see. 

Aldrich’s angles are fascinating too.  He utilizes a lot of high angles to give the impression of spying and just as many low angles to exaggerate the size of people and things.  He makes these angles indicative of the state of mind Charlotte is in: high angles when she is confident and defiant, low angles when she is scared and confused.

Then there are the actors.  It’s always wonderful for me to see Joseph Cotton in anything.  He’s one of my favorite classic actors, so seeing him as an aging southern gentleman doctor was a nice treat.  Agnes Moorehead should also be mentioned.  She plays the housekeeper Velma as a lower class, somewhat vulgar woman.  She steals every scene she’s in and earned herself her fourth and final Oscar nomination for this film, before she took on the role that everyone knows her for now, that of Endora on TV’s Bewitched.

Olivia de Havilland is in fine form as Miriam.  The role is quite out of character for a woman best known for Maid Marion in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and the sweetest character ever put to film, Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939).  She plays a devious, conniving woman with her own agenda.  It’s not clear what that agenda is until later in the film, but she works at it in various ways throughout the film.  Knowing that she stepped into a role originally occupied by Joan Crawford, I can’t help but wonder how Crawford would have played the role.  As amazing as Crawford is, I’m not sure she would have had the same weight as de Havilland.  Having her in the role is like Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  When Fonda approached Leone about wearing contacts to change his eye color, Leone said that he wanted people to see his trademark blue eyes and say ‘holy shit, that’s Hank Fonda!’.  I can’t help but wonder if there was a similar impetus for casting de Havilland after Crawford left the picture (for whatever reason that may have been).  The shock of having her in a role that was less than kind and gentle was likely unheard of.

Then, as always, there’s Bette Davis.  She plays Charlotte with tremendous vigor.  She teeters on the edge of sanity so artfully it’s really something to see.  Her guilt has propelled her into staying in that house and living like a hermit.  She is convinced that her father killed her lover and stays there to protect the secret, as if her leaving would reveal it.  She is angry when she’s lucid and childlike when she’s lost in her memories.  Unlike Baby Jane, her move to total insanity is gradual and enacted by outside forces as much as her own doing.  Though she trusts only a small handful of people, she trusts those people blindly, never questioning their loyalties.  By the end of the film, however she is calm and poised.  She has the answers she’s been waiting her whole life for and can finally be at peace.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a finely executed psychological thriller/horror film.  There is a surprising amount of gore and swearing for a picture of this time and that works in its favor.  It lends a realistic quality to a film that could otherwise be a little ridiculous.  It’s well paced and offers no end of surprises.  The ending haunts you long after it’s over and makes you recalculate everything you just saw.  Though its credibility flags in some spots, the benefits outweigh the faults by the end.

[notification type=”star”]85/100 ~ GREAT. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a finely executed psychological thriller/horror film.  There is a surprising amount of gore and swearing for a picture of this time and that works in its favor. [/notification]

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I believe film occupies a rare place as art, entertainment, historical records and pure joy. I love all films, good and bad, from every time period with an affinity to Classical Hollywood in general, but samurai, sci-fi and noir specifically. My BA is in Film Studies from Pitt and my MA is in Education. My goal is to be able to ignite a love of film in others that is similar to my own.