Saturday, June 2, 2012

For the last time, it's not Baby Jane

Coming up in the wee hours of tomorrow morning, at 4:00 AM on TCM, is the entertaining What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?. It's a movie that's also almost as disturbing as yesterday's selection Pretty Poison, albeit it in a different way.

Ruth Gordon plays Clare Marrable. At the beginning of the movie, we see her as a new widow, learning about her husband's business dealings, which suffice it to say weren't very successful. In fact, he's gone so heavily into debt that he borrowed against the insurance, and almost everything will have to be sold off, with the exception being a few things in his briefcase, such as a stamp album. What's a poor little old lady to do? Clare decides to move to the Arizona desert so that she can be closer to her daughter and son-in-law. She still wants to live in the style that her late husband mortgaged everything to provide for her, though, so there's a bit of a dilemma, which Clare resolves in a neat, if somewhat illegal way: she defrauds the housekeeper, kills her, and buries her in the spot where Clare is planting a row of pine trees. The trees are going to use the dead bodies for food, thereby neatly destroying the evidence. Clare then carefully selects another housekeeper who has no family to worry about her disappearance, and repeats the process.

Enter Alice Dimmock (Ruth Gordon). She's the latest in the line of housekeepers. However, she's more than just a housekeeper. It turns out she was an acquaintance of one of the earlier housekeepers, Miss Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock, whose appearance is too brief thanks to the plot), and she's worried about what happened to Tinsley. So while she's ostensibly working for Clare, she's also trying to snoop around as unobtrusively as possible and figure out what's going on. She's helped unwittingly by the fact that Clare has some more obvious snoops to deal with, in the form of a young woman and her son, and their dog who keeps wanting to dig in the garden where those pine trees are.

I should point out here that I'm not giving too much away. This is more of a suspense movie than a mystery, at least in the Hitchcock sense where we've been let in on what's going on. It's revealed pretty early that Clare is a murderess, and the progress of her killing spree is shown often enough through shots of the line of pine trees, a device which is actually macabrely entertaining. I don't really want to go into too much detail about what happens after Alice starts working for Clare, except to say that this is the point where the movie really starts to get fun.

Geraldine Page is a hoot as Clare. Murders aside, she's still not the nicest employer to work for by a long shot, and you wonder how anybody could put up with this treatment long enough to get murdered. But Clare was used to luxury, and dammit, those housekeepers better keep giving her that luxury! Ruth Gordon is also quite good as Alice, a woman who seems to know how to put up with a difficult boss. She's also got the sort of spunk that you would have thought only Glenda Farrell from 35 years earlier might have had. It all comes together to make a movie that's a hell of a lot of fun.

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? has gotten DVD releases, but they seem to be out of print.

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