HUSH…HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) – Continued
Charlotte is sipping her coffee and hears a car pull up. She’s holding her shot gun. She sets the china cup down and starts to get up, moving toward the door, we hear a small bird chirping, then the police vehicle is coming up the drive encircled by glorious oak trees. Charlotte closes the door and runs to the great hall calling “Velma!” Velma comes to the top of the banister looking through the wooden slats down at Charlotte. She hangs over the edge “What?” in a long drawn out suspension of the word.
Velma is unpretentious and could be perceived as a crude woman. She’s like an unmade bed or someone who looks like she just rolled out of one, and she doesn’t throw away her words. She strong, sensible and reliable. Velma, disheveled, unkempt by the years of working as a caretaker to her Miss Charlotte, is misleadingly simple yet she is sturdy and obviously faithful to her mistress.
Over the years I’ve grown to adore Agnes Moorehead more and more, and so I hope when I make this next reference it is not taken as an affront to Agnes and how charismatic she truly was. Nor am I poking fun at Granny either, she was an irascibly lovable figure . It’s just that in the role of Velma, Agnes sort of reminds me of what Granny Clampett (Irene Ryan) might have been like before she was well as old as granny!
Irene Ryan played Granny Clampett
Charlotte shouts up to Velma “The sheriff’s coming, get rid of him hear! Davis’s voice is shrill with Charlotte’s declarations, a little more so than the grotesquely demure coquettish lilt she manifested in Baby Jane. Even at her most histrionic, Jane was more full throated and theatrical. Charlotte’s character is more consistently measured. Her moods are triggered by either legitimate annoyances, or episodes where her past foments, usually instigated by outside provocation.
Jane Hudson’s temperament was always simmering at a level of childish delusion this turbulence was more easily threatened to come bubbling to the surface. If Charlotte were not taunted by tragic loss, accusations of murder and insanity and consistently harassed by hate mail, left alone with Velma in her beloved house, she might not be as prone to fits of pique. Her paranoia is well founded, where as Jane only understood the true nature of her not so self inflicted destiny to be a forgotten, guilt ridden, reclusive caretaker on a subliminal level.
Velma gasps “Oh” and Charlotte runs and hides behind the curtains with her shot gun.
The sheriff says to the men waiting in the police car “She’s not really crazy, she just acts that way because people seem to expect if of her” he adds, “you can wait in the car if you want to” Sheriff Standish is one of the few characters in the town, who seem to understand Charlotte on a deeper level than the rest of the quick to judge, gossiping towns folk.
And there is a hint here for us to follow, the voice of wisdom, the little nugget of truth about Charlotte and her alleged mental illness. She is viewed as crazy so she grows into the role. She is told by so many people that she’s crazy, eventually she would be bound to question her sanity herself, especially living alone in a house, where she never had a chance to evolve. Perhaps if she had stayed away in England, she might not have been so vulnerable to the potential for regression born out of the isolation.
Now here comes Velma, Charlotte’s sidekick, a rugged earthy woman who’s going to protect Charlotte like a mother Bear. She’s always mumbling something as she comes down the long spiral staircase. There a shot of the door knocker. As the sheriff goes to grab the metal ring to knock on the door, it squeaks open and a very vinegar faced Velma is standing there stone face like a peach pit, looking at him.
I don’t think she’s combed her hair in days. She bends her ragged head down and looks upward yet somehow giving the odd appearance of having all the authority. “You can’t see her” she snaps “she’s sick…all that dust and that racket from those machines has made her REAL sick…she’s waitin’ for Dr Drew to come and tend to her right now.” As she says right now, there’s an acrid high pitched lilt to her voice as if to say, so get lost!
Very politely sheriff Standish says “Oh that’s too bad, there’s a little matter of an unlicensed gun” We see Charlotte wincing at his remark as she stands in the shadows behind the curtains listening in. “I was hoping Miss Hollis could maybe help me to find it.” Velma makes her voice ironic. “Uhmmh” Standish says “Well I reckon I’ll just have to look for it myself Miss Cruthers.” He pushes his way into the house now.
Now Charlotte starts peering out from her hiding place, she’s framed in like bars, by parts of a chair, the shadow it casts on the opposite wall and the window paneled door frame. Daylight poking through the curtains of the door, casting Charlotte in obscuring shadow. In her white dress and braids she looks like a wounded angel standing there, hiding from the devil. That moment is drastically broken, when she changes her stance and starts to shriek at him “GET OUT LUKE STANDISH!!!!!” as she moves closer towards him she is veiled in complete dark silhouette for an instance, until she steps closer.
“You smirking Judas” she comes even closer again a darkened figure until she’s thrown once again into some diffuse light, “Coming around here with your lying tricks.” As she enters the screen with the sheriff , his hands are rested on his hips, and we can see his gun holstered, it gives the appearance of a western shoot out or duel. Charlotte lifts her hands to him getting closer “you oughta be ashamed of yourself”… now she’s almost up in his face “Papa gave you the first job you ever had in this town…without him you wouldn’t be sheriff or anything else.”
Velma is sitting down in between the two adversaries like a fly on the wall, looking cockeyed at the sheriff mostly. The sheriff looks down a little more humbled and says, “I know that Miss Charlotte, that’s why I’m trying to help you” She screeches at him “Help me!” He says, “You had orders to leave this house long ago…if I’d been doing my job, you’d a been long gone by now.” She defiantly comes back at him, “If you’re so anxious to”… She raises her eyebrows to accentuate these two key words “Help me…why’d don’t ya leave me alone” she stares him straight in the eyes.
Now she goes to the front door, “and tell everybody to stop threatening me by cutting off my hot water and electricity.” The door is open in the midst of this heated debate. It’s odd to hear a lone chirple of a bird, allowing in the gentility of the natural world into this closed environment for a brief moment. The sheriff says, “I can’t Miss Charlotte” he steps closer to her, with a softer tone in his voice, more sincere really.
“What you did today puts it out of my hands, threatening people’s one thing but shootin’ at em’s another.” A defiant Charlotte is bold faced looking up at Luke Standish. “I got orders now to see that you’re gone within” the screen is on Velma, weathered looking Velma, no make up, wrinkled dress, uncombed hair. As he finishes saying, “in ten days” Velma shoulder’s clenched, winces by what she’s hearing.
The outside world is coming through a little bit again, we hear the birds twittering like nothing’s wrong. Luke Standish says, “I can hold off on the blasting for a couple a days and keep the men working on the other side of the riva (river)…but if you aren’t out of here by the end of next week”…Charlotte hasn’t budged even a little…”County Commissioner’s gonna have you up for criminal action.” She finally breaks her silence, and pleads earnestly, “but this is my home.” Her voice lifts as she says the word home. It tugs at your heart to see her have to fight off the county this way.
“I haven’t any other place to go…they can build their damn bridge anywhere” her voice elevates a little more again. Luke wriggles with unease, “No ma’am they had to build it to meet up with the road on the other side of the riva.”
He shakes his head as he walks out and justifies by saying “Well, there really isn’t any other alternative.” Once he’s outside the door and Charlotte is framed to the right, he says, “End of next week this house is comin’ down.” The birds take up the seconds of silence, then Charlotte speaks “When my cousin Miriam comes, she’ll know how to deal with the County Commissioner”
Now we’re inside the house looking out at Sheriff Luke Standish who is now framed by the door. He smiles and leans on the door, “oh you expecting her?” “well I am” back to Charlotte being inside and Luke looking in. “Won’t make a bit of difference as far as the bridge is concerned.” She holds her place “we’ll wait and see!” we hear the sounds of the outside invade a little more, crickets have joined in now.
“I reckon we will” he looks down and away from Charlotte. “I aint gonna take that gun away from you Miss Charlotte…I certainly hope you aint plannin’ on using it again…coming in here to fetch you is the last thing I wanna do.” She slams the door in his face casting a shadow on it. We hear her say “Then don’t come!!!!!”
Quick cut to the foreman’s face looking cocky like he knew Luke Standish wasn’t going to get anywhere with that crazy woman Charlotte, the shadow still cast on Standish’s face. The strings are playing a solemn southern dirge, he shakes his head and starts walking back to the car.
Inside Velma’s looking down, and Charlotte is standing facing the closed door holding the shot gun. Then a tiny harpsichord starts hinting at Charlotte’s theme, as she turns to face Velma. We hear the police car’s engine start up, Charlotte walks passed Velma, and then we are taken upward looking down as if through a conch shell of stairs. Charlotte and Velma like two little creatures caught inside it’s vast spiraling universe. The house’s Pythagorean maze of stairs winding nowhere.
We’re back down on the ground again. Velma’s asking Charlotte why she went and told that story about Miss Miriam before? “She ain’t even answered your letter.” Velma looks so cynical all the time. Like a rag doll with a bad attitude. The camera views Charlotte from underneath, an odd angle, perhaps to represent that she might be a little imbalanced. Charlotte responds to Velma “Well she’s comin’ anyway!” Velma pouts, “It’ll be the saddest day of your life is she does come.” Then looking as if she feels bad scolding Charlotte she looks down, more contemplative, suddenly she finds the words and it’s harshness that she comes forth, as Velma gets a visceral expression on her face.
Velma’s ambiguous lesbian adoration of Charlotte is much more subtle than let’s say the character that Dame Judith Anderson played as Mrs. Danver’s in Daphne Du Maurier’s story Rebecca
(1940). Her enraptured by the deceased Mrs.DeWinter’s silk nightgowns or furs holding the garments to her cheeks, the overt sexuality she displays and obsessive worship that borders on the psychotic.
Velma has a faithful desire to be near Charlotte that could be argued springs from the longevity of their relationship, and not that it is not one of a sexual attraction. Although we know that at times the subversive Hollywood machine would veil or encode their film characters not so subtly to those with a critical eye, especially Aldrich who never shied away from the cyphered gay characters or overt ones in his films.
Velma is also a character in the film who can give us a view from the margins, based on what is called Standpoint Theory stemming from the critical analysis of Sociologist Dorothy Smith The Everyday World As Problematic: A Feminist Sociology Along with Velma’s subtle hints of lesbian adoration this is coupled with her being “viewed” as a “poor” woman, perceived as low class make Velma a character who sees this world from the margins.
It had been rumored for years that Agnes was a lesbian apparently most notoriously in the book Hollywood Lesbians
by Boze Hadleigh. But Moorehead’s biographer Charles Tranberg who wrote the book I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead, 2nd edition
(2005) had interviewed several of the actress’s closest friends, including Moorehead’s best friend Debbie Reynolds who denies that she was a lesbian. Personally I don’t care one way or another, I can however understand why her charismatic persona would attract avid followers in the gay community.
HOW STRIKINGLY BEAUTIFUL WAS AGNES MOOREHEAD!
I’ve decided to do a feature on the cyphered Gay Noir character in film. “Queers and Dykes in the Dark.” Hopefully if I get through this tome, I’ll be able to write about giant bugs, mad scientists, coded gay characters and things that go bump in the night again. I am monster girl after all. But, I digress yet again. So back to the tragic Miss Charlotte.
“Your cousin Miriam ain’t never had but one” (she points to her head tapping it with her pointer finger) “idea in her head and that was lookin’ out for herself.” She stares at Charlotte in earnest. But Charlotte doesn’t regard Velma’s words “She’s gotta come, she’s the only kin I got left” Charlotte has softened her tone, now her theme music begins to show itself as Charlotte looks around the huge house as if to try and grab onto every single inch of it. A nostalgic, clinging to the past, together with it’s heart break. Again we are taken through a different expanse as we view Charlotte from above climbing the long spiral stairs like that little creature swallowed up in a shell. Climbing the stairs, reflective of hope, ascension.
We hear Charlotte gently saying “Miriam’s just gotta come…she’s the only one who can help me now…she’s just gotta come”
Cross fade to a taxi cab pulling up between the great mossy lined fortress of regal oak trees lining the Hollis Plantation.
We see a close up of Miriam smiling (Olivia deHavilland ) sitting in the back of the cab. We hear the driver’s voice, “I guess there’s been a whole heap of changes this part of the country since you was here last Miss?” She says “I imagine there have been.” The cab driver continues, “course things haven’t changed much in this parish.” The cab driver was…father Hudson from Baby Jane, “cept folks gettin’ a lot older than they used to be.” He beams a widened smile, Miriam returns the smile. “I suppose they are.”
Quick cut to Dr Drew (Joseph Cotten) smoking a cigar and pacing. “There’s absolutely no point in gettin’ so upset the way you did this morning, anyone who knew you less well than I do might be for forgivin’ thinking you had a persecution complex.” We don’t see who he is talking to just yet. But we assume that it is Charlotte.
Now we hear Charlotte’s voice say “Yes, Dr Drew” He continues with a brotherly tone.
“Charlotte, they are asking you to leave this house.” Charlotte is sitting up in her 4 poster bed. Drew comes closer to talk with her, he continues with more fervor to his tone “because they are going to tear it down not because of any ulterior motives that you seem to imagine.”
Suddenly we hear a car horn honking outside. Charlotte gets shaken out of the stupor from the lecture and rises up from her bed. She asks “Who’s that?” Dr Drew says “Now please Charlotte don’t get so jumpy now at everything.” A single pause and then she says with elation, “It’s Miriam!” Drew says “Miriam isn’t expected til tomorrow evening…now come on calm down” they are outlined by the window.
There are many scenes of looking outward from within, in this film. Windows and doorways. Aldrich loves to surround us with barriers, frame like shadow bars,Camera Obscura, looking glasses and dual images in the mirror.
Everyone is always trying to tell Charlotte to calm down. Don’t feel this or don’t do that. You’re imagining things. Persecution complex, all that. The town does treat her differently. There is a scandal hanging over the house. She is considered an axe murderess who got away with killing her beau. The County wants to tear up all her memories, and literally leave her homeless. Why shouldn’t she be upset? She is portrayed and framed as the hysterical woman, when she has EVERY right to feel threatened and persecuted. In terms of this, she is the ultimate victim in the film.
The scene cuts away to the taxi cab passing the stone marker that says Hollis Manor. Now we see it coming into view through the windshield of the cab. “Well Ma’am this is it” the birds are singing again. Zoom in, a close up on Miriam’s face.
“They say places you lived as a child always seem smaller than your memory of them…it’s not true” Miriam says to herself.
Velma opens the front door, birds are chirping and warbling , a funny comic music is accompanying Velma, who is holding a broom and says “Huh” as if she’s surprised that Miriam actually showed up. The birds sound productive in the beautiful family of oaks surrounding the house. Velma is squinting, at the cab pulling in. The playful music joins Velma as she makes a sour puss face, somewhat like Granny Clampett.
Miriam starts to get out of the cab, Velma is leaning on one of the huge columns, still an expression of vinegar drenching her face. A clarinet helps point out that there will be friction between these 2 women. The camera goes back and forth between Miriam settling herself out of the cab and Velma watching from her post, arms crossed skeptical and demonstratively annoyed. Their eyes meet. Finally Miriam utters in a low voice with a touch of disbelief, “Velma…Velma Cruthers”
The cab driver crosses through the scene “Can I take these in for you Miss?” but Miriam hasn’t broken her gaze from Velma yet. She is dressed impeccably. She hasn’t moved her gaze away from the house or Velma but answers him, “thank you just put them up there” The music is still playful, the birds are still busy, and Miriam starts to survey the house and it’s ancient grandeur.
“It’s just as I left it.” For a brief moment she looks up to the balcony, then asks the cab driver, “how much is that?” while she does this, there is a close up of Charlotte peeking behind one of the huge stone planters, looking at Miriam seriously. “2 dollars and 50 cents ma’am.” Now Charlotte feels and looks at her hair in the braids. She must be comparing how cosmopolitan Miriam looks compared to the down home appearance she has maintained all these years.
A look of embarrassment comes over her face, and the music underscores that as well. She looks humble and a little ashamed at her current style being so outmoded and plain.Their eyes suddenly meet up. Miriam spys her on the balcony and Charlotte’s eyes open wide when she realizes she’s been discovered. Then she hides back behind the large stone planter. Miriam develops a strange look on her face. She says to the cabby “keep the change” still preoccupied by seeing Charlotte. The harpsichord gives the moment an eerie reflective pause.
The music becomes more solemn as she walks up the great steps to the entrance. Velma is still leaning against the column she sarcastically utters “You nearly beat your telegram here” looking at her with hostility, yet Miriam says feigning to be courteous “I know I’m a day early, I hope it won’t inconvenience anybody.”
Dr Drew calls Miriam from the stairs, all excited to see her.”Well I just can’t believe it” Miriam is framed by the front door. We only see half of Velma still leaning and looking at this woman that she absolutely doesn’t trust.
As Miriam approaches the doorway we hear Drew say , “You look marvelous.” She gets closer “What is it that you can’t believe Drew that I’m here…(We see Velma leaning arms folded frowning)…or that I look the way I do?”
Now Drew and Miriam are in an on screen close up. “Come on Miriam, don’t make fun of an old man”, as he kisses her cheek. “You know I was never any good at expressing myself.” She says “oh that’s not so at all Drew…you were always very quick with your compliments.”
A strange look is exchanged as if they have a secret and the niceties are all for show. They give a quick glance around the house. “You always had good intentions.” She’s surveying the house again as she speaks. “They were some times a little vague” She finally takes her hat off, and smiles at him, giving a knowing glance. These two have a history apparently, knowing each others personality quirks. They have an established relationship already, prior to this meeting. They had once been sweethearts. Or is it a hint that they have plans of their own in terms of Charlotte.
The moment has ended. We hear those birds again, but now Velma is framed between the door jams and she’s shouting gesturing with her hands “You all want this stuff upstairs?!” Drew turns to answer her, Miriam tilts her head, Drew says “I’ll give you a hand in just a minute.” Miriam looks perturbed that Velma is there in the house, as if she’ll be in the way and there is not only a sense of the class disparity, but the fact that Velma is Charlotte’s ever present gate keeper and will undoubtedly pose a problem for the two who seem to exude subterfuge.
Drew says to Miriam “Huh, I suppose you wanna see Charlotte?” and wily curious, Miriam looks up and answers with a slightly antagonistic jest, “I think I already have”, as she looks upward towards Charlotte’s bedroom. “Won’t she be coming down?”
“Oh I think we better go up she’s been upset and I, uh well there was a little trouble here this morning and I”, Miriam interrupts “trouble?” Drew answers, “Hhm..nothin’ serious and besides you took us by surprise, we weren’t expecting you til tomorra.” She smiles, “it was a mix up I had to take an earlier plane”…tilting her head, “what kind of trouble?” Drew looks over his shoulder very uncomfortable then faces Miriam again, “Just plain blind stubborn”, he looks toward the upstairs where Charlotte is.
“With her money she could live anywhere in the world like a Queen (I commented earlier that she looked like a Queen in her fortress) he continues “Uh, but as it is I’m afraid you’ll have more than your hands full gettin’ her out of this place.” He starts to climb the stairs. Miriam looks upward holding the banister. We hear a single bird tweeping. She starts rubbing the wood, “the 3 of us used to slide down this banister.” She breaks into a bright smile, “I was always the champion.” He growls, “ha! we just let you win because you were the youngest.”
Drew comes back down the stairs. Miriam is thinking to herself. Now on screen Velma is mumbling asides to herself carrying the bags into the house. Miriam says just as Velma comes nearer, so she can hear her, “an old house is difficult to keep clean.” Velma’s face scrunches up and she leans back and puts her hand on her hips and strikes attitude. “If you can get anybody out from town to work in this place, you’d be doin’ alot better than I could.” Now Miriam offers a saccharine, condescending phony smile.
“Don’t misunderstand me Velma…I know how exhausting it must be…having to do all the work out here alone.” Drew is looking thoughtfully at Miriam while she tries to butter Velma.
Velma watches them walk upstairs, she swings her arms in a dismissive way, then she shouts to Drew, “there’r lot more bags out there!” Drew follows after her to help with the bags on the porch. Velma tries to lift two at a time, but they are too heavy. The moment is comical from a distance.
A harpsichord plays out a a nervous little phrase, Charlotte is sitting at her dressing table fixing up her hair. She wants to look nice for Miriam who seems so polished as compared to her simple, and left over country provincialism. Miriam knocks at the door. “Charlotte, it’s Miriam.” Charlotte turns towards the door and looks nervous. She feels suddenly inferior to her sophisticated cousin, all this time being locked away like a recluse, not as seemingly worldly as her cousin.
As Miriam starts to push the door open, we view her through the prism of the wooden slats to the staircase. It gives the impression of bars, yet again Aldirch’s use of framing the feeling of entrapment by use of the actual architecture of the environment is present in Charlotte. A gentle harpsichord teases out a few pointed notes.
Now the harpsichord is climbing scales to build the tension as she opens the door to Charlotte’s room. It holds onto a reverberating note as Miriam peeks around the corner, Charlotte looking slightly startled. Davis holds her hand to her mouth like a child, She’s tried to fix herself up, but she is still intimidated by her cousin. We can see this with her hand gestures. Now the strings try to warm up the moment of reunion. Miriam slowly moves towards Charlotte looking thoughtful and frozen.
As in Baby Jane, notice there are 2 images of Miriam, the 2nd being reflected in the mirror.
“How good it was getting your telegram asking me to come.” At first a nervous pause and then a smile breaks over Charlotte’s face, and then as if contagious Miriam can now let out a smile too. Charlotte starts to let her hands drop from her face. She runs over and hugs her cousin. “Ah Miriam”, squeezing her tightly. “I knew you’d come, I just knew you would and you’re gonna help me.” Miriam says “Of course I’ll do everything I can…I thought of you and the house…it’s like coming home.”
Charlotte starts to scramble around the bedroom making apologetic excuses “Oh but everything is such a mess.” She is so obviously intimidated by Miriam’s polished style. She grabs for her shoes. “You see I wasn’t expecting you, until tomorrow.” Charlotte sounds out of breath. Miriam says “Don’t worry we’re together again, that’s the important thing.”Charlotte answers “Yes of course it is”, she’s so anxious to please her cousin.
She starts straightening up the room. Miriam walks around the room holding the bed post like a may pole swinging herself “Charlotte’s room…remember the night you taught me to smoke my first cigarette, or was it I” Charlotte with a chuckling lilt interrupts and finishes the sentence “Set the drapes on fire?” Miriam adds, “I was the one they wopped, I know.”
All of a sudden while Miriam is trying to help make the bed clothes, Charlotte grabs a corner of the blanket and shouts out “NO!”
Charlotte grabs back the bunching of the sheets and blurts out “NO! that’s Velma’s job!” but Miriam says “Yes but Velma’s…well Velma” Miriam says it with a gleam in her eye. Charlotte asserts herself for the first time in front of Miriam. When Miriam tries to continue to fix the bed, Charlotte tugs the sheets harder, yanking them away from Miriam. She is very protective of Velma, loyalty is a code for Charlotte. The scene is a precursor and key to part of her mentality.
Miriam pauses to collect her strategy. She starts to chuckle, to a trained eye it would appear more like a jovial cackle, than innocent chuckle. She laughs “well it’s just that we haven’t seen each other in so long.” Now she’s trying to work on Charlotte’s vulnerability to work on manipulating her into trusting her since she is her only living kin, knowing how Charlotte is paranoid now and how family is important to her more than ever.
“You’d think we’d have other things to talk about.” Says this woman Miriam, a snake that has crawled into Charlotte’s quiet garden. First the foreman threatens to take her home away, and then she is invaded by the illusion of a family, friend and savior when in fact she just might be Charlotte’s undoing. Precipitating her mental instability by driving her further into madness. Is that the plan? Have her determined incompetent and therefor become the only living benefactor of the Hollis Estate? Or is Charlotte truly mad? I will not tell you in this commentary. Perhaps Miriam’s seemingly duplicitous nature is just a ruse for Aldrich to throw us off guard?
Miriam continues and puts on an earnest tone “I mean argue about who’s gonna make up the bed” Miriam is still smirking but Charlotte is dead serious at first holding the sheets still closer to herself. Protecting Velma, and the last bit of things that are still her own to claim.
First Miriam cracks and laughs heartily and then Charlotte lets go and joins her. They start laughing together, across from each other on the bed. Cross cut to Velma and Drew walking down the staircase. We can still hear them laughing up stairs. Velma listening then says “If you all want me to fix suppa for ya, ya better eat early cuz I gotta get home.”
Drew responds in his disingenuously charming drawl, “Well thank you Velma, is that an invitation?” She snaps, “No, I just reckoned you’d be sniffing around here more than usual now that Miss Miriam’s back” She strikes an attitude up in his face. He towers over her in height with the addition of standing on a few steps. “There’s nothing like a family reunion…I think I ‘ll just get the key to the cellar.”
He ignores Velma’s sour disposition and carries himself off on his mission to find some good wine. She mocks him behind his back with a miserable convulsive little gesture she’s prone to, and starts mouthing to herself aloud, “he thinks he’s gonna get the key to the cellar.” She continues to waddle and shudder mumbling “think’s he owns this place” She descends a set of stairs into a shadowy lower cavern of the house. Framed in by the large french doors it’s ambient light casts Velma in silhouette. She continues to mumble some incoherent annoyances, just mainly to herself.
Fade in: The reunion dinner
Charlotte, Miriam and Drew are now sitting at a very lovely dinner setting of lace table cloth, crystal and finery, as remembrances of an era when the Hollis House was a place of festive balls and high society dinner parties.
“I didn’t know Velma told you where the keys to the cellar were.” Drew is pouring good champagne.
Charlotte raises her glass to him and says, “Thank you sir…I can’t remember when I last dined in here…papa used to say this was his favorite room.” On screen she is joined in profile by the great portrait of Big Sam. Charlotte drinks and laughs, “I guess that’s cause he used to like to eat so much.”
Miriam tilts her head back in laughter. Charlotte continues, “You know Miriam now that all this nonsense about the house is straightened out we could give parties here again”
Drew looks down at this glass, the ever present portrait of Sam watching over his shoulder from behind. There is an awkward pause, while Drew and Miriam exchange uncomfortable glances at each other. Charlotte begins to sip, and notices that they are trading similar looks.
“Well why not, what’s so impossible about that?” She starts to sip her drink Miriam smiles at her like a cobra in an evening gown with well coiffed hair. She sets her linen napkin down starts to rise from the table. “Well it would be lovely.” She goes to the side bar to get herself a small demitasse of coffee..and drew pipes in, “yes it would be nice,…aren’t you forgettin’ about the limit they put on vacating the house, now you’ve got to be out of here week from Monday and no two ways about it”
Miriam still has her back turned to the two sitting at the table. Charlotte looks seriously at Drew “Drew you carry on as if you were a member of the Department of Roads and Bridges or suh’em (something).”
“Miriam will tell them where to get off won’t you cousin darling?” She takes a drink. Miriam turns “I wish I could.” Now Drew gets more insistent,”Charlotte you have just got to understand…that there’s nothin’, absolutely nothin that Miriam or anybody can do about it now, they are going to tear down this house” and ….he is gesticulating with his hands emphatically to make the point clear to Charlotte “and that is final!”
Charlotte comes back at him not moved at all by his insistence. “Oh you’re so stuffy, they took their smelly old equipment out of here didn’t they?, Miriam isn’t frightened by a bunch of crooked politicians…you know it wouldn’t surprise me to find…
Now we see a shot of Miriam looking pensive…Charlotte continues her rant “to find out that Jewel Mayhew is behind all this.”
This is where the film trickles in the portrayal of Charlotte as a reclusive paranoid, thinking that there is a conspiracy against her, in the invoking of Jewel Mayhew’s name. Not to say that she isn’t a regressive character, but it’s the lack of action and manipulative lethargy on the part of Drew and Miriam that bring out the very tenuous hold on reality for Charlotte who suffered an early trauma, and now the threat of eviction from the only home she’s ever known. She is alone in her fierce clinging to the family property, while both insist that she must leave, instead of being at least empathetic to her plight, these two are not supportive of Charlotte’s feelings.
Miriam takes a sip from the delicate china cup, Charlotte takes a sip from her champagne and Drew wipes his mouth with his napkin shaking his head, before he inserts, “Charlotte that is ridiculous.” Miriam from our p.o.v. looks very uncomfortable. Charlotte says, “is it?…you notice they’re not laying a finger on her land…they’re destroying my house.” She touches her hand to her chest” but they’re not touching hers.”
Miriam is still silent, sipping her demitasse, contemplating the conversation from the sidelines.
“I’ll rent the car for you Miriam, you can go tomorrow.” Now Miriam turns to face Charlotte she asks, “Go where?” Charlotte tells her “to Baton Rouge, to put that damned county commissioner straight.”
Now Miriam walks back over to the dining table and sits down. “Charlotte….there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you if I could, you know that but I’m afraid Drew’s right…there isn’t anything we can do about the house…you have to leave” Drew begins to pour himself more champagne the sound of a tenor sax or tuba deepens the landscape and impending turbulence surfaces in the scene.
Charlotte looks over at Drew, you can see her face becoming stone again. Now even tighter her facial muscles and the strings become more responsive to the moment. Charlotte looks at Miriam now. The strings are building, there’s a long pause before Charlotte begins to speak. Her eyes widen. She is framed in shadow but the depth of her eyes are severe. She is lit only partially from the chest and neck to her face.We can see that Miriam has just poked the hornets nest.
Charlotte now sets herself back down in her chair, still staring at both her guests.Flutes are letting us know that the storm of words is coming. Her facial expression, her widened eyes convey the betrayal so well.
Also notice that there are always some form of banded shadow either across Charlotte’s or Miriam’s chest in this sequence. Through out the film shadow has been used to strategically and systematically to obscure or dissect various body parts of the women.
As in Baby Jane, Aldrich’s continuous use of shadow and the actual environment to paint the atmosphere of entrapment is visible in this scene. Charlotte is framed on both sides by the shadows of the candelabra looking like bars, and the banister that appears like thin black iron bars that are wrapping themselves around Charlotte. They seem so carefully placed in order to frame Charlotte in a cage.
Charlotte Rears back in her chair like a queen who has just heard a treasonous remark from her court. She implodes as she begins to utter the words boiling over her tongue. “What do you think I asked you here for!” Sucking each word in as if it were painful to swallow. She blurts out the carefully chosen word “Company!…I thought you were gonna help me.”
Miriam with her coldly serpent like grin “But I shall, that’s why I came to help, to be with you.”
Now Charlotte’s voice is a screeching wave of vitriol, “TO BE WITH ME!… I’ve been alone here ever since Papa died…the only people I’ve ever seen is Velma and Drew” She stares at him contemptibly, “who comes out when he feels like it…just to see if i’m still alive.”
Drew starts to mumble justifications. Charlotte continues, “and a bunch of sniveling idiots who come out here to make fun of me.” Miriam is as still and calm not moved by Charlotte’s outburst at all. Her patronizing silence is a deafening inertia, compared with Charlotte’s outrage.
“Do you think I’d ask you back here just to BE WITH ME!!!!” the words bubble over like a boiling kettle. Drew interjects. “Charlotte she’s only trying to lend a helping hand.” “Oh yes I can see that, she’s just breaking her back”, her teeth are clenched, her eyes squinting with rage. “GOD! Do you have gratitude….when you first came here after your precious papa died, you acted as if we weren’t good enough for you”
Now Miriam shows the first signs of emotion. She rises from the table going to the back to the side bar. Looking genuinely wounded as if Charlotte hit a nerve. Charlotte adds, “and your mama a sorry up north waitress.” Here the question of class disparity comes up and we have a little more background into Miriam’s possible resentment toward Charlotte.
Drew gets up, “Charlotte, that’s enough.” Miriam speaks, “let her talk to me if insulting me gives her any satisfaction.” Now Charlotte rises from the table.
“When you first came here papa took you down town and bought you a whole new wardrobe. Does it insult you to remember that?” Miriam finally shows her venom as she spits back at Charlotte’s tirade. “Yes!, I remember he took your poor up north cousin down for whole new wardrobe, down to a sleazy store he wouldn’t even let you step foot in.”
“Oh that wasn’t good enough for you…papa didn’t give you enough, or maybe that’s what you came back here for…to get the rest of papa’s money!” Charlotte turns away making a ill-tempered gesture as she adds that last bit.
“Charlotte I have a career and I’ve given up valuable time to come here.” “Why I know, let’s see what is it you call your job, oh I know, public relations, sounds like something pretty dirty to me” She takes another sip of her drink.
“The dirt Charlotte, is entirely in your own mind.” Drew gets involved again.”I wouldn’t dwell on it if I were you, she didn’t come here to be insulted” now he takes a drink. “No, most likely she came back here to help Jewel Mayhew drive me out of my own house.”
Drew responds “Charlotte you don’t believe that?” “Why wouldn’t Miriam conspire with Jewel against me, who was it went sneaking off to Jewel and told about her husband and me in the first place” Drew looks legitimately shaken up by that revelation, and so stares at Miriam, again we see the great portrait of Sam Hollis staring over his shoulder.
The piano trebbles out a very tense number of seconds as they exchange glances. Finally Charlotte looks over at Drew. “Didn’t know about that did you Drew?” The music depletes, “that’s something you never told your precious boyfriend.”
Drew stands up. Charlotte continues “Isn’t that so Miriam?” We see Miriam’s profile in shadow, Drew standing behind her a little ray of light striking him as it illuminates that he has just learned something new about his old flame.
A HALO OF DARKNESS FORMS AROUND MIRIAM
We hear Charlotte say in a very saccharine voice, ” isn’t it cousin darling?” Pleased with her verbal slap she takes a sip of her drink and smiles.
Miriam looks as hard as rock, then she turns her head and looks up at Drew. “Yes I told Jewel, and I told your father too.” Now she speaks more forcefully, “why wouldn’t I?” She stands and stares back, her gaze drilling deeply into Charlotte’s face.
“After all I wasn’t much more than a child then, and all I ever got in this house was people telling me how lucky I was , and your father always favoring you and holding you up as an example” Now some of her true colors start to bleed through as Charlotte starts to wane a little.
“Why wouldn’t I tell him that his pure, darling little girl, was having a dirty little affair with a married man!” Miriam’s venomous comeback might have well just been a blurting out the word WHORE!
Here the question of Antagonist/Protagonist and it’s ambiguity is raised. Charlotte’s past is tainted by the affair with John. Miriam’s origin as a poor northern branch of the family also tells us about the classism that exists in the Hollis family as well.
Charlotte gets up, the piano trebbles again “You’re a lyin’ sorry little BITCH!” Miriam doesn’t waste any time, “how was I to know that it would end in murder…with John being butchered”
The camera shows Charlotte’s face turn strange, a sadly strained pout. The piano sounds like a dissonant set of chords have been blurred and stifled while the lid is shut to muffle the reverberations. This is to show Charlotte’s mental fragility. Where the pain and weakness lies. Miriam has pierced Charlotte’s armor by invoking John’s death. Miriam coiled like a serpent over the table glaring up at Charlotte as if she knows that she just dealt the lethal blow in the argument. Drew stands coldly, confident, fixed on Charlotte.
Within seconds Charlotte has been reduced to her regressive vulnerability. She looks downward, starts to cry inwardly. Turns and looks at the portrait of her papa. The organ music plays a bit of Charlotte’s theme. She has regressed further. She is her daddy’s little girl now, reflecting back living in the past pain. Charlotte deflated and wounded begins to speak.
“No…you couldn’t have known that, and you couldn’t have known that when Drew found out, that he was so frightened of having his fine old name linked with ours that he’d walk out on you…
but Drew’s still here…and you’re both still alive..aah and I’m still here…but John” she points her hand to the side in a cracking voice, “John never even.”
She stops talking. The strings come in to play Charlotte’s theme tragically helping her finish the words she could not utter. She walks out into the hall, the shadows surround her. “John, John” she calls, crying out “John.”
Charlotte says his name to herself then starts to cry, and fades deeper into the shadows, swallowed up. we hear her say his name off screen as she climbs the stairs.
We are left with Miriam and Drew in frame. Miriam falls back into the chair. “She is deranged Drew, she must be.” He says “no, she’s certainly worse then when I last wrote you…not to the extent of being committed…I’m sorry there’s just no way of avoiding the problem…there are times when she genuinely doesn’t know what she’s saying.” But” Miriam interrupts him, “on the other hand, I thought the way you described her very accurately.”
He says, “if it’s any comfort I’ve always regretted having let you go.” He looks at Miriam sincerely. We still see her profile. Stoic. icy. She smiles a bit. Takes up her drink to her lips and says “we don’t have time for regrets now Drew…and there is a lot to regret.”
The scene switches to Charlotte closing the door to her room and crying. She is still calling out John’s name.
Cut to Drew and Miriam walking outside. Drew says “What a shame with all that money she could have done such wonderful things with this place, made it so beautiful again.” Miriam is leaning against a pillar, with a bit of spot light on her. “How could she stand being alone here all these years?”
“People who are obliged to live alone, have a habit of creating company for themselves…innocent fancies can become fixed delusion.” Miriam is looking at Drew as if she wants him to give her the diagnosis she wants. To be able to then commit Charlotte making her sole beneficiary of the Hollis Estate. Drew has not come out definitively calling Charlotte insane. Merely that she”s been living in isolation for so long that she has conjured the memory of John for self preservation against the loneliness.
“I think she never fully excepted John Mayhew’s death at least part of her mind hasn’t ….sometimes she speaks of him as if he were still alive…here in this house” Miriam still has light showcasing her profile. She’s listening intently.
“As if she could still feel his personality… she plays that old harpsichord, the song he wrote for her…often at night she sits up dressed” We see Miriam’s brain is swirling like a machine. The thoughts are forming we can see it in her eyes. Drew continues his soliloquy.
“It’s as if she were still young and expecting a beau.” Miriam says a little forlorn, “I seem to remember expecting something like that once myself” softly she looks at Drew. But the moment is shortened.
I want to take this time, and I should have mentioned it earlier, I know I’ve spoken about how much I admire Joseph Cotten’s work. He was brilliantly cast in this film as Drew. He has always appeared the ambiguous hero/villain. He’s got that pliable kind of persona, and unconventional sex appeal that can cut both ways.
Drew offers to stay the night, since Miriam’s been alone all this time she declines, so he offers her a gun. “Occasionally people skulk around.” He tells her to take, it kisses her on the cheek hoping for more. She smiles and says goodnight.
Then she progressively walks into frame on the outside of the house, we hear a dog barking, and then we see in the distance the family graveyard, Someone is stirring out there, She looks over to the front door. She hadn’t heard Charlotte come out. She looks at the gun, the dog barks. We see the head stones and then Miriam stares out toward the graves. She turns around and walks back into the shadows away from us. The music grows ominous, yet poignant.
WHERE’S MIRIAM’S FACE? UNDER ALL THAT SHADOW!
Miriam comes into the house, and closes the door. So much of the scenes in this film have been framed in shadow, that shadow has become yet another character living at Hollis House. She locks the front door starts to ascend the stairs. She pauses, we hear the dog barking outside again. A queer kind of little melody line flutters And the scene switches back from Miriam on the stairs.
Leaving us with Charlotte looking to the side still leaning on her window. Frame within a frame, a MeloNoir prisoner. Trapped by pain, delusion, loss and regret.
Charlotte looking out the window, We hear the Hollis crickets.
Continued in Part V Aldrich’s Hag Cinema “You’re my favorite living mystery”-” Have you solved me yet?”