By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Old lady kills housekeepers.
After the death of her husband, Claire (Geraldine Page) is shocked to learn that there is no money in his will. Fearing a life of destitution she plots to hire old lady housekeepers who she’ll manipulate to give her their life savings in which she’ll invest into stocks through her broker (Peter Brandon). Once these stocks start making money she’ll murder the housekeeper and keep all the profits for herself. After killing off her fourth housekeeper, Miss Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock) and burying her dead body in her backyard, she hires Alice (Ruth Gordon). Alice though has a secret, she was at one time the former employer for Miss Tinsley, who wants to investigate what happened to her and is suspicious that Claire may hold the secret. Claire though becomes aware of Alice’s scheme and decides to try and make Alice her fifth victim.
This marked the third of Robert Altman’s trilogy featuring old lady killers with the first two being What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. This was the first one to be filmed in color and the harsh dry desert landscape setting works as a great metaphor to Claire’s barren, evil soul. I also enjoyed the winding plot, which is based on the 1961 novel ‘The Forbidden Garden’ by Ursula Curtiss that has many offbeat twists including a memorable scene featuring the two old ladies rolling around on the floor during a furious fight that you’ll most likely never see in any other movie.
Page’s performance is the main reason why the film is so entertaining. Watching all the various characteristics that she gives to her haughty character is fascinating and she helps make Claire, as nasty as she is, quite memorable. I especially liked the part where after she kills one of her victims she displays for a split second a shocked expression like even she can’t believe what she has just done and this helps to make her character multi-dimensional, like there’s still some semblance of a tortured conscious somewhere within her and she isn’t just a robotic, evil person.
Gordon is okay in support, but I felt her character should’ve had some backup plan that she would use in defense when things got ugly. She keeps assuring her nephew (Robert Fuller) that she can handle things, but when Claire turns on her she becomes almost like a deer-in-headlights. I also didn’t like the wig that she wears and have to agree with one critic who said it makes her look like a giant, walking-talking peanut. I realize that the wig does eventually come into play as part of the plot, but I felt in the brief segments where she’s shown not wearing it she could’ve been seen with her real hair and not just in another wig, which looked just as dumb.
Honorable mention should also go to Spike who plays a stray dog named Chloe. Spike was a well trained animal who was in many films and TV-shows between 1956 and 1971 and the parts where he bares his teeth and growls at Claire every time he sees her, as she attempts to harm him, are amusing.
The script by Theodore Apstein, fortunately avoids a lot of loopholes, but I did feel at the end they should’ve shown or explained how the characters played by Rosemary Forsythe and Micheal Barbera were able to escape from their burning house. I also found it hard to fathom why Robert Fuller’s character, upon learning that his Aunt had been killed in a suspicious car accident didn’t immediately accuse Claire of doing it. He had pretended not to have any connection to Alice during the majority of the story as that was part of their scheme, but once she was dead I didn’t see why he still needed to pretend. I would think he’d be so emotionally distraught at that point that he would let out his true emotions without even thinking and possibly even tried to attack Claire while having to be restrained by the others.
End of Spoiler Alert!
The film’s promotional poster, as seen above, is a bit problematic as it features a young model looking like she’s been buried, but in the movie it was only old ladies that were killed and buried. Showing a beautiful lady may have been more visually appealing, but it’s not authentic to the film that it’s trying to promote.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: July 23, 1969
Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes
Director: Lee H. Katzin (Bernard Girard for the first 4-weeks of filming)
Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation
Available: DVD, Blu-ray