Robert Aldrich directs Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten in this thriller about an aging, reclusive Southern belle, riddled with guilt over a murder in her youth, who descends into madness after the arrival of a lost relative.
This companion piece to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? often feels the superior product to that camp vampy classic. Sure, it lacks the bristling, incomparable backstage history that electrifies every interaction contained in its progenitor… But it is a more confident, compelling mystery. That flashback intro – set around a murderous debutante ball – with Victor Buono sweating, axes going missing in strikingly composed shots and frilly dresses and plaits darting around shadowy corners, is a masterclass in cinematic short storytelling horror. Bette Davis, here as an arrested development Southern belle, maybe just as malevolent and vulnerable as her iconic Baby Jane, but now she’s a fully fledged personality you truly care about. Aldrich’s direction is visually daring and lands with purpose. The plot is a genuine gripper with little fat. And while Olivia de Havilland’s presence may deprive us of more of the Feud-y gossip that Joan Crawford brought to the first movie’s face-off, she is easily the stronger actress. Whisper it, but catty history aside, Sweet Charlotte is the far more engaging mystery.