Robert Aldrich/ USA/ 1964/ 135 mins
On dual format Blu-ray/DVD Mon 21 Jan 2019
Robert Aldrich and Bette Davis team up again for an unofficial follow-up to the loony glory of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Although bearing no relationship to the earlier film, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is an obvious companion piece. A great, twisty slab of Southern Gothic, it doesn’t quite match its predecessor, but is a mad delight on its own terms.
Charlotte (Bette Davis) has lived a hermetic Miss Havisham-like existence in her crumbling antebellum mansion for nearly 40 years, traumatised by the murder of her married lover in 1927. She believes her late father carried out the frenzied killing. The rest of the town believe her to be the culprit, affording her a kind of sick celebrity. When the local authorities plan to demolish the property she calls on her elegant society cousin (Olivia de Havilland) to help, bringing all the old memories back to the surface.
Hush.. is very obviously the work of the people behind …Baby Jane, from the Deep South setting, to the heightened, over-the-top atmosphere and delirious work from Davis and Agnes Moorehead as her formidable housekeeper. It’s pure pulp of course; a swampy morass of Bayou bat-shit of the kind swept away by the American New Wave towards the end of the decade. It resolutely evades any pretence of respectability and indulges in cheery shock tactics that can’t help but look quaint to today’s audiences. One could go as far as to say it lands squarely in camp territory. It does however make room for pathos and a pervasive sense of sadness. Unlike in her previous film with Aldrich, it’s clear that Davis is ultimately the victim, even when ambiguity lingers over her guilt. It’s this balance of tone that makes Hush… a compelling experience despite its giddy excesses.
Talking of such excesses, Davis and Moorehead never knowingly underplay their roles at any point. There would be almost no need for bulldozers, with the scenery chewing enough to bring the mansion crashing down beneath a flurry of diva teeth. When Charlotte finally tips into full-blown insanity it feels like a gentle nudge would have been all that was required, instead of the brutal shove she receives. De Havilland is far more flinty and restrained, which balances the more deranged performances. She feels like a better fit for the calculated nature of the role than Joan Crawford, the original choice and Davis’ old adversary, would have been. It’s a beautifully modulated piece of acting that evolves her character almost unnoticed beside her outre co-stars.
At a time when great leading roles for women, and older women at that, are become normal again (The Favourite, Disobedience, and Destroyer being good recent examples), re-releases such as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte could not be more perfectly judged. The acting may be… different than we’re used to nowadays (recent years haven’t seen a performance as big as Moorehead’s nominated for an Oscar, as she was in 1965) and at two hours plus change, it is a slim story stretched to breaking point; but it’s further proof that Aldrich knew how to make a seedy, lurid and thoroughly entertaining potboiler, and that icons are icons for a reason, whatever age they may be.