Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) - Robert Aldrich

Charlotte Hollis has a problem. An aging recluse and spinster, she hopes to hang onto the family plantation and mansion, which lies in the path of a planned bridge and freeway. To stop the bulldozers, she solicits the help of her cousin, Miriam. At the same time, she is haunted with memories of a murder that took place in the mansion thirty-seven years earlier. Is she going insane?

"Get off my property!"

Thankfully, director Robert Aldrich's 1962 film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was a commercial and critical success, earning 5 Oscar nominations and the year's fourth highest box office. It starred two giants of an earlier era, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Aldrich hoped to duplicate that smash by reuniting the two actors for another psychological thriller two years later. And though Crawford would drop out of the project shortly after filming started and be replaced by Olivia de Havilland, Aldrich achieved his objective. Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a terrifically atmospheric Southern Gothic thriller. While not earning as much in ticket sales, it surpassed the first film in Oscar nominations with 7.

The film opens with a flashback. It is 1927. Louisiana. Big Sam Hollis (Victor Bruno), an important man of wealth and power, is hosting an extravagant party at the Hollis mansion in one of parishes of New Orleans. Charlotte, his only daughter, is a young belle with mischief up her sleeve. That night she and John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), a neer-do-well who is already married, plan to elope. But Sam has gotten wind of their scheme. He intimidates the weak Mayhew into renouncing his love, leaving Charlotte heart-broken and furious. "I'll kill you," she screams at Mayhew, before storming out in tears. Later that night, John sits alone in the summerhouse, distraught over the turn of events. Suddenly he hears something and looks up. A raised cleaver falls and slices off his wrist. It drops again and again as he screams in pain and terror. 

We next see Charlotte, backing slowly into the main house through the front doors. The party is in full swing. She turns to face the revellers and the camera focuses to the front of her dress. It's splattered in blood. She appears almost catatonic. Naturally, everyone assumes she is the killer when John is later found dead, decapitated and one hand severed. It's not shown on screen, but Sam exerts his political influence in the state capital to get the case swept under the rug, but his health is broken and he dies within the year, leaving Charlotte as his sole heir. Ever since, she has been shunned by society.

A newspaper account of the gruesome murder.
With this intriguing start, Aldrich brings us to the present, 1964. The Hollis mansion and plantation lie in the way of a planned freeway. Charlotte stubbornly ignores the eviction notice, going so far as to threaten the bulldozer crew with a rifle. Her only ally is Velma (Agnes Moorehead), her devoted housekeeper, but Velma is as old and as tired as her employer. Charlotte thinks she has a trick up her sleeve--cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), whom she calls for assistance.

Although Davis and de Havilland each had a few productive years ahead, their best years were clearly well behind them at this point, at least as headliners. Both were both two-time Best Actress winners and at various times arguably each the top actress in Hollywood, certainly among the most acclaimed. But that was more than a decade in the past. Joseph Cotten is also featured as Drew Bayless, Charlotte's personal physician. Though Cotten never reached their rarefied heights of popularity, he was a solid 1940s star in his own right. All three had legions of fans. It's a joy watching these three pros from Hollywood's golden age get the chance to act together in a thoroughly enjoyable, well-produced film at this stage of their careers. They look to be having great fun.

Davis has the flashiest and meatiest role, portraying a troubled and confused woman, whose behavior borders on looniness. It's no wonder. Charlotte is fragile by nature, was coddled as a youth, and continues to be haunted by a terrible past tragedy. Perhaps a little paranoid, maybe even demented, she's certainly worn down by the long ridicule she's had to endure. The cruel neighborhood kids make fun of the crazy lady in the old house with a nasty song, one no doubt passed down by their parents:

"Chop chop, sweet Charlotte
Chop chop 'tll he's dead
Chop chop, sweet Charlotte
Chop off his hand and head."

Davis gives a terrific performance, running a gamut of emotions, and as she seemingly descends into madness she elicits our sympathy. One horror scene sends her crawling down the stairs, gasping in shock. Only a confident actor could pull it off without looking a little ridiculous. Davis makes it seem all too realistic.

I prefer her performance here over her nominated role in Baby Jane, which seems intentionally over-the-top and one-dimensional in comparison. She is even effective during the first present-day sequence, when her slumber is interrupted by a boy who's entered her house at night on a dare. Likely dreaming of her old lover, she calls plaintively..., "John?" The frightened boy flees, leaving Charlotte standing in the door holding a music book that plays the theme melody. Quiet tears run down her cheeks as the opening credits role. Here is a character obviously suffering great emotional pain. You wonder how often she wakes in similar fashion, momentarily thinking John has finally come to spirit her away.

Miriam asks Drew how she has managed to live alone so many years. "People who are obliged to live alone have a habit of creating company for themselves," he explains. "Innocent fancies can become fixed illusions."

Charlotte in one of her less lucid moments.

The plot pulls elements from two earlier psychological thrillers, the French horror classic Diabolique, and Gaslight, and Aldrich adds his own touch of black humor. Eerie harpsichord music plays at night. Hounds bay. There are ghostly voices. Curtains billow and a cleaver and severed hand make a mysterious appearance. Do these things really happen or are they hallucinations of Charlotte's damaged mind? When asked if she's really crazy like the people think, she admits her own doubt, answering sadly: "There was a time when I was positive I wasn't."

And there are present-day murders, one when a character cracks a chair over another's head to send the victim careening down the stairs. The script is great fun, particularly when voiced by Davis and Cotten, whose Southern inflections drip with honey. Cotten also infuses his character with an overdose of self-confidence. He skirts just this side of sleazy as the physician, a little too casual and uncaring of Charlotte's predicament, and a little too fond of her wine cellar.

A favorite bit of dialog occurs when Charlotte and Drew sit down to dinner with Miriam upon her arrival. There's tension in the room, and for a while it's apparent past slights still fester between the relatives. Charlotte wants Mariam to go to Baton Rouge to put things right with the county commissioners. When she and Drew suggest once too often that there's no way to prevent the mansion being torn down, Charlotte finally reacts with anger. "What do you think I asked you here for?" she screeches, "COMPANY?" 

Olivia de Havilland as Cousin Miriam.

de Havilland, 48 at filming, looks lovely, and her elegant voice works perfectly for her character, who may not be what she first seems. In this film, no one is. As interesting as Crawford might have been in the role, de Havilland's fortuitous casting enhanced the film immensely because her character is so different from what her fans had come to expect from this Hollywood legend. Moreover, she was generally considered one of Hollywood's most graceful and nicest stars. When Miriam slaps Charlotte out of frustration and viciously scolds her like an unruly child, you are shocked. Crawford wouldn't have induced the same reaction from the audience, particularly given the well-publicized ill feelings the two actors harbored for one another.

Moorehead, nominated for a Supporting Actress award for her efforts here--her career fourth--also shines. Looking like she was rolled up wet and stuffed in a closet overnight, her hair hangs in disarray and her dress might be a Goodwill reject. She's more clever than she looks though, and better able than Charlotte to read people's character.

Think I don't know a due bill when I see one? - Moorehead as Velma.
Another star from the 1940s, Mary Astor, best known as the femme fatale from The Maltese Falcon, appears as Jewel Mayhew, the murdered man's wife. She holds the key to the mystery and has kept it secret for decades. Aldrich's story fashions a clever connection between her and cousin Miriam, who  lived at the Hollis mansion at the time of the original murder.

It's too bad that Astor is only in two scenes because her character is fascinating. One of the best scenes in the film occurs when she encounters Miriam on the street. Jewel, whose health is rapidly failing and whose pocketbook is nearly empty, is disgusted to find the woman in her town. She doesn't bother to hide her contempt. The viewer finds out later why she behaves so.

In the other scene she has tea with a visiting insurance man, Harry Willis (Cecil Kellaway), who helps unravel the mystery for the audience. Kellaway handles these types of roles wonderfully. He has a quiet, friendly voice, one that sounds pleasant and thoughtful. Charlotte and Jewel both instantly trust him. In the final edit, Aldrich unfortunately removed a part of their dialog, which would have given her character considerably more depth. Willis wonders why she never collected on an insurance policy on her husband. She explains that she simply couldn't capitalize on her loss. And she makes a confession:

"I believe you must know a thing I've been very late in learning...that the wickedest act in this life is to sit in judgement on others...and bring down vengeance upon them... The frightful things that happened when my husband died. And the other things, the quiet, slowly festering ones that have gone on happening ever since..." (a pause)
Me, alone here in this house---Charlotte alone over there, a frightened exile from the world. No matter what she did..." (she breaks off, lost in some private reminiscence, then she shakes her head) "More than one life was taken that night."

Jewel Mayhew's time is short.

There is something special about stories set in America's deep South that draw audiences in, that fire its imagination. Maybe for those of us not born there, it represents the closest thing we can get in this country to an exotic locale. Southern settings suggest the past. Aldrich and crew do a marvelous job of tapping into this sensation. You can almost smell the wisteria and feel the sweat dripping down your back.

Throughout, it is simply one of the most atmospheric films of its type. The old mansion has seen better days. It seems dusty and in need of a new paint job. Old nick knacks and relics adorn the big rooms. Wicker chairs sit on the veranda. It looks like someplace your rich old grandmother might have lived in. Charlotte can see the family graveyard from her balcony, and outside, the surrounding bald cypress trees drip with long wisps of moss that float in the breeze. Of course, Aldrich's decision to film in black and white just enhances the effect. 

The mood is also enriched by a lovely theme song (sung by Al Martino over the closing credits). It plays frequently in the background as the action unfolds and even gets a brief rendition by both Davis and Cotten during certain scenes. William Glasgow and Raphael Bretton earned well-deserved Oscar nominations for art and set direction.

Some viewers may find the film on the campy side, devoid of subtlety. Not me. And if some of the performances come off as exaggerated, they perfectly capture how I picture Southerners of the period to be: eccentric, possessing long memories--particularly when it comes to grudges--and having little restraint when it comes to their emotions. From start to finish it is a meticulously crafted and presented film, full of engaging suspense and characters.

Other Films by Robert Aldrich:
  • Kiss Me Deadly  - 1955
  • Autumn Leaves  - 1956
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  - 1962
  • The Flight of the Phoenix - 1965
  • The Dirty Dozen - 1967

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