Title: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror
Director: Robert Aldrich
Music: Frank De Vol
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Olivia de Havilland
Originally a star vehicle to reunite Bette Davis and Joan Crawford after the runaway success of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE intended to continue cashing in on projecting their backstage rivalry onto the theatrical canvas of a grueling tale with a similar theme, with Robert Aldrich staying in the director’s chair.
But when the personal collision between Ms. Crawford and Ms. Davis escalates (as Aldrich, the intermediary, failed to juggle with these two high-maintenance divas this time), also for fear of being upstaged again by Ms. Davis, who insinuates herself into gaining an upper hand during the production for a showier role, Ms. Crawford bowed out completely from the picture by feigning illness, and Ms. de Havilland, a long-time friend of Ms. Davis, was brought to fill her shoes in the eleventh hour.
Whereas the legendary off-camera feuding is still of great interest up to a point (Ryan Murphy has an upcoming series named FEUD, starring Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford, to chronicle the infamous anecdotes for today’s audience), the movie per se is a marvel of its own. A prelude sets in Ascension Parish, Louisiana in 1927, effectively tampers its Dixieland gaiety with a grisly tinge when John Mayhew (Dern), a married man, is brutally butchered after his elopement plan with Charlotte has been thwarted by the latter’s father Big Sam Hollis (Buono, in a brief but menacing performance bolstered by a heavy make-up to play a character nearly doubles his real age).
Then, the story fast-forwards to 1964, 37 years later, Charlotte (Davis), now a faded southern belle, presumably the murderer of her beau, never gets married and lives alone in her father’s mansion like a demented recluse, her sole accompanies are the housekeeper Velma Cruther (Moorehead) and Dr. Drew Bayliss (Cotten), who occasionally comes to attend to her well-being. When the estate is on the risk of being torn down by the government in favor of building a bridge, Charlotte seeks help from her cousin Miriam Deering (de Havilland), the only family member she has presently, invites her to stay under the same roof first time after the horrific happening, but many many strange things ensue to drive her further down into lunacy.
The intriguing whodunit has been brilliantly contrived as a collision course of no-holds-barred duel between two leads, and is fraught with pathos and suspense through its full-throttle noir atmosphere, actually, the picture must represent the apotheosis of chiaroscuro cinematography, captured to a mesmerizing effect by DP Joseph F. Biroc, lights, shades, shadows and facial close-ups all being flawlessly framed against the haunting tableaux where threats and secrets skulking insidiously in the darkness, just like Charlotte’s disconcerting confession “It’s only real when it’s dark”. The sequences blurring the line of reality and imagination are extraordinarily conceived and executed, sublimate its pulpy material to cinematic surrealism.
But do viewers ever question Charlotte’s sanity or regard her as a heartless murderer? No, not when Ms. Davis is is her absolutely most vulnerable state, unlike in BABY JANE, here she switches to the victimized party, tormented and devilled by a past trauma and can never let it go (and someone with an ulterior motive doesn’t want her to do that either), battles solitude with delusion and paranoia, marvellously, even in such a passive position, she still obstinately hams it up whenever she feels apt, which injects a perverse defiance into Charlotte’s fragile persona, and when she finally gets that vindication, Bette Davis raises again, in her immutably triumphant flair. As great as Ms. Davis in her upmost fearless attempt, it is Ms. de Havilland’s sinister turn hits a more rewarding mark for my money, ever so rare, she sloughs off her front of elegance, benignancy and deference, to demonstrate how deceitful, nefarious and hell-bent she could be if given the chance, it is extremely tempting to envision what Ms. Crawford could’ve improved from her contrasting shifting.
Dishearteningly, both these two-time Oscar-winners were snubbed in the Oscar race whilst the movie surprisingly racked up seven nominations (compared with BABY JANE’s five but a win for Black & White costume design), so were Mary Astor as the widow Jewel Mayhew, the splendid two-scenes stealer (also it is her final appearance on the silver screen) and Cecil Kellaway, who even-temperedly portrays the reporter Harry Willis from London, introduces a pleasant scent of well-adjusted phlegm to counterpoise the heady melodrama. Only the protean Ms. Moorehead got her fourth and final Oscar nomination in her ostentatiously uncompromising appearance as the muttering caretaker of Ms. Charlotte, but her loyalty is cunningly motivated by the vested interest, she is feisty enough to fight for what she wants against all odds, only too gormless to reveal her intention too early when standing in a perilous position, which is the same fatal mistake the villains eventually make – celebrate too soon when they still have one more show to play, a slightly bathetic feeling transpires when everything is said and done, that swell sensation from the finale of BABY JANE is seemingly nowhere to be found this time.