Tuesday, October 28

The Directors: Robert Aldrich

It may be that his name is not as familiar to the general public as some of his more heralded contemporaries.  But I think I can assure you that you have heard of many of his films, some of which could even be among your favorites.  Much of his work holds up quite well.  He was fond of the anti-hero and often placed him in a tug-of-war with his principles. 

His films were gritty, edgy, exciting... one dove into them with relish.  Like Robert Aldrich himself, his work was often viewed as crude, crass and macho.  He seemed to celebrate violence, corruption and aggression.  With his energies it's little wonder he gravitated into war films, westerns and noirs or near-noirs.  He worked with some of filmdom's most macho stars-- and I snicker as I add-- both men and women.  He was quite a hefty man and he carried that heft onto film sets in a decidedly commanding manner.

Aldrich was born into wealth in 1918 Rhode Island, the son of a newspaper editor.  His grandfather was a U.S. senator, Nelson W. Aldrich, and Nelson Rockefeller was a cousin.  He began to notice films as a teenager and by college he came to admire the entire film-making process and decided he wanted to be a part of it.  When he quit college and his economic studies to accept a lowly clerical job at RKO, his family cut him out of the money.  That meant he lost a financial future with Chase Bank.

In various jobs he shadowed such directors as Edward Dmytryk, Lewis Milestone, Robert Rossen, Fred Zinnemann and William Wellman and Aldrich soon found himself doing a little directing in television.  His first two films are rather forgettable but as is the case with a few other people in Hollywood, he has Burt Lancaster to thank for bringing Aldrich into the big leagues.

Lancaster was co-producing and starring in the westerns Apache and Vera Cruz, both 1954, and he hired Aldrich to direct and both the director and the films were standouts.  Apache concerned the last holdout before Indians were sent to a Florida reservation.  Lancaster and Jean Peters were superb as the warrior and his devoted partner.  Vera Cruz was about sleazy soldiers of fortune who are escorting a countess across the country as Maximilian's reign is threatened.  Lancaster's pairing with the legendary Gary Cooper made this a must-see. 

Around this time, perhaps in checking out how Lancaster had it made with his Hecht-Lancaster Productions, Aldrich formed his own production company and in the future would produce as well as direct many of his films.  It started in 1955 with two oh-so-yummy film noirs.  Actually, Kiss Me Deadly is one of the finest of that genre.  Populated with a B-cast, it starred Ralph Meeker as a psycho private eye, Mike Hammer, who is investigating the contents of a small box that has a tendency to glow.  De rigueur for noir fans, it is stylish, frightening and moody with a bang-up finish.

Next came The Big Knife, a look at behind-the-scenes Hollywood, adapted from a Clifford Odets play which means the words make the hairs stand up on the back of your pretty neck.  It's a blistering account of an actor who doesn't want to act any more and a studio head, to whom the actor is still under contract, who insists he will continue.  Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Wendell Corey headed a terrific ensemble cast.

In 1956, he would take on Joan Crawford in the first of three films.  Autumn Leaves was a little film that became rather big with the public and I'm not sure why.  It was about an average woman at loose ends (that average part is why I thought Crawford was miscast) who impulsively marries a younger man (Cliff Robertson) who is a dangerous schizophrenic.  A sordid subplot concerning his ex-wife (Vera Miles) kept the proceedings overly-dramatic and one could not escape the constant playing of the title song.

He left the States for a few years, likely pissed off from being fired by Columbia from The Garment Jungle (1957), most of which he had completed.  Not quite an autocrat, he nonetheless ruled with a firm hand and was not pleased about being crossed.

When he returned in 1961 it was to make another western, The Last Sunset, starring Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas on a talky cattle drive that involved revenge and the love of Dorothy Malone.  It was that talky part that appealed to me because I found a real story there among the cows.

Up next?  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)... a vicious little film.  You've heard of it?  Aldrich has been quoted as saying judging by the initial press, I wasn't sure if I was going to produce and direct a motion picture or referee a fight.  Crawford was coaxed by Aldrich to costar with her longtime rival Bette Davis as two former child stars living in a rundown mansion, one tormenting the other.  (Actually they are tormenting one another.)  It was a hell of a shoot.  It certainly qualifies as one of Hollywood's most famous films.  I have a magnet on my fridge that rather honors it:


Davis went from tormentor to tormented in 1964's Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, another grand ol' horror story.   Olivia de Havilland, in a rare villainous role, replaced an ailing Crawford.  The following year he helmed Flight of the Phoenix that deals with 10 men whose plane crashes in the Arabian desert and whether they can reconstruct it to fly out.  I loved this film because I am a sucker for survival stories and because it contains not only one of James Stewart's best and most unusual roles but also offers a showy turn by German actor Hardy Kruger.

In 1967 he made not only his most financially successful film but one of the best war films ever made... The Dirty Dozen.  Aldrich did seem to shine best when he was directing a company of men.  It dealt with a group of convicts who are coerced into going on a dangerous mission to blow up a German stronghold with the lure of having their sentences commuted.  The first part where they go through training was, in my mind, the best but that's not to say the mission itself wasn't exciting.  Starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, Clint Walker, Jim Brown and Donald Sutherland, among others, wasn't a bad way to go.

Ok, take your shots... abuse me... call me names.  I liked 1968s The Legend of Lylah Clare...!  Ok, I've said it.  Done.  Oh it was a terrible movie and with Kim Novak in the lead, I'll duck the slings and arrows with her.  But this confusing, overlong, frequently overripe look at behind-the scenes Hollywood was delicious high-camp to me.  Novak, in a dual role, even had her own image skewered.  Aldrich alumni Peter Finch and Ernest Borgnine jumped into the fray.

The Killing of Sister George caused some ripples in 1968 because of its lesbian theme.  The Grissom Gang (1971), about a 1920s group of nitwits who kidnap an heiress for the ransom, was not as successful as it should have been.  It had a black-comedy feel and cornered the market on the director's love affair with violence.

He had a third successful pairing with Lancaster in another superior western, Ulzana's Raid (1972).  A tight story about a veteran scout who has to rely upon a much younger cavalry officer to capture a vicious Apache, it was filled with violence, machismo and intellect.  Of course I loved it.

In 1973 he joined forces with two of his regulars, Marvin and Borgnine, and a young Keith Carradine in Emperor of the North.  This time it was men and violence on the railroad... centering on Depression-era hobos who ride the rails for free and the sadistic conductor out to stop them.  I watched it just a few days ago.  Viva Robert Aldrich.

His last good film was 1974s The Longest Yard.  I usually tried to avoid Burt Reynolds' films (the most notable exception being Deliverance, which we'll discuss one day more fully) and also football-themed films.  So what's a tall, sensitive lad like myself doing in a macho, ass-patting, throw-the-ball festival like this thing?  Easy.  Robert Aldrich.  I trusted him to deliver the goods in a story of brutal warden (Eddie Albert in a rare but delicious bad guy role) out to have a former quarterback, now imprisoned, put together a game against the guards.  It was a slam dunk.  Oh wait, that's basketball.

Too bad this one wasn't his swan song but he made just a few more that weren't up to the master's usual excellence.  Oddly, with a body of work this impressive, it's amazing he was never nominated for Oscar's best director.  Famed Japanese director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa said that Aldrich greatly influenced his work.

Robert Aldrich died of kidney failure at age 65 in 1983 in Los Angeles.

Three More from Fox

1 comment:

  1. I'm also a huge Aldrich fan - have written posts on The Big Knife (which I adored), Sister George (one of my all-time favorites) and Lylah Clare (which I so wanted to like but just couldn't!!). Of course I also own Baby Jane and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte....

    Aldrich is a truly unsung auteur - thank you for highlighting his brilliant contribution to the cinema!