HUSH... HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE - DVD review

If it's Grand Guignol you're after, here's where you'll find it.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

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

I've always thought of "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" as a last hurrah for the Hollywood of old. Not only did it star of bevy of old-time stars--Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Cecil Kellaway, Mary Astor--it was shot in black-and-white.

Not that this 1964 Robert Aldrich film was the last picture these actors ever made--far from it, except in the case of Ms. Astor--or that it was the last picture ever shot in black-and-white; but it was among the last memorable films these folks made together, and it was at the tail end of the great B&W era. Be that as it may, the movie is probably best known today as a somewhat campy if always engrossing exercise in Grand Guignol.

Ah, Grand Guignol: That early twentieth-century French style that describes any short drama of horror and sensationalism, a style so well executed in Ms. Davis's hit movie of two years earlier for director Aldrich, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" The success of "Baby Jane" dictated a sequel, but "Charlotte" wasn't it. Although Aldrich had tried to team up Davis with Joan Crawford, her "Baby Jane" costar, Crawford backed out shortly after production began, pleading illness. This resulted in a frantic search for a replacement and de Havilland stepping in. Despite a few script modifications, the wonderfully creepy atmosphere surpasses most anything in "Baby Jane."

Figuring to capitalize on similar story elements and character relationships as those in novelist Henry Farrell's "Baby Jane," Aldrich and screenwriter Lukas Heller again based their script on a story by Farrell, "Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte." But in addition, there is a good deal of "Les Diaboliques" involved, too, and a smattering of William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," the short story about an aging Southern sinister who lives alone in a big old house after murdering her lover many years before. Indeed, the Faulkner story provided some of the inspiration as well for Robert Bloch and Joseph Stefano's "Psycho" several years before, so there's a good deal in "Charlotte" that may seem familiar.

Robert Aldrich was no stranger to action-adventure stories, having made things like "Kiss Me Deadly," "The Dirty Dozen," "Emperor of the North," and the original "Flight of the Phoenix" and "The Longest Yard," so it's no wonder he brought a sense of urgency, tension, and suspense to Gothic thrillers like "Baby Jane" and "Charlotte." "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" begins with a lengthy back story set over three-and-a-half decades earlier, in 1927. Young Charlotte Hollis is about to run off with a married man, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern). Her father, Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono), a wealthy and powerful man in the community, gets wind of the affair, won't allow it, and tells Mayhew to break up with his daughter or else. Then, when Mayhew tells Charlotte he can't see her again, she declares, "I could kill you," and the next thing we know, an unseen person is murdering Mayhew with a butcher knife in a scene of horrifically grisly content.

When the body is found, its head and one of its hands are missing. Everyone suspects Charlotte, but the father with his political connections covers it up. The father dies a year later, and Charlotte is left to live alone in the family mansion.

Now, we move forward to 1964, where the main story takes place. I won't bore you with too many plot details, but let me just say that by this time Charlotte is quite removed from reality. Half the time she believes her lover is still alive, and half the time she believes she probably did kill him. Certainly, the community believes she's a murder, the local children making up cruel song lyrics like the ones quoted above. Think of Lizze Borden here; even though she was acquitted of the murder of her parents, people assumed she did it all the same. Still, the sheriff doesn't think Charlotte is crazy. "She just acts that way because people seem to expect it of her," he says.

But things are not always as they appear. When the State requisitions Charlotte's house for demolition (to build a new bridge and road through her property), Charlotte refuses to leave. It is at this point, early on in the story, that she calls upon her only kin (and heir), her cousin Miriam Dearing (de Havilland), for help. But no sooner does dear cousin Miriam move in with her than weird and frightening things begin to happen in the old house. Charlotte sees a severed hand and a bloody cleaver; the harpsichord plays in the dead of night when nobody's at it; mysterious figures stalk the grounds; wall mirrors are inexplicably broken; and the missing head reappears.

Is Charlotte truly insane, or is she being driven mad?

Aldrich fills his story was all the elements of good film noir, with shadowy passageways and angular photography the order of the day. Equally important, he fills the story with enough quirky and suspicious characters to keep a viewer busy guessing for hours, and it all starts with Ms. Davis's Charlotte. Davis is made up to look as old and dowdy as possible, a stark contrast with the enduring beauty of cousin Miriam, whose radiant beauty doesn't seem to have succumbed to the same ravages of time as Charlotte's. Moreover, Davis fills out the role with an over-the-top performance that seems to scream out for people to take notice of her, as though she were saying, "Remember me? I'm Bette Davis! I'm an Academy Award winner! Never mind that I'm reduced to playing goofy old ladies in horror films; I'm still a great actress!" Well, the fact is, she was still a great actress, and in Miss Charlotte's quieter, more nuanced moments, Davis proves it. But there's a good deal of shouting and histrionics involved at other times as well, and I doubt that anyone would have wanted it any other way.

Then there's Joseph Cotten as the family doctor, Dr. Drey Bayless, a Southern gentleman oozing Southern charm and hospitality, who just happens to have been soft on cousin Miriam for decades. And Agnes Moorehead as Velma Cruther, Charlotte's crusty, frumpy, outspoken housekeeper, a part that won her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. And Cecil Kellaway as Harry Willis, an insurance investigator snooping around to discover why nobody ever claimed the insurance policy on the deceased Mr. Mayhew. And Mary Astor in a small but pivotal role as Jewel Mayhew, the wronged widow of so long ago. And there's even a minor part for George Kennedy as a construction foreman.

Not that everything works. I've mentioned Davis's sometimes bombastic performance. The film is also much too long at 133 minutes. The prologue alone is almost fifteen minutes before the opening titles even roll. The insurance investigator seems like only an easy but clumsy gimmick to open up a few new plot elements. And the ending is far too pat and far too obvious, closing not with the expected bang, but a whimper.

None of which should deter a person from seeing this classic thriller at least once. Thrillers don't always make perfect sense, and a degree of open-mindedness is needed to enjoy any of them. So it is with "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte." It passes a good, spooky few hours.

Video:
Oddly, the keep case announces the film's aspect ratio at 1.66:1, yet I measured the film at 1.77:1, big enough to completely fill a widescreen television. Neither of these dimensions match the movie's statistics at IMDb (1.85:1), but they may be wrong. At any rate, the black-and-white print Fox used in the transfer was obviously quite good, and just as obviously they did some additional touch-up work on it because there isn't a scratch, a line, or an age fleck in sight. The B&W contrasts are good, though not the best I've seen, and object delineation and inner detailing is about average for a well-preserved film of this age. Moiré, or motion, effects are present, but they are not intrusive, and grain is virtually nonexistent.

Audio:
The English audio is available in either Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo or Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Neither is entirely satisfactory, and I actually preferred listening to the monaural track. The stereo opens up the sound a bit to the side channels, though it isn't very wide, and it clarifies the sound somewhat. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of brightening and hardening the sonics, too; so the mono track hasn't quite the edge to it that the stereo track has. Nevertheless, both tracks offer clear, crisp audio reproduction for one's easily discerning dialogue, which is mostly what the sound is about.

Extras:
The main bonus item on the disc is an audio commentary by film historian and DVD Savant author Glenn Martin Erickson. Erickson's comments are of the straightforward, no-nonsense variety, scholarly and informed. He warns us at the beginning that we had better already be familiar with the film because he is going to give away some of its secrets well in advance. Fair warning. At times he is a little dry and his remarks perhaps too obvious, but the commentary is filled with fascinating background trivia, especially his biographies of the actors. He tells us, for instance, that Victor Buono, who plays Charlotte's father, was only twenty-six years old at the time of the production, two years younger than Bruce Dern, who was playing his son. A good friend of mine knew Buono in college and said he always looked much older than he was, a kind of aging disease. Buono died of natural causes in his early forties. In addition to Erickson's commentary, the disc includes two widescreen theatrical trailers, and three TV spots; looks at four other vintage Fox horror releases; plus a generous thirty-two scene selections, but no chapter insert. English is the only spoken language provided, with English and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
If it's Grand Guignol you're after, here's where you'll find it. "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" may be highly derivative of other previous films and stories, but it gets most of the details right. The ending never impressed me much--I always expected more of a surprise--but I suppose it is in keeping with the logic of the narrative. Although it may not be the most sophisticated thriller around, and parts of it--Ms. Davis's ofttimes flamboyant acting in particular--can be downright silly in their exaggerated hokum, that's pretty much what fans of the genre expect, and it's what they get.

"Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" is a first-rate chiller even by today's standards. Indeed, comparing it to something like 2005's would-be thriller "Hide and Seek," "Charlotte" looks better and better. In 1965 the movie was nominated for (but didn't win) seven Academy Awards: Moorehead as Best Supporting Actress, in addition to Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (black-and-white), Best Costumes, Best Editing, Best Musical Score, and Best Original Song (the serious one, not the children's lyrics, and sung over the closing credits by Al Martino).

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
5
Extras
4
Film Value
7