What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

2018 #153
Robert Aldrich | 128 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford star as squabbling sisters forced together by circumstance in this slice of Hollywood Gothic. Both were once famous in their own way: as a child, bratty Jane Hudson (Davis) was a huge vaudeville star as the eponymous ‘Baby Jane’; later, her level-headed sister Blanche (Crawford) became a huge star of the silver screen, where Jane struggled to make a mark, employed only as a clause of her sister’s studio contract. A tragic incident ended both their careers, leaving Blanche paralysed and Jane her carer. Decades later, resentment has made Jane casually abusive of her invalided sister — and when she discovers that Blanche has been secretly plotting a major change to their situation, things only get worse…

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane plays out as a mix of overwrought melodrama, plausible real-life horror, and mature psychological thriller. It’s really driven by the acting of the two leads. Crawford gets a less showy role, having to play it straight as the reasonable, sensible older sister, struggling to do what’s right for her sibling even as she’s mistreated. Davis, on the other hand, is allowed to cut loose. Jane starts the film batty and only gets less mentally stable from there. It’s quite an extraordinary performance from Davis, which threatens to tip over into scenery-chewing at any moment but remains compelling.

Bette Davis and her preferred co-star

The film itself is less assured. Director Robert Aldrich manages a good line in generating tension from people almost finding out what’s going on in the Hudson household, and there’s a solid final-reel twist (even if the final act in general is a bit bizarre — no spoilers, but those beach users are seriously inattentive), but the film is allowed to run longer than the material really merits. A slow burn can be used to create atmosphere, of course, but that’s not really the case here. It could do with a little more drive early on.

But maybe it’s this looseness that has allowed so many different ways of viewing the film. As well as those I’ve already mentioned — sibling melodrama, psychological thriller, unnerving horror — people have taken it as a black comedy, or a cult camp classic. Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly an experience.

4 out of 5

The TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, which dramatises the making of this film, begins a repeat run on BBC Four tonight at 10pm.

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The Big Knife (1955)

2015 #8
Robert Aldrich | 107 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

The Big KnifeJack Palance is an actor wanting out of his studio contract in this stagey film noir.

The entire film takes place in his house, with a parade of supporting characters coming and going to variously persuade him to stay, persuade him to quit, or persuade him to do other things (saucy!) It’s not just the limited location that makes it feel stagey, though, but also the style of dialogue and the performances. I’m never quite able to put my finger on it, but there’s a certain way playwrights seem to pen dialogue that just feels like it’s from theatre, and The Big Knife (which is adapted from a stage play) has it.

Palance is very good, playing against expectations as an actor who sold out his artistry and is now struggling to be brave enough to stand up to the overbearing studio execs, who have an additional hold over him. Rod Steiger is a bit OTT as the studio’s head, Stanley Hoff, but then the character’s meant to be a bit like that. Somewhat heavy-handed pillorying of a real studio boss? Perhaps. Also worth watching is Rear Window’s Wendell Corey as Hoff’s assistant, Smiley Coy. His is a more subtle performance, conveying his opinions and enacting his schemes mostly with looks. I suppose you don’t get much less stagey than that.

ShoutyPartially driven by a seeming twist that’s obvious from the outset (which, in fairness, the film reveals only 40 minutes in), the story never quite comes alive. Palance and Corey make parts worth watching, but at other times it’s a bit of a slog, not helped by an awful score that chimes in now and then, loudly. Expansive cinematography (so much headroom — was it shot to be cropped for widescreen? Perhaps it was) combats any feeling of claustrophobia the single location and oppressive moral situation might have leant it.

The Big Knife is not the finest film noir (certainly, if anyone’s looking for familiar genre tropes, you’ll find few here), nor the finest behind-the-sets view of moviemaking, but some sporadically strong performances prevent it being meritless for the patient viewer.

3 out of 5