The legendary Bette Davis was born in 1908, so by the time 1964 rolled around, she wasn’t exactly a spring chicken anymore. At age 56, she wasn’t precisely finished, but it was widely acknowledged that the ‘good’ roles were mostly behind her.
The release that summer of Hush. . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte, would do little to dissuade many of that notion. To say it was not widely heralded as an instant classic by the critics, would be something of an understatement. More accurate perhaps, to say that it was widely dismissed as dreck.
Well . . . the critics were wrong.
The cast was stunning. Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Morehead, Cecil Kellaway, Bruce Dern, Victor Buono, George Kennedy, and Mary Astor, in her final film role. It was produced and directed by Robert Aldritch, It would be one of his few commercial disappointments.
The plot is as simple as it is timeless, and this wonderful motion-picture not only holds up well over time, but to my mind, has gotten better and better as the years have gone by. It was a cautionary tale at the time, and remains so today.
The subject was . . . gaslighting. And oh yeah, not judging a book by it’s cover. And things are not necessarily what they seem. As if they ever were, in a Bette Davis film.
Charlotte Hollis, played by Davis, is a lady with a past. And about a ton of personal baggage. A tragedy in her youth has left her, in the eyes of those who know her, a very mentally unstable character. She does little to change that perception of herself, as she ages in her childhood home, carrying a torch for a lover named John Mayhew(Bruce Dern) long dead. A man everyone assumes Charlotte has killed in a jealous rage. A man that went headless and handless to his grave, courtesy of the meat cleaver wielding killer.
The head was never found.
Of course, long-missing decapitated heads have a tendency to re-appear in the movies, and old John Mayhew’s is no exception.
Charlotte’s home is slated for the wreaking-ball as progress marches on, and a new highway planned for the area. She has only a short time to leave the house, and of course, she refuses to do so, her decision enforced at the end of a rifle. No one wants to shoot the old lady, so construction is halted as reinforcements are called in.
Enter Charlotte’s cousin (Olivia de Havilland) and her partner (Joseph Cotton) to try to get old crazy Charlotte and her ever faithful housekeeper (Agnes Moorehead) out of the house.
As the inimitable Sherlock Holmes might have said . . . “The game is afoot.” A game that is sadistic, disgusting, and sometimes brutally sickening.
I won’t give away a shred of the ending. It’s just way too good for that. But I will tell you that it is a crackerjack ending. It made me smile as a fourteen year old kid, and it still does today, all these many decades later. It made, and makes me feel good too, and that is not a routine result in an ‘almost’ horror film.
Call it a mystery, thriller, suspense, a gothic tale with a touch of horror and a dose of the macacbre; whatever–it is riveting. Filmed in an age of Technicolor, in beautiful black and white, it is, I believe, an old film that was not well though of . . . that has become a classic.
Couple the suspense and atmosphere with a haunting song sang by Al Martino. It occurs throughout the film, and is practically guaranteed to make your skin crawl, and blood run cold.
Give it a watch and see if you do not agree. It is readily available on streaming service such as Netflix, and also for purchase at Amazon, both new and used. I provide an easy link for anyone interested.
Next up, another great film from Bette’s golden years . . . Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
Until then, Goodnight.