A Movie A Week: HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) Murder starts in the heart and its first weapon is a vicious tongue
Published at: May 12, 2009, 2:21 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week.
[For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]
Today we look at 1964’s HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, following Bette Davis over from last week’s PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER.
HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is a fascinating movie from a horror geek’s perspective. You have a real director (Robert Aldrich) and real, classic Hollywood stars in a well-budgeted studio film… all for a story that’s essentially out of an EC comic.
It was also made in the wake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s BLOOD FEAST and is probably the earliest studio film I can think of that had such a high amount of gore in it.
In the opening minutes we see Bruce Dern get his hand chopped off (graphically) and his bleeding stump and then a more implied, but still extreme beheading. Later on in the film we seem these removed items return to haunt sweet Charlotte (Davis).
Now we never see the killer, which is the big clue in that our poor, demented lead (Davis) might not be responsible. We know that as a young girl she was having an affair with the married Dern and her wealthy, stern and fat father opens the movie intimidating the poor fella.
It works and Dern breaks off his plans to runaway with Charlotte at a party. She doesn’t take it too well and suddenly Dern loses his hand and head. Charlotte shows up in the main hall with blood on her dress and in complete shock. Naturally everyone thinks it was her doing. We find out later that her wealthy father pulled every string he could to keep her out of jail and out of a mental institution.
But even with that support he thought his daughter guilty.
When we first truly meet Charlotte as played by Bette Davis, she scares the shit out of a little boy who was dared to enter her house and bring back something the old crazy lady who lives there has touched. She’s asleep, unseen, on a chair in the living room and wakes when the poor bastard opens a music box.
Charlotte is confused, haunted, but not necessarily the evil witch the kids were whispering about.
Davis plays the role on the brink of insanity. Depending on what the situation calls for she can take a step firmly on one side or the other, but that only serves to fill the creepy atmosphere surrounding this old plantation house. You can’t quite tell if she’s gone or not and you can’t figure out the motives of those surrounding her.
For instance, her maid and only source of regular human contact is named Velma and is played by Agnes Moorehead who achieved immortality for my generation with the constant Nick at Nite repeats of Bewitched. You don’t know which side Velma falls on.
Shit starts happening upon the arrival of Charlotte’s cousin (Olivia de Havilland, still looking hot some three decades after THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD) and you can’t really tell if Velma is trying to protect her mistress or is being secretive to hide something more insidious.
And boy does Olivia de Havilland really play this part up for all it’s worth. Considering this is a 45 year old movie I’m not too worried about getting into spoiler territory, but if you’re reading along and haven’t seen his one yet I’m going to get into some plot stuff, including the “twist.”
Have you seen GASLIGHT, the awesome thriller starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (and, coincidentally Joseph Cotten, who also appears in Hush Hush)? If you have then you know what you’re in for here.
When Charlotte starts seeing strange things… like a butcher’s knife embedded in her wooden floor next to severed hand, for instance… well, you get the feeling someone is screwing with her, trying to drive her mad.
That’s also the reason I brought up EC comics… Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, etc. had similar stories of human horror and insanity. Especially the last 30 minutes of the movie, when we find out that the culprits are de Havilland and Cotten, feels like it comes out of the deranged brain of William Gaines.
There’s an incredibly creepy look inside Charlotte’s head as she’s manipulated into thinking she’s being haunted by her murdered love. We see a party from her point of view, in fact a bizarro-world version of the party from the beginning of the movie except now instead of good looking rich people dancing on a sharp contrast black and white dance floor it’s a dream-haze vision of horror, the dancers wearing blank face masks that made me instantly mutter “Fuck that!” at my TV (much like I did upon my viewing of Bava’s BLACK SABBATH).
In this vision she appears to shoot the spectre of Bruce Dern and instead shoots Joseph Cotten. Of course, that’s just a final piece to their puzzle as Cotten comes walking back looking like a zombie and causing one of the most authentic, animalistic mental breaks I’ve ever seen on film. The wailing sound Davis makes as she crawls backwards down the staircase away from the (apparently) undead Cotten made my skin crawl. Davis kills that scene.
Like I said at the introduction, this is a fascinating movie from a genre perspective. It’s classy in execution and talent, but its underpinnings are undoubtedly the schlocky, pulp horror yarns of the previous decade and the fact that it’s so gruesome really took me by surprise.
After finishing the movie I flipped through some of the extras and to my great surprise found a fascinating documentary that informed me that the movie I just saw was far from intended. Olivia de Havilland I thought was made for her role, bringing so much sinister charm to the character that I couldn’t imagine she wasn’t the filmmaker’s first choice.
Turns out hot off the successful pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? the studio was eager to put the two together for another thriller, directed by Aldrich. To say there was a rivalry between the two is an understatement and the documentary reveals just how far a scorned Bette Davis will go to knock Joan Crawford down a few pegs.
Crawford shot quite a bit and many stills of her at work are shown in the doc. She ultimately left because of health reasons, but it’s pretty clear from the interviews with those involved that was pretty much bullshit. But I think they dodged the bullet. de Havilland is marvelous in the movie and works on a completely different level than Crawford, who could have sold the intimidating manipulator side of the character well, but probably not the innocent front that the evil hides behind.
The fact that I had no earthly idea there was a major mid-production change-up and a ton of reshoots is a real testament to the talents of Robert Aldrich who is probably most famous for directing THE DIRTY DOZEN, which is great… but my personal favorite (so far) is the kick-ass underseen ‘70s showcase of machismo called EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE starring the great Ernest Borgnine as an evil train conductor and Lee Marvin as a heroic hobo.
Final Thoughts: This movie impressed the hell out of me. Davis gives a career great central performance, de Havilland proves she could play a Wicked Witch just as well as she could have played a Snow White and Joseph Cotten seems to be having the time of his life. Aldrich is in top form, the cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc (BLAZING SADDLES, VIVA LAS VEGAS and Don Coscarelli’s AMAD contribution THE TWONKY) is gorgeous and the overall tone is so unique that I can’t help but have a huge grin on my face as the film played. Also keep a look out for a great turn from silent and golden age film star Mary Astor in her final film role.
Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles:
Monday, May 18th: TOO LATE THE HERO (1970)
Monday, May 25th: THE BEST MAN (1964)
Monday, June 1st: THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956)
Monday, June 8th: THE QUIET MAN (1952)
The Quiet Man is a biggie. Very much looking forward to it. Right now the only context I have for it is the bit that ET watches as he gets drunk in front of the boob tube.
Next week we follow Robert Aldrich over to the 1970 war flick TOO LATE THE HERO starring Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson. Can’t wait for that one! See you folks then!
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