Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte

US (1964) Dir. Robert Aldrich

Following the surprise success of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in 1962 the immediate reaction was to capitalise with a second film featuring the feuding screen titans Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It didn’t quite work out that way but this Southern gothic thriller is still seen as Baby Jane’s spiritual successor.

In 1927 a party hosted by Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono), married John Mayhew (Bruce Dern) was to elope with Hollis’ daughter Charlotte, but when Charlotte goes to meet Mayhew in the summer house, she finds him dead, his head and right hand cut off. Charlotte returns to the party with blood on her dress leading everyone to believe she killed Mayhew whilst Charlotte thinks her father did it.

Jump forward to the present day and Charlotte (Bette Davis) is now a wealthy but crazy recluse, haunted by the events of the past, living alone with loyal housemaid Velma Cruther (Agnes Moorehead). Resisting having her home demolished so the council can build a new bridge, Charlotte writes to her only kin, cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) for help, but Miriam’s arrival brings more pain and suffering for Charlotte.

Because of the nature in which this film was conceived, it is inevitable that it will be compared to Baby Jane, but the only real similarity, aside from Davis and director Robert Aldrich, is that both films are dark psychological thrillers with Davis as an aged crackpot – otherwise they are both eminently capable of standing on their own merits.

Joan Crawford did initially rehearse the role of Miriam but left the film due to “illness”, so Davis had the role offered to her friend de Havilland instead. Perhaps the friction between Davis and Crawford which added so much to the tension in Baby Jane was missing here, not to mention the capital in Crawford extracting her “revenge” on Davis in this film, but that would be an unjust slight against de Havilland’s performance.

From the opening pre-credits sequence Aldrich lets the audience know they are in for something far different from his previous work. Things kick off with a bang, from Big Sam laying down the law to Mayhew with a towering Southern patriarchal menace Orson Welles would have been proud of, to the shocking graphic violence of Mayhew’s hand being hacked off in a Psycho-esque blend of dizzying edits.

Charlotte may initially appear to be a superficial relative of Baby Jane Hudson with her loud, manic gruffness, southern curls hairstyle and childish demeanour, but we quickly divine that Charlotte’s shortcomings are from a different place as the prologue helpfully explains. Any malice Charlotte holds in her heart is from years of suspicion and innuendo based on her alleged involvement in Mayhew’s death and the years of not knowing the truth.

Exacerbating her reputation as a psychotic old crone is the thought of being kicked out of her home to make way for a new bridge for the town, and with no mention of financial compensation or any offer to help re-house her, Charlotte has every right to stick to her principles. Slattern housemaid Velma, an archetypal slack jawed yokel, is Charlotte’s only ally but eve she occasionally tires of Charlotte’s hysteria.

The script by Henry Farrell and Lukas Heller, based on Farell’s unpublished novel entitled Whatever Happened To Cousin Charlotte? (an essential title change I’m sure you agree), does a good job of applying many layers of misdirection and intrigue as to who has the best interests of Charlotte at heart. Back in 1964 it might have been less obvious where the story was going but even viewed through modern eyes, there is still an element of doubt to keep us guessing.

Miriam is the former country girl having reinvented herself in the city as a classy lady, and as such, is regarded by Charlotte as the one person who can fight the council. But the first person Miriam sees upon her return is Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten), Charlotte’s doctor and Miriam’s old flame, whom she jilted when the murder occurred.

Also arriving in town is British insurance investigator Harry Wills (Cecil Kellaway), looking to find out why Mayhew’s widow Jewel (Mary Astor in her final role) didn’t collect on her husband’s life insurance. Upon meeting Jewel, Wills finds an elderly lady living out her final days but still wracked with bitterness over the death of her husband, not revealing anything new but definitely not sharing anything vital to the case.

There are a lot of balls being juggled in this story and Aldrich gives them all enough screen time for them to register and remain significant. In exploring the psychosomatic trauma experienced by Charlotte, Aldrich often keeps what is reality and what is delusion to himself, while elsewhere, such as the oneiric ballroom dance flashback, he goes all out with the ghostly aesthetic, overexposing the whites to create an ethereal hue around everything.

Use of shadow and light is another heavily employed tactic beholden to the gothic atmosphere of the unforgiving brash southern nights, while simple editing creates nail biting tension in simple scenes that in other hands would be comical. If only the musical soundtrack wasn’t so typically of the period in being so prominent, making the intent of such scenes so blatant.

Bette Davis turns in another compelling performance as Charlotte, suitably paranoid and dangerous yet quietly sympathetic; while Olivia de Havilland has a grace about her that I fear Crawford couldn’t have pulled off in this instance, making this substitution a real coup. However, the most entertaining turn comes from Agnes Moorehead as Velma, who, when this came out, was in the wholesome TV series Bewitched! as the glamorous witch matriarch, Endora!

Forget what the genesis of this film was, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is more than deserving of being appreciated as a tense, twisting and gnarly psychodrama in its own right (clunky, exposition heavy final act aside) that proves some changes can be for the better.