Classy ladies, scary movies

Blake Backlash considers the cinematic mixing of Hollywood’s grande dames with grand guignol.

Hush Hush

Bruce Dern gets his hand and head chopped off early on in Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte. He’s attacked by someone wielding a cleaver and, wonderfully, you really see the hand chopping. You see the cleaver come down, you see the severed hand, you see fleshy stump with a bit of bone sticking out of it. Cleaver, hand, stump and head will resurface later in the film, the last of these tumbling down stairs after being carelessly dropped. The film is 50 years old this year but such violence was not totally unprecedented in 1964. There are nastier killings in Two Thousand Maniacs and Blood and Black Lace, both of which came out the same year. And if we were to make a more mainstream comparison, the shower scene in Psycho, which came out four years earlier, is probably more powerfully shocking, if less explicit.

Still, that cleaver-chop did surprise me. Maybe because, for all that violence is part of the language of even the most respectable cinema, full-frontal decapitations can feel déclassé. The sight of severed body parts is too much fun and the desire to giggle or cheer seems better suited to the drive-in than an arthouse.  At the same time, the film has a cast that reeks of… well, maybe not class exactly but stature. Joseph Cotton gives fine dissolute, Dixieland doctor, but it’s the dames that really matter in this movie. The original idea had been to reunite Bette Davis and Joan Crawford with Robert Aldrich, trying to play off the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But Crawford got sick (or pretended to get sick to get out of working with Davis again) and so Olivia de Havilland was brought in to take her part. The cast also features Cotton’s old Mercury Theatre cohort, Agnes Moorhead, and a former femme-fatale in Mary Astor. As with Baby Jane there’s an odd tension here between the pedigree of the actresses and the slightly sleazy material. The idea behind the casting may have been that the presence of big-names mitigated the pulpier elements of the plot – so the film gets bigger than B-movie audiences. But the oomph these Golden Age ladies put in their performances is both arresting and slightly unnerving. You get the feeling that, with these women around, decapitations are not only permitted but actually encouraged.

Such cinematic mixing of Grande Dames and Grand Guignol had its heyday in the second-half of the sixties, and such films are sometimes (more-or-less) affectionately known as psycho-biddy pictures. They tended to feature an actress over 50 in some sort of peril, a melodramatic plot and a title that ends in a question mark.  But there is another, related tradition that goes back further that I think we could place these films in.

In 1928 Lillian Gish made The Wind with Victor Sjöström. Gish goes West to stay with her cousin on an isolated ranch. She is menaced by an unsuitable suitor and the terrible, insistent howling of the wind. She starts to lose it. I remember an unsettling moment in the The Wind where Sjöström cuts from a close-up of Gish as she looks frantically around her cabin, to what at first appears to be a point-of-view shot, the camera panning from left-to-right seemingly showing us what Gish sees. But the camera keeps on moving, coming all the way round to Gish again. We find ourselves looking at her when we thought we were looking as if we were her. This formal blurring of the line between subjective and objective reality is characteristic of the kind of films I am talking about.

(A quick intermission – before we go on you should read Parts One and Two of MostlyFilm’s piece on feminine iconology. In part to count the number of women written about there who have appeared in the sort of films I’m going to tell you about. And in part because, half-way through an article where one bloke tries to write about women on film, you probably want to read something on the same subject written by several intelligent women.)

You need more than a girl and a gun to make these movies; you need a woman and a home. More specifically, you need a highly strung and vulnerable female protagonist, ideally played by an actress of some stature. And you need a claustrophobic location for her to be tormented in. This could be shack, an apartment or a mansion but it should afford plenty of opportunities for visually striking shots from strange angles. Exactly what or whom is tormenting her can vary: it could be common-and-garden criminals, supernatural forces, or even the darker regions of her own mind. In fact, there should ideally be some ambiguity about which of these is the real culprit. And this ambiguity may lead to a sense that the home itself has turned against our leading lady. The most distilled version of this movie is probably Repulsion, where reality is flayed until the film, the flat it takes place in, and all of us watching, hiding in the darkness, seem to exist solely to make Catherine Deneuve crack up.

Other films introduce more variables. There may be other women, rivals most likely. But we will be unsure if they are potential victims or perpetrators. There may be children. But we will be unsure if they are innocent or monstrous. Our protagonist may be driven to lethal violence, ideally against a man. We will be pretty sure he deserved but unsure if he’s going to have the decency to stay down.

I’ll admit I am not being too scrupulous about defining all of this – but that’s because I want you to see the films, so a catholic approach seems most productive. And in that spirit, if I was going to put on a season of Classy Ladies in Scary Movies, I would try and get prints of: Gaslight, Rebecca, Sunset Boulevard, Sorry… Wrong Number, Black Narcissus, Les Diaboliques, The Innocents, Dial M For Murder, Lady in a Cage, The Haunting, Wait Until Dark, Taste of Fear, Persona and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. If I was trying to be cute, I might even throw in Grey Gardens as well.

If seeing all those seems like too much work, I can at least recommend you a place to start from. Maybe an interesting and lesser known example of the genre, that you can pick up on DVD? Another Bette Davis movie to go with Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte? I am tempted to point you in the direction of The Anniversary, where Davis plays the eye-patch wearing matriarch of a peculiar British family. That would be straying too far outside the genre. But you should seek it out, if only to only to see Bette Davis operating the bulb attached to a Pissing Boy statue, and almost pissing herself with laughter, as she watches the stream of ersatz urine skoosh out of the little fella’s cock.

Instead, I’m going to say you should see The Nanny, in which you will have to decide… well, the poster tells you:

The Nanny

It’s a Hammer film, the screenplay is by one of their stalwarts, Jimmy Sangster, and it is directed by Seth Holt. You should try and see everything Seth Holt made. The film begins with 11-year-old Joey coming home to his highly strung mother and domineering father, after spending two years in an institution after… well, something bad happened. William Dix plays Joey in a way that recalls both Alan Partridge regressing to his childhood under hypnosis and the deviant confidence of Miles from The Innocents (or perhaps, the rather more explicitly over-sexed Miles from BBC4’s version of The Turn of the Screw from 2009). Joey gets on alright with his mum and dad but he is openly hostile to Bette Davis’s nanny. Over the course of the film we find out why.

Malevolent tricks are played on people. Someone is nearly frightened to death. People see things that are not really there. There are at least two characters on the verge on some kind of breakdown. Joey visits the girl upstairs, a bored doctor’s daughter called Bobbie, who swears and smokes.  Bobbie is sharply played by Pamela Franklin, who in a few years would be Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie andget this – played Flora in The Innocents you see how this all come together!

Davis’s performance is great. Her accent and her acting are far more restrained than in Hush… Hush and she is proud, sad, and, I swear, subtle. Holt’s direction is subtle too. He trained as an editor, and the camera and the cuts always seem to be in exactly the right place.

So, The Nanny is a good place to start, it is an invigorating mix of all the elements that make this sort of thing fun. But it is also a good place to start because it is something more than that.

Because at one point Davis leaves the flat most of the film takes place and we see the world outside. The real world. The 1964 of kitchen-sink dramas. I can’t tell you who she is going to see but she goes to a poorer part of London. And, all of a sudden, concealed inside this melodrama, we find a sequence of unvarnished sixties social realism. Something as honest and out of place as an X-Ray in a music box.

6 thoughts on “Classy ladies, scary movies

  1. They sure are wonderful.

    After Crawford left, they approached Vivien Leigh for the part of the cousin (before de Havilland) but she turned it down and said: ‘I can just about stand to look at Joan Crawford at six in the morning on a southern plantation, but I couldn’t possibly look at Bette Davis’.

  2. Olivia de Havilland is so cute and saucy in those pictures! I saw Lady in a Cage a few years ago, and when the movies are… the way they are, you sort of worry that what was in the movie was the same on the set and everyone was disrespectful and they had a terrible time but those pictures!

  3. Yeah, her goofin’ around sort of reassures you it was all OK. And it was Lillian Gish’s idea to film The Wind (which was a book she liked) and she picked Sjöström as director. Bette Davis got the first director of The Anniversary fired. Jimmy Sangster who wrote that one too, phoned LA and said ‘we’ve a problem, Bette doesn’t like the director’ and they said ‘what’s the problem? look – this isn’t a Jimmy Sangster movie, it’s not a Hammer movie, it’s not even a Fox movie. It’s a Bette Davis movie’.

    So I think it’s wrong to read these films, the way people sometimes do as if ‘main character being tormented’ in some simplistic way mirrors ‘actress tormented by control-freak director’. I mean even with the directors where there are lots of stories from the set about how controlling they are (Hitch, Premminger, Polanski) I think that reading is too easy and reductive. Unfair on the actresses, rather than the directors.

    1. Ooh, what about Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath? An interesting one because you also get the older leading man turns proper villain. Is that another trope? I can’t think of another one at the mo… lots of them turning anti-hero, but villain…

  4. Ray Milland and Anton Walkbrook? Ah, they don’t quite fit the bill. I’m just listing bad husbands, really…

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