What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich / U.S., 1962):

Sisters, or The Balance of Madness. The joke is that it's The Old Maid by way of Psycho, grand showbiz monsters wrangled by Robert Aldrich with chair and whip, "they're desperate for new acts." The horrid vaudeville moppet and her plain sister switch places as Thirties movie stars, the switcheroo is a mysterious car crash that puts them "right back where we started" in the Tinseltown mausoleum. Upstairs lies the former leading lady (Joan Crawford) with wheelchair and buzzer, her deranged sis (Bette Davis) reigns below amidst grinning dolls and empty gin bottles. The spiral is swift and brutal: Dead parakeets and rats for supper, hammer blows to the head, scabby close-ups of the villainess in pancake makeup and moldy ringlets. "Is this some kind of emotional disturbance you're talking about?" The shattered figurine and weeping jack-in-the-box, a comprehensive analysis of the Gothic aberrations Hollywood keeps in mothballs. (The parody extends to Victor Buono's put-on suavity as a bloated pianist locked in his own festering relationship with his gnomish mum.) Two dueling divas like Lugosi and Karloff, a horror meeting set up in the Aldrich circus nonpareil—claustrophobically framed, pitilessly lit, gloatingly magnified. Crawford endures it gallantly, but Davis rolls with it gamely: Her Baby Jane is a roaring caricature, Miss Havisham on quite the expressionistic bender, a scabrous cakewalk halted before a mirror with a piercing shriek. (The shock cut from Davis cackling to the overhead view of the terrorized Crawford spinning in her room registers actress and director in gleeful synergy.) The ample notations from Sunset Bvld. lead to a place in the sun, the Kiss Me Deadly finale is remembered (sandcastles before apocalypses) and the Legend of Lylah Clare finale is predicted (dog food on the telly). "You mean all this time we could've been friends?" Camp cultists can have "I've Written a Letter to Daddy," Bergman meanwhile responds with The Silence. Cinematography by Ernest Haller. With Maidie Norman, Anna Lee, Wesley Addy, and Bert Freed. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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