Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte
- Bette Davis as Charlotte Hollis
- Olivia de Havilland as Miriam Deering
- Joseph Cotten as Doctor Drew Bayliss
- Agnes Moorehead as Velma Cruther
- Cecil Kellaway as Harry Willis
- Mary Astor as Jewel Mayhew
- Bruce Dern as John Mayhew
A heady and creepy psychological thriller, Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte may be overblown but that almost adds to the fun of the unusual mystery and watching stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood show off their chops in this ghoulish affair.
We begin in 1927 Louisiana. The eponymous Charlotte is a young girl of a prominent family. She has been conducting an affair with married man John Mayhew and they plan to elope. But Charlotte’s father gets wind of this and tries to put a stop to it, for fear of his family name being tarnished. On the night they plan to elope at a party, John is brutally murdered in the summer house, decapitated and with one of his hands cut off . Charlotte discovers his corpse, which leads many to believe that it was her who murdered John after he tried to break off their affair. We then fast forward to many years later; Charlotte’s father has died and she has inherited his Antebellum mansion. But the memory of John’s murder and the knowledge that everyone believes it was her who killed him, has driven Charlotte to near madness. She lives as a recluse in her old house, with only her slightly kooky but loyal housekeeper Velma Cruther as company. Events for the near mad and extremely traumatised Charlotte come to a head, when it comes through that her house, due to her ignoring the eviction notice, and the Highway Commission wants to tear the house down to make a road. The increasingly disturbed Charlotte is against this and violently refuses to leave. Secretly though, Charlotte is worried and it is here that she calls upon the help of her cousin Miriam Deering, who grew up with her as a child. Yet as soon as the almost saintly Miriam arrives and reconciles with her old boyfriend Dr Drew Bayliss(who himself sometimes checks on Charlotte), strange events begin to unravel around the house and in particular Charlotte. Yet while Drew and Miriam write off Charlotte’s ramblings about seeing things in the house, could something sinister aimed at the emotionally distraught Charlotte really be afoot? Is Charlotte just haunted by her past? Or does her demure cousin Miriam have something dark to hide? And most of all, who was it that killed John Mayhew?
After the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it seemed only fitting for director Robert Aldrich to return to the Gothic atmosphere of that movie. Yet while there are similarities in the two, Sweet Charlotte has more of a mystery to it(as well as psychological thrills) which makes for spooky viewing. All the conventions of Southern Gothic are here; near crazed southern belles haunted by the events around them, sinister shadows and a Louisiana setting. It’s all a very well done brew with Aldrich confident in his direction. The black and white visuals are ghoulishly effective and create a real atmosphere of suspense and unraveling horror. As I mentioned earlier, Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte is overblown to be sure as emotions run wild between the characters, in particular Charlotte. At times the melodrama can creek a little and become a bit too much, but for most of the time, it is still devilishly good and deviously twisted. In fact the melodrama sometimes adds to the cauldron of twisted mystery and due to the stars in the film, is very well done. There are a few moments of unexpected gore which surprised me for a film of the time this was released, but at least it added to the unpredictability of the piece. Most of the chills however stem from the atmosphere conjured up throughout. A slithering score that hits the crescendos of terror and the bristling sense of menace is marvellously scored.
The cast of acting greats is a real delight and they all sink their teeth into the questionable characters of the film. The excellent Bette Davis fully unleashes a gamut of emotions as the terrified and traumatised Charlotte. In almost ever scene of the film, the talents of Davis when it comes to unrestrained acting are second to none as we sympathise with Charlotte because of the horror she endures, even if some of it may not actually be there. Olivia de Havilland on the other hand is more subtle but still very effective with her performance as the seemingly kind and ladylike Miriam. I like the way that de Havilland establishes a nice aura around Miriam, but then little by little gets us to question what darkness may lie beneath her respectable persona and what she knows about the ghoulish events. Joseph Cotten does similar work to de Havilland as the doctor of the town, seemingly jovial and good-hearted, but with the knowledge that something is not quite right. Stealing the show is Agnes Moorehead as the housekeeper who becomes the first to suspect foul play. With a ragamuffin appearance and theatrical glee, Moorehead throws herself into the part with great results. Cecil Kellaway exudes upper-class and well-educated upbringing as an insurance investigator who is most curious about the murder case and the monetary value of it. In what was her last film role, Mary Astor is suitably enigmatic as the ailing widow of John, who has her own secrets lurking around. A young Bruce Dern has the small but pivotal role of John, whose murder is the catalyst for all the chaos that engulfs the fragile Charlotte.
So if you can handle an occasionally over the top and wild psychological thriller, tinged with growing mystery and Southern Gothic elements, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte is the film for you. And plus with the classic actors featured, it all adds up to a dark and mysterious film, powered by their performances.