April 5, 2011
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) ***
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)- Two lead performances make this B-level trash fest worth seeing. Sunset Blvd-lite. *** out of 5
Peeping Tom (1960) ****1/2
Directed by Michael Powell
Peeping Tom (1960)- Macabre and unsettling look at the logical extremes of voyeurism. There's a lot of today in this film. ****1/2 of 5
The 1950s was a unique decade in the history of film. As the moguls who created Hollywood started dying, the studio system began to crumble for two reasons. First of all, television was proving to be a formidable opponent to both radio and film, and second, the world was vastly different than it was in the 1940s, and, without adapting to the times, the studios were simply not going to remain viable. Power shifted from the studios to the stars and the directors themselves as they were no longer contractually bound only to making films for one company. Arguably, this provided more freedom to visionary filmmakers who weren't as tethered to bureaucratic demands.
Of course, there was a downside to all of this. Without the security of a studio contract, actors and directors were more and more bound to success at the box office in order to either be cast in a film or to receive financing. Three of the most influential people in film experienced quite a bit of professional hardships as the fifties were bleeding into the early 1960s, a decade that would become among the greatest for the artistic evolution of the motion picture. Notorious actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and British director Michael Powell would have to fight against box office scorn during this advanced point in their careers, with a single film respectively changing the directions of each. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? reignited the fizzling stardom of famed enemies Davis and Crawford, while Peeping Tom pretty much ended the great career of Powell, one of the most talented directors that's ever made a movie.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is an over-the-top campy horror flick, telling the tale of one sister's jealousy of the other's past stardom. The jealousy manifests itself through torturous actions on the part of Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) towards her wheelchair bound sister Blanche (Crawford). Baby Jane reached her success as a child star on the stage, while Blanche became quite the starlet as a young adult. Baby Jane has taken to drinking, while Blanche relies on her sister completely for all of her basic needs. Things become truly disturbing when Baby Jane starts to lose her mind completely as she imagines her return to fame, which we witness in a truly uncomfortable scene of Davis singing a song exactly the way she did when she was a little girl. As Blanche tries to find a way out of her personal hell and is caught by Baby Jane, we witness a woman on the verge of a total breakdown go completely over the edge into complete insanity.
Peeping Tom is a vicious look at a sadistic photographer who becomes obsessed with killing women and photographing their terror. He begins by seeking out prostitutes, but eventually the women in his life also become victims. His voyeuristic and psychopathic tendencies stem back to his childhood when his father, a psychoanalyst, would repeatedly terrify him in order to document his son's reactions.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? becomes a carnival sideshow which the audience can watch in fascination from an emotional distance. Peeping Tom, on the other hand, forces us to deal with the sins of voyeurism that continues to pervade our culture, especially with today's social media. It's a timeless condemnation which is arguably more relevant today than it was back in 1960. Critics at the time derided Powell for making a movie so brutish in its subject matter. Over time, though, as the plots of horror films delved deeper into the depths of the evils of the human condition, the disdain over Peeping Tom has been replaced with a great deal of respect. It's an effectively chilling glimpse into the slippery slope of obsession over the private lives of others.
Davis, Crawford and Powell all deserve to be applauded for their bravery and the risks each took in deciding to be part of projects that were so extreme at a time when the entire landscape of cinema was far from stable. Sometimes risks pay off as was the case with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and sometimes risks can end great careers as was the case with Peeping Tom. Yet, over time, the true masterpiece has been recognized as such. If only all films could be judged outside of the circumstances surrounding their release.