When pondering the giants of American cinema, rough-and-ready journeyman Robert Aldrich may not spring intuitively to mind—if he does at all. But when glancing over his resume, which spanned just about all the movie genres that have been named (and some that haven’t) and featured appearances by the lion’s share of the 20th century’s most gifted stars, the instinct of omission starts to feel like a grave error. A persevering nonconformist and a strident leftist who began work in the classical studio era, weathered the New Hollywood craze, and flourished artistically into the late seventies, Aldrich’s weapon in the industry was his dexterity. He adapted to changing studio expectations, different storytelling contexts, and the wildly varying temperaments of collaborators without ever soiling his indomitable conscience—a virtue in any profession, but especially in one where survival typically requires flexibility at some level.
Born into wealth in Rhode Island with distinguished family ties including Nelson Rockefeller (“He went out the door the day of Attica,” went Aldrich’s terse dismissal of his politics), the future director nonetheless made an honest effort to resist the fruits of privilege, electing instead to drop out of private university and navigate Hollywood from the bottom rung. Several years as a production clerk at RKO Studios in the early forties segued into invaluable apprenticeships with legends like Charlie Chaplin, William Wellman, Jean Renoir and Lewis Milestone, as well as up-and-coming writers and directors of liberal persuasion such as Joseph Losey, Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky. It was in the company of the latter group that Aldrich found his scene, and when actor John Garfield formed the independent-minded Enterprise Studios in 1946, which offered refuge for the aforementioned talents and went on to produce some of the most socially conscious genre work of the decade (films such as Andre De Toth’s Ramrod, Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul, and Max Ophüls’ Caught), Aldrich was happy to take up employment. “I think anybody with any brains in 1936 to ’40 would have been a Communist,” Aldrich would speculate in Eugene L. Miller Jr. and Edwin T. Arnold’s volume of interviews, seemingly with his model Enterprise coworkers in mind.
When Enterprise went the way of the axe because of one too many commercial failures (a fate that Aldrich would surely brace for time and again as his career wore on), Aldrich decamped to New York to break into directing via the still-tenuous arena of television. It was there, on shows such as China Smith (1952) and The Doctor (1952-1953), that he proved his mettle, consequently giving former superiors the confidence to test his chops in the feature business. And though Aldrich’s debut, the MLB training camp featurette Big Leaguer, hardly screams the Aldrich Formula as it would come to be understood—it is short, sweet, and showcases a system in genuine working order—it did flash enough directorial brio (a lengthy lateral dolly shot scanning a crowded dormitory of players, for instance) to merit further work.
In many ways, Aldrich came out of the gate with a will to impress and a sensibility largely formed. In the first three years of his career alone, he directed Apache, one of the first Hollywood Westerns to center on a Native American protagonist (despite a bronzed Burt Lancaster playing him) and treat the subject of the white man’s colonization of the West bluntly; Vera Cruz, a financially triumphant vehicle for Lancaster and Gary Cooper; Kiss Me Deadly, a cause célèbre for the tough-to-please Cahiers du Cinéma clique and a sly retooling of the film noir genre; and The Big Knife, a scalpel sunk deep into the charade of a movie industry founded on duplicity and authoritarianism. These were films that aimed to make a mark, upturning expectations for the genres in which they worked and casting a view of society as inherently broken, a wall against which principled men must relentlessly push. They laid down the archetype that would course through Aldrich’s entire body of work. In his words, “It’s the same character in a number of pictures that keeps reappearing…a heroic figure, who understands that the probabilities are that he’ll lose.”
Being an avid football buff, he cast his leading men like a coach curating a championship squad, seemingly always on the hunt for the brawniest physique and most indefatigable persona. Thus, his filmography is studded with cantankerous tough guys—gruff Lancaster, square-jawed Jack Palance, smugly attractive Burt Reynolds, coarse-throated Lee Marvin, and chiseled Kirk Douglas—with whom he often endured personal quibbles and eventual fallouts. Others hung around long enough in auxiliary roles to become Aldrich staples, such as Eddie Albert, who could be relied on for slimy villainy whenever the script vaguely called for it, or Wesley Addy, usually a rare beacon of dignity hovering on the periphery of a corrupt world. Aldrich kept close his technical colleagues too, such as cinematographer Joseph Biroc, editor Michael Luciano and composer Frank De Vol (“you say five words and they know what you mean,” he enthused). Carrying on the torch of the utopian Enterprise Studios, he held a belief in the idea of the director, as opposed to the studio heads, wrangling kindred spirits around a production, a conviction substantiated by his two terms serving as president of the Directors Guild of America.
In fact, Kiss Me Deadly’s success even launched the founding of the independent venture The Associates and Aldrich, the first in a series of enterprising moves on Aldrich’s part to wield autonomy within Hollywood. At least for a stint, the gamble paid off: the three films produced under the moniker—the emotionally raw Joan Crawford-Cliff Robertson melodrama Autumn Leaves, the enraged antiwar chamber piece Attack!, and The Big Knife—all secured honors in either Venice or Berlin. Alas, this period of fecundity channeled right into Aldrich’s most bitter taste of bureaucratic meddling when Columbia Studios’ head Harry Cohn fired the director in the final stages of production on The Garment Jungle and subsequently expunged his credit. The film, a sort of On the Waterfront for the New York sweatshop set, was Aldrich’s last in the United States for half a decade; he was labeled a persona non grata in Hollywood until 1962, ironically for reasons unrelated to his political leanings.
Such hurdles miraculously never deterred Aldrich’s working life. “You should be able to do three pictures every two years, and do them well,” he argued. “It’s not only economic, but it’s philosophical.” From the early sixties through the end of his career in 1981, he cultivated a trend of directing handfuls of box office flops and following them up with career-saving critical and commercial triumphs—films like the neo-Gothic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the hyper-macho and ultraviolent The Dirty Dozen and the underdog football comedy The Longest Yard. These works have national name recognition, and the latter two in particular cemented the director’s popular reputation as a down-and-dirty action director with a keen understanding of alpha-male swagger. But even a cursory scan of Aldrich’s credits reveals these kinds of films as hardly the dominating majority. Filling out his oeuvre are detective yarns (World for Ransom), psychological Westerns (The Last Sunset, Ulzana’s Raid), survivalist dramas (The Flight of the Phoenix), geopolitical procedurals (Twilight’s Last Gleaming), inside-Hollywood horrorshows (The Legend of Lylah Clare),period dramas (Emperor of the North, The Grissom Gang), cop films (The Choirboys, Hustle), and even a matinee idol romp (4 for Texas) and a female boxing movie (…All the Marbles).
One would suspect that such variety would make it difficult to discern governing creative threads, but in fact Aldrich could never hide his hand—some would say to his detriment. No matter the project, the director would bring a brute mise-en-scène and a penchant for ushering his actors toward emotional extremes, even when tackling scripts that may have called for more directorial delicacy. Aldrich’s visual style balanced cerebral detachment and assertive sensuality: deep-focus master shots with imprisoning prop arrangements and exacting lighting schemes spoke to his cognizance of the larger forces that govern individual lives, while screen-filling close-ups of heroes in states of dejection or agony (Aldrich arguably imported traces of Ingmar Bergman’s facial severity to Hollywood cinema) offered a humanizing tension. “In Aldrich's films, it is not unusual to encounter a new idea with each shot,” Francois Truffaut famously wrote in his characteristically histrionic appraisal of Kiss Me Deadly, a declaration that may have rung even truer for genuinely shape-shifting late-career peculiarities like The Choirboys, Hustle and The Legend of Lylah Clare, box office failures that hardly lack for what Manny Farber, in his seminal essay “Underground Films,” referred to as Aldrich’s “overflow of vitality.”
Aldrich died in Los Angeles in 1983, leaving behind a trail of righteous indignation at societal wrongs and needless suppression. His final film, …All the Marbles, skewered the Reagan administration’s regressive economic policies just as The Longest Yard not so subtly railed against Nixon’s neglect of the dispossessed. In 1968, Aldrich took the MPAA to court for their absurd rationale in smacking the lesbian drama The Killing of Sister George with a prohibitive X rating, and he later denounced author Joseph Wambaugh’s decision to remove his name from the credits of The Choirboys. As is repeatedly evident in his films, Aldrich reserved his greatest contempt for anyone who betrayed individual values in favor of complacently participating in a rigged system of power. And what made his work so powerful was its recognition of the fact that although defeat in such a system was likely, honest resistance remained paramount. “Struggle, Charlie, you may still win a blessing,” says a character to the despondent protagonist of The Big Knife, to which Aldrich added, “I think it’s the manner in which you struggle that entitles you to that blessing…if there is a blessing.” – Carson Lund
Special thanks: Todd Wiener, Steve Hill, Dan Einstein—UCLA Film and Television Archive, Jacob Perlin—The Metrograph; Gwen Deglise—American Cinematheque; Kristie Nakamura—Warner Bros.; Rod Rhule and Fleur Buckley—British Film Institute; Cassie Blake and May Haduong—Academy Film Archive; Emilie Cauquy, Jean François Rauger—Cinémathèque française; Lynanne Schweighofer—Library of Congress; Julie McLean—New Beverly Cinema; Mark McElhatten—Sikelia Productions; Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan; Jessica Rosner.
Film descriptions by Carson Lund, Haden Guest, Brittany Gravely and David Pendleton.
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Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman, Maxine Cooper
US 1955, 35mm, b/w, 105 min (Second screening on DCP)
A beautiful woman materializes on a dark country road; a private investigator picks her up and conversation sparks; a freak ambush occurs; and the detective wakes to the woman’s larynx-shredding screams of agony. The pithy, visually withholding opening moments of Kiss Me Deadly establish the fury upon which revenge narratives run, but, for a director acutely attuned to the networks of power obfuscating individual action, promises of catharsis are just a mirage on the horizon. Aldrich’s unique perspective, the existential sophistication of screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, and the ambivalent persona of star Ralph Meeker thus converge, turning Kiss Me Deadly into one of the most modern and complex entries in the fifties noir canon—a jaundiced film that undoes the usual moral dichotomies of the genre, uncovering a more cosmic current of disorder and paranoia. As Meeker hobbles from one enigmatic false lead to the next, his director pinpoints an American wasteland driven to the brink of obsolescence by a desperate search for certainty amidst Cold War murk. DCP courtesy Park Circus
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Dan Duryea, Gene Lockhart, Patric Knowles
US 1954, 16mm, b/w, 81 min
Though shadowed by an unflattering reputation as a quickie spinoff of the TV series China Smith and further afflicted by Aldrich’s non-credit, World for Ransom is nonetheless an early testament to its director’s budding visual imagination and thematic preoccupations. In a fog-enshrouded backlot simulacrum of Singapore, Dan Duryea plays a weary private eye whose former girlfriend—now a saucy nightclub crooner in an opium district—employs him for a convoluted job involving kidnapping and hydrogen bombs. With its nuclear paranoia and unfurling layers of intrigue, the plot is Kiss Me Deadly tryout material, as is the formulation of the hero as a bumbling and exhausted interloper (though here it is the melancholy of lost love, not consuming apathy, that hangs thick in the air). Despite the limitations of his resources and material, Aldrich brings every ounce of his compositional savvy to emphasize the story’s nervous emotional undercurrents—whether top-loading his 4:3 frames with imposing ceilings, scattering his sets with single-source lighting from odd angles, or cramping his characters within cluttered furniture.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Jeff Chandler, Jack Palance, Martine Carol
US 1959, 35mm, b/w, 93 min
National guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder take literal form as dormant bombs strewn across the wreckage of postwar Berlin in Ten Seconds to Hell, Aldrich’s most cerebral war picture (albeit an unfairly studio-mutilated one). Jack Palance leads a team of Nazi dissenters recruited by the Allies to defuse and dispose of lingering nukes as part of Germany’s push toward rehabilitation, a gig that practically guarantees existential dread as a vocational regularity. The task grows thornier when a scoundrel within the group (Jeff Chandler) talks his colleagues into a last-man-standing wager, an endeavor ostensibly designed to further stress the severity of the job but which actually just enables the kind of intricate group friction at which Aldrich excelled. Rationalist, collectivist ethics battle reckless ego and stubbornness in Aldrich and Teddi Sherman’s innuendo-dense screenplay, which also maps the growing rift between head and heart in a romance subplot bearing shades of Journey to Italy. Most noteworthy, however, are the tensely protracted bomb deactivation sequences, which play out in nail-biting silence and splinter the treacherous process into suspense-building chains of discrete visual details. Print courtesy of Park Circus.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Kim Novak, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine
US 1968, 35mm, color, 130 min.
A “black mahogany gothic horror right on the edge of being too much,” in the words of lead actor Peter Finch, The Legend of Lylah Clare was the eccentric and overheated follow-up to Aldrich’s biggest financial success, The Dirty Dozen,and it tanked just about as magnificently as its predecessor flourished. Rearranging ingredients from Vertigo and The Bad and the Beautiful, this inside-Hollywood exposé kicks off when Finch’s Erich von Stroheim-like megalomaniac, a once-illustrious director now calcifying in wealth, is urged to direct a new picture sensationalizing the life of recently deceased screen goddess Lylah Clare, who also happens to have been his wife. Reality and illusion merge when upstart actress Elsa Brinkmann (Kim Novak), a dead ringer for Clare, signs onto the production, whereby the film morphs into an erotically charged ghost story as well as a ragged dissection of the male ego and the myriad ways in which art can materialize from disturbing psychological warfare. A final surrealist punch line—too inspired to give away—is the ultimate one-finger salute by Aldrich to an industry of parasitic narcissists and the spectators who passively consume their leavings. Print courtesy of the British Film Institute.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin
US 1956, 35mm, b/w, 107 min
“I’ll shove this grenade down your throat and pull the pin.” Such are the pressurized stakes of Attack!, a WWII chamber drama that tracks the venomous hatred passed between an indignant lieutenant played with seething intensity by Jack Palance and his inept captain embodied by Eddie Albert, once again recruited by Aldrich as corruption incarnate. Originating from a stage play by Norman Brooks, the material is dense with verbal combat, its most hazardous battlegrounds in fact the sinister bunkers where ethical entanglements play out within a beleaguered American infantry company. Yet despite the often lengthy and jargon-filled speechifying and on-the-nose psychology of the script, Attack! accrues a certain elemental power as its narrative backstabbings and administrative oversights pile up, thanks largely to the almost Bergmanesque potency of Aldrich’s close-ups. A veritable gallery of pained macho mugs, the film locates the ambivalence of the entire military project in the sweaty fury of Jack Palance’s face. Print courtesy Park Circus.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Burt Reynolds, Eddie Albert, Ed Lauter
US 1974, 35mm, color, 121 min
In the fierce opening minutes of The Longest Yard, perhaps the mother of all underdog sports comedies, washed-up former pro quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe walks out on his affluent girlfriend in a brutal rage, guides a series of cop cars on a skidding and screeching joy ride through Palm Beach and provokes a fistfight with a pair of policemen. It is hardly an ingratiating character introduction, and despite the redemptive power that prisons often assume over troubled souls in the cinema, Paul’s hard edges never soften under Aldrich’s pitiless gaze, even after he enters Georgia State Prison and rounds up a motley crew of inmates for a pigskin match against the wicked warden’s well-groomed staff squad. Charged with Deep South racial tension, a post-Nixon aversion to authority, and a vision of football as compulsory outlet for masculine anger rather than embodiment of American ideals, The Longest Yard is a ribald tale of triumph in which the victors are rapists, murderers and roughnecks, and winning leads only to more losing. Print courtesy Sony Pictures.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Edward G. Robinson, Vera-Ellen, Jeff Richards
US 1953, 35mm, b/w, 70 min
Aldrich’s enterprising years as a television director on the East Coast ultimately paved the way for an offer to direct MGM programmer Big Leaguer at the Florida training camp of the New York Giants, an MLB organization that decamped to San Francisco four years after the film’s release. A humbly scaled paean to America’s pastime, Aldrich’s feature debut sketches a small community of professional prospects and the scouts who seek to groom them for $150/week contracts. Edward G. Robinson expertly balances sunny nonchalance and drill sergeant rigor as the sage ex-pro running the operation, and Vera-Ellen costars as his niece, a fresh-faced beauty for the ripe athletes to swoon and spar over. Hardly the lean-and-mean dagger of Aldrich’s more iconic sports film, The Longest Yard, Big Leaguer is instead an uncharacteristically generous entry in the director’s filmography, marked less by any righteous indignation at systemic failings than by a contagious fondness for the game borne out in such telling details as a Carl Hubbell cameo.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke
US 1972, 35mm, color, 103 min
Robert Aldrich situates the senseless, relentless carnage of the Vietnam War onto the stark stage of the American Western. Enlisted to hunt down a rampaging Apache leader and his gang, Burt Lancaster’s wizened scout clashes with the young Christian cavalry lieutenant whose simplistic idealism is easily confused upon confronting extreme racism and violence on both sides. Well aware of the convoluted contradictions of war and an impassable cultural chasm, McIntosh lives between the white and Apache worlds—judging no one, yet suffering no fools. As the allegoric action coils into a taut, bloody ring, the greater complexities within the subsequent confrontation perish unceremoniously amid a barren atmosphere of death, disillusion and indifference.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters, John McIntire
US 1954, 35mm, color, 87 min
Aldrich’s first Western as well as the inauguration of a fruitful collaboration with anxious macho man Burt Lancaster, Apache adapts the legend of Massai, the last remaining warrior of the eponymous Native American tribe that surrendered to colonizing whites in late 19th century New Mexico. Producing the film alongside Harold Hecht as only the second entry in their Hecht-Lancaster enterprise, the newly famous star cherry-picked Aldrich to direct, and the instinct proved discerning. Even at this early stage in his career, Aldrich displays a natural command of volatile emotional terrain and a jolting editorial cadence that suits Apache’s tale of rebel desperation and perpetual getaway. The plot springs into motion when Massai leaps off a train escorting him to servitude in Florida, after which he migrates on foot back to his homeland, spurning all in his path, to resume a one-man war and rekindle an unstable relationship with a chief’s daughter (Jean Peters), who memorably summarizes her battle-mad companion as a “dying wolf biting at its own wounds.” Such is the harrowing climate of this revisionist genre effort. Print courtesy Park Circus.
Directed by Joseph Losey. With David Wayne, Howard Da Silva, Luther Adler
US 1951, 35mm, b/w, 88 min
Unseen for too many years was Losey’s fascinating remake of Fritz Lang’s frightening vision of an insidious fascism tearing at the feverish heart of Weimar society. Substituting 1950s downtown Los Angeles for 1930s Berlin, Losey cast the often-eccentric supporting actor David Wayne in Peter Lorre’s role to give a distinctly American polish and spin on Lang’s dark cautionary tale. M’s original producer Seymour Nebenzal was behind the American remake, inspired by the dark parallels he—and many others—saw between the rise of Nazism and the creeping paranoia of the HUAC and Rosenberg era. Together with MacKenzie’s The Exiles and Siodmak’s Criss Cross, Losey’s M is among the great poignant documents of the soon-to-be extinguished Bunker Hill area, indelibly captured by the brilliant cinematography of maestro Ernest Laszlo. Assistant Director Aldrich clearly kept in mind the downtown locations that he would further explore, four years later, in his Los Angeles masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly. Print courtesy the Library of Congress.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch
US 1965, DCP, color, 149 min
Appearing now as a less-brutal test fight before The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich’s screen adaptation of Elleston Trevor’s 1964 novel features another motley, troubled all-male cast thrown together in a desperate situation. Jimmy Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Krüger, Ernest Borgnine, Dan Duryea, George Kennedy, Ian Bannen, and even Aldrich’s son and son-in-law are among the disgruntled passengers of a twin-engine plane that crashes in the middle of the Sahara desert. The survivors waste no time dovetailing into a morass of blame, breakdowns and power struggles while making various attempts to somehow survive. With a focus on the psyche rather than the action, Aldrich carefully paces the suspense and surprises, maintaining a constant, spellbinding tension—even within each frame’s composition. While a complex spectrum of psychological and social structures are tested in this survivalist hell, the ego dynamics—particularly between Stewart’s old-fashioned American pilot and Krüger’s cold, German technician—magnify the personal clashes to their place on the international stage. Print courtesy 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Dorothy Malone
US 1961, 35mm, color, 113 min
The lone project Aldrich undertook in Mexico during his four-year exile from the United States, this Technicolor Western is an oddball blend of Freudian fixations and Shakespearean tragedy, with Kirk Douglas sporting what must be the most Elizabethan cowboy getup in the genre’s history. A black-clad catalyst for the Dalton Trumbo-scripted tempest of romantic entanglements, Douglas plays an expatriate cowboy fixing to steal back the heart of an old flame at her south-of-the-border homestead when Rock Hudson drifts in carrying a warrant for his hanging—as well as a gust of Sirkian melodrama. Passions and rivalries flare up over the course of a long cattle drive to Texas in the company of Dorothy Malone’s world-weary matron and her blossoming teenage daughter, who brings her own inadvertently incestuous desires into the mix. Marked by a lyrical use of the arid Mexican landscape and an uncharacteristically expressive treatment of color—from the violet night skies to Malone’s salmon lips—The Last Sunset builds to queasy emotional complications before burning out in one of the most stirringly edited climaxes of Aldrich’s career. Print courtesy Universal Pictures.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Charles Durning, Louis Gossett, Jr., Perry King
US 1977, 35mm, color, 119 min
Widely considered an artistic failure, The Choirboys is admittedly not a film that withstands narrative scrutiny or moral policing. Indeed, it is one of the most repellent films ever produced by a major studio, wallowing unabashedly in the roundly objectionable antics of a motley crew of LAPD dirtbags for an exhausting and often seemingly shapeless two hours. It is, however, also a work of awe-inspiring commitment, its cockeyed view of a mini-universe stripped of a moral compass never once flagging in its brutality—a true testament to an evolving 1970s studio system that could on occasion let directorial brio fly by unscathed. Aldrich’s camera here assumes a front-row seat on the hysterical action, rarely recoiling from or eliding the details of the ensemble’s depravity, whether the clumsy cops are goading a suicidal woman into jumping off a building or drunkenly firing pistols at homosexuals. The result is a film with a perspective as troubled as the world it diligently documents. Print courtesy Universal Pictures.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson
US 1967, digital video, color, 149 min
Alpha male screen legends (Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Charles Bronson) and feisty newcomers (John Cassavetes, Ben Carruthers) join forces in the robust ensemble of The Dirty Dozen, a WWII actioner as much about testosterone-fueled psychosis as it is about the dysfunction of the military machine. The scenario, based on an E.M. Nathanson novel, fits Aldrich like a glove: Marvin’s cranky Army major is forced to rally together a lineup of death row prisoners and other miscreants to execute a suicidal invasion of a Nazi gathering on the eve of D-Day, a mission requiring weeks of arduous training. The toxic brew of unchecked masculinity that results provides the director his purest platform for hard-edged satire, a mode that found favor with contemporary audiences as the film rocketed to 1967’s fifth-best box office pull. But although the film did big business, it is hardly a conventional crowd-pleaser. Fully indulging the bad behavior of his self-centered soldiers, Aldrich steers the raucous affair right into the most horrifyingly bloody set piece he ever orchestrated, at which point good-old horseplay veers into moral revulsion. Print courtesy of the New Beverly Cinema.
Directed by Joseph Losey. With Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes, John Maxwell
US 1951, 35mm, b/w, 91 min
An unnerving concoction of film noir, romantic melodrama, the woman’s picture, and the Western, Joseph Losey’s underappreciated postwar masterwork The Prowler might have been just the shape-shifter needed to stir an apprenticing Aldrich’s developing talents. The future genre chameleon served as assistant director on the film, which details the perilous seduction of Evelyn Keyes’ dissatisfied Los Angeles housewife at the hands of a sociopathic cop (Van Heflin, oozing virile menace). Adultery, institutional corruption and murder flank the scandalous tale, but Losey keeps everything to a disarming cool, downplaying psychological irregularities with elliptical cuts and treating exaggerated genre clichés—such as the couple’s desperate getaway to a desert ghost town—with a straight face. The result is a film that crystallizes the contradictory tug between materialism and humility, anxiety and hope, and faith and distrust that defined the national consciousness in the early postwar years.
Directed by William A. Wellman. With Burgess Meredith, Robert Mitchum, Freddie Steele
US 1945, 35mm, b/w, 109 min
Aldrich clearly gleaned much from his experience as assistant director of one of the most heartfelt and powerful of WWII combat films, William Wellman’s sensitive tribute to legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, the Hoosier who selflessly dedicated himself to capturing the voices and experiences of the American “dog face” until his death by enemy fire in the battle of Okinawa. A gentler compliment to Aldrich’s anti-war masterpiece Attack!, Wellman’s film offers an intimate vision of the experiences and fragile souls of the American foot solider, portrayed by a sterling cast lead by Robert Mitchum and the self-effacing Burgess Meredith as Pyle. Wellman’s bold use of portrait-like close-ups and a wandering voiceover transforms his film into a poignant momento mori urging the viewer to recall those faces and voices now lost to time and the tragedy of war. Preserved by the Academy Film Archive.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Stewart Granger, Pier Angeli, Stanley Baker
US 1963, 35mm, color, 154 min
*This vintage print is faded*
“Every director ought to get one Biblical film out of his system,” Aldrich once declared. Hence the existence of Sodom and Gomorrah, an enormously scaled dramatization of New Testament foundation myths. The story centers on Lot (Stewart Granger), ruler of the modest Hebrew people, as he initiates a journey to the Valley of Jordan with hopes of introducing his cultural virtues to the corrupted communities of Sodom and Gomorrah, a colonial imposition that only incites a series of violent skirmishes. The film’s period details are not always persuasive (Anouk Aimée, as the Sodomite Queen, sometimes looks like she belongs at Woodstock rather than in BC Canaan, for instance), yet frantic motion is sustained by the overflowing passion of the performances and the hyper-saturated opulence of the spectacle, which involves runaway floods, horse herds and lascivious dancing. Aldrich’s hand is not always pronounced (in fact, Sergio Leone took the reins on some scenes), but the film does fascinatingly suggest the director allowing himself a deluge of unrestrained creative energy before finally returning to his native country.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Michael Caine, Cliff Robertson, Henry Fonda
US 1970, 35mm, color, 133 min
Aldrich’s third independently produced feature after The Dirty Dozen’s success was also its moody cousin, trading brash hysterics for verbose self-reckoning and toughly considered moral quagmires. Too Late the Hero’s action centers on a Pacific island during WWII, but the palm trees, administrative miscalculations and dubious suicidal missions situate the film most unmistakably in the post-Vietnam climate of righteous fury. Cliff Robertson and Michael Caine costar as a US lieutenant and a British soldier ordered, against their wishes, to conduct a raid on a Japanese communications base. In Aldrich’s hands, the deadly assignment occasions both prideful overcompensations and cowardly backpedalling, while the alleged enemy winds up being the most civilized of the bunch. Print courtesy Disney.
Directed by Vincent Sherman. With Lee J. Cobb, Kerwin Mathews, Gia Scala
US 1957, 35mm, b/w, 88 min
Aldrich’s leftist sympathies are everywhere apparent in this little-known Columbia picture that echoes On the Waterfront in its stinging critique of gangster racketing and its urgent plea for unionized labor. Lee J. Cobb stars as a hardheaded garment factory owner locked in a dangerously close “relationship” with the mob that turns perilous when his long-estranged son enters the family business and begins to ask one too many questions. Aldrich had almost completed filming when he was taken severely ill with flu. Shortly after Columbia hired Vincent Sherman as a substitute director, Harry Cohen abruptly gave full reins of the picture to Sherman, summarily dismissing the ill Aldrich and cutting him entirely out of the final edit. Despite the film’s ultimately quite conventional narrative and ending, The Garment Jungle is, nevertheless, clearly branded by key Aldrich moments—the shocking death in the elevator shaft, for example, and the vivid glimpses into a seedy, festering underworld. Print courtesy Sony Pictures.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Joan Crawford, Vera Miles, Lorne Greene
US 1956, 35mm, b/w, 107 min
Autumn Leaves is the quintessential late Hollywood melodrama—lurid, strange and overheated by the torrid winds of incestuous passion. Joan Crawford stars, in what is arguably her finest late-career performance, as a lonely-heart stenographer who falls hard for the wrong man, a baby-faced war veteran, played by Cliff Robertson, harboring unsettling secrets. Aldrich releases Gothic shadows into his streamlined narrative, which boils over to an uncomfortable and unforgettable climax. Autumn Leaves was Aldrich’s first entry into the so-called “woman’s picture,” a genre he would later explode—almost gleefully—in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and, to a certain extent, in The Killing of Sister George. Print courtesy Sony Pictures.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Peter Falk, Vicki Frederick, Laurene Landon
US 1981, 35mm, color, 112 min
Aldrich's final film completes a full auteurist circle by returning to the dingy back-alley world of third-tier competitive sports explored in his feature debut, the now-forgotten baseball B-picture Big Leaguer. The sport now is female wrestling, although often made by Aldrich to resemble both the tawdry vaudeville stage of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the vicious battlefields of his many war films. With clear affection for its characters, …All the Marbles chronicles the comic misadventures of the California Dolls, two ambitious and beautiful female wrestlers determined to win a championship match in Reno, guided by the off-kilter advice of their corrupt-but-lovable manager, the wisecracking, cigar-chomping Peter Falk. While vividly capturing the sweaty excitement of the Big Night and the stale coffee dreariness of endless road trips and cheap motels, …All the Marbles also reveals a gentler side to Aldrich’s ultimately humanist cinema. Print courtesy British Film Institute.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. The Gift with Charles Boyer, Maureen O’Sullivan, Dan Tobin. The Bad Streak with Charles Boyer, Virginia Grey, Robert Arthur
US 1954, 16mm, b/w, 30 min. each
Like so many of Hollywood’s postwar directors, Aldrich had his first directing jobs in television. He produced some of his best small-screen work for Four Star Playhouse, which featured a different, complete story every week, starring one of four actors: Charles Boyer, Ida Lupino, David Niven and Dick Powell. The Gift and The Bad Streak both feature Boyer as a father smarting from a damaged relationship with his adult son, allowing Aldrich to hone his skill at directing drama in preparation for the more tangled Oedipal thickets of his Gothic features. Prints courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive and the HFA.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Peter Finch, Ann Sothern, Alexandra Hay
US 1969, 35mm, color, 20 min
Aldrich directed this thirty-minute short, in an unsuccessful search for feature-film financing, starring Peter Finch as a broken-down and ill-reputed director living scandalously with a much younger actress. The script was written by Kiss Me Deadly’s screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. Print courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Kim Darby, Scott Wilson, Tony Musante
US 1971, 35mm, color, 128 min
Set during what must have been the muggiest Kansas City summer of the 1920s, The Grissom Gang,in unflinching detail, follows as a tribe of sweat-soaked, beret-wearing cretins carry out a string of kidnappings, rapes and murders. When the runt of the litter, Slim Grissom (Scott Wilson, in one of the great slimeball performances), falls in love with one of the family’s victims, the debutante Barbara Blandish (Kim Darby), tensions erupt and the entire criminal operation loses its composure. What follows is a deranged black comedy of psychosexual possession filmed at an uncomfortably intimate proximity, as well as a cultural study of a warped Prohibition-era heartland where new money holds dangerous sway over the law. Even in such a garish landscape, however, Aldrich’s principles of moral relativism are intact and pulled to their breaking point as exploitation gradually gives way to pathos. The film’s audaciously tender finale kept audiences away, and the financial failure ultimately caused the closure of Aldrich Studios. Print courtesy Disney.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Charles Durning
US 1977, digital video, color, 144 min
Burt Lancaster’s final collaboration with Robert Aldrich is among the director's least known masterworks, a taut political thriller about nuclear missiles in the hands of a rogue general determined to make the White House pay for the disastrous folly of Vietnam. Lancaster channels Aldrich's blistering anti-institutional ire into a portrait of an aging and steely eyed veteran who has carefully, and symbolically, chosen his last and most perilous mission. Misunderstood and abused by critics at its original release, Twilight’s Last Gleaming was for many years a stubbornly unavailable holy grail of ardent cinephiles until the recent unearthing of the revelatory director's cut. Print courtesy Olive Films.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Anita Ekberg
US 1963, 35mm, color, 124 min
Money and sex form the bedrock of the Old West in this nonchalant lark starring Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra at the peak of their Rat Pack popularity as rival cowboy entrepreneurs. While headed to Texas by stagecoach, a dustup with Charles Bronson’s brutal outlaw serendipitously leaves them with a $100,000 wad, which they proceed to fight over. Eventually the funds go toward an extravagant riverboat casino in the small town of Galveston, where scantily clad Anita Ekberg and Ursula Andress lie in wait. Less a sculpted narrative than a free-flowing vehicle for various matinee idol configurations, including a Three Stooges cameo that devolves quickly into a slapstick vignette, 4 for Texas is more compelling as a testament to early 60s celebrity culture than as a tailored Aldrich effort, though the film does complicate its star indulgences with a bald critique of capitalism cut loose.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Burt Reynolds, Catherine Deneuve, Ben Johnson
US 1975, 35mm, color, 120 min
If The Longest Yard was a gritted-teeth uprising against bureaucratic corruption and abusive power, its follow-up, Hustle, is a long, aggrieved sigh of resignation to the very same forces. One of Aldrich’s most leisurely paced films, it gradually shades in the gloomy existence of Burt Reynolds’ taciturn Los Angeles cop who tends to the city’s sleaze by day and bumbles through a tentative relationship with Catherine Deneuve’s glamorous French escort by night. There’s a procedural at the heart of the story—a teenage girl has washed up on shore, and a multifarious porn business appears to be the culprit—but Aldrich’s chief interest lies in the texture of his protagonist’s daily life, as well as in his ravaged emotional climate. Boasting a career-best Burt Reynolds performance of underplayed discontent and pitilessly harsh lighting schemes from cinematographer Joseph Biroc, Hustle draws a shadowy portrait of a cruel, mercenary urban environment—one where love, however commoditized and fleeting, is the only respite.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Beryl Reid, Susannah York, Coral Browne
US 1968, 35mm, color, 138 min
The Killing of Sister George is a dark, quasi-absurdist play about a beloved soap opera actress and her combative relations with two other women: her lover and a network executive. Robert Aldrich produces a no-holds-barred screen adaptation, famously amplifying the lesbianism inherent in the original. The film’s semi-explicit sex scene and racy tone earns it one of the first “X” ratings in American cinema and the label of cult and/or camp classic. The Killing of Sister George also marks a high point for the Grand Guignol cinema that Aldrich defined earlier in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Legend of Lylah Clare and a furthest expression of his continued fascination with cruelty, faded stardom and the spiked cocktail of impossible love. Print courtesy Disney.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. The Squeeze with Dick Powell, Richard Jaeckel, Regis Toomey. The Witness with Dick Powell, James Millican, Charles Bronson. The Hard Way with Dick Powell, Jack Elam, Robert Osterloh
US 1953, 16mm, b/w, 30 min. each
Besides the two episodes starring Charles Boyer, Aldrich directed three episodes of Four Star Playhouse starring Dick Powell, who had by then thoroughly established his postwar persona as a wisecracking, tough-guy charmer, seen in all three shows here, especially the two written by Blake Edwards. Aldrich gives Powell a visual environment to match as he tries out film noir’s low-key lighting and chiaroscuro. Most fascinatingly, these episodes find Aldrich experimenting with camera movement, long takes and deep focus. Prints courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Directed by Charles Chaplin. With Charles Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Sydney Chaplin
US 1952, 35mm, b/w, 137 min
Aldrich’s last stint as assistant director was working for a director known for his immovable opinions and total control. Apparently, Chaplin balked at Aldrich’s suggestions of more inventive camera movements and careful maintenance of continuity. After his first box office flop, Monseiur Verdoux (1947), the director seemed focused on telling the story his own way, with a reflexive, melancholic and poetic theatricality. Though not Chaplin’s actual autobiography, it seems his emotional one. He plays Calvero, a once-famous, alcoholic vaudevillian who rescues Terry, a young ballet dancer (which in reality gave Claire Bloom her cinematic start). This casts into tragicomic motion a tale of the darkness and light, the beauty and sacrifice of life in the limelight. Marking the only time Buster Keaton and Chaplin appear in a film together, Limelight culminates in their brilliant performance in which art and existence seem to collapse absurdly and heartbreakingly upon one another. As Calvero passes on the torch to Terry, perhaps Chaplin, with Limelight, hands the same over to apprentices like Aldrich. Accused of suspicious activity during the paranoid blacklist era, Chaplin was ushered back to London by the very country who considered him its iconic tramp, and Limelight was virtually unseen in the US until the 70s. Prints courtesy Janus Films.
Directed by Jean Renoir. With Zachary Scott, Betty Field, J. Carrol Naish
US 1945, 35mm, b/w, 92 min
Almost universally hailed as the zenith of Jean Renoir’s five films in Hollywood, The Southerner was one of Aldrich’s first jobs as assistant director, and he gleaned from Renoir the profound power of physical location. The film is an impressionistic ode to the landscape of the American South, taking as its subject a poor family attempting, over the course of a year, to turn a scraggly crop of land into a bountiful farm. Driven less by conflict than by the changing seasons, the film’s narrative is nonetheless filled with strife, from the problems caused by the family’s territorial neighbors to those inevitably produced by the vagaries of the Texas climate. Successfully carrying over the mode of poetic realism that he honed in France, Renoir frames everything from a loose, casual distance, creating democratic juxtapositions of man and nature so as to stress the dependence of the former on the latter. But even when misery endures, it is resilience that prevails—a reality etched beautifully across the faces of Zachary Scott, Betty Field and Beulah Bondi, the last of whom memorably stands her ground as dark clouds tower over her in the frame, an image of humanity refusing to be conquered by circumstance. 35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Robert Mitchum, Stanley Baker, Elisabeth Muller
US 1959, digital video, b/w, 105 min
The lingering shadow of Nazi rule again weighs heavily on Aldrich’s second European project after Ten Seconds to Hell, the Greek-set, cat-and-mouse chase The Angry Hills. Set in the early years of the German occupation of Athens, the film drops Robert Mitchum’s strapping foreign correspondent with a leaflet of wanted names into a corroded landscape of resistance fighters, ruthless Gestapo and beautiful, conflicted women. A.I. Bezzerides’ adaptation of a Leon Uris book is a fast-moving cyclone of narrow escapes, double-crosses, covert alliances and thwarted romances, but Aldrich, crucially, never allows the plot to lapse into cynical murkiness. Through exquisite deep-space staging in high-contrast widescreen and naturalistic portrayals of psychological turbulence (particularly from Elisabeth Müller as a distraught mother with ties to the Nazis), the film weighs the many human dimensions of its knotty political situation, ultimately arriving at a surprising tribute from Aldrich to the capacity for grace under pressure.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Gene Wilder, Harrison Ford, Ramon Bieri
US 1979, digital video, color, 122 min
Recasting Apache’s cross-country trek in a more cartoonish context, Aldrich’s penultimate work gives Blazing Saddles icon Gene Wilder the spotlight as a Polish rabbi en route to San Francisco by foot with hopes of establishing a synagogue. After a series of misfortunes on the road alone, Wilder’s character enlists the help of an itinerant robber played by Harrison Ford, then newly popularized as Hans Solo. While the casting ploy provides the film much of its droll energy, and broad gags about cultural misunderstanding pepper the script, Aldrich gradually downplays the story’s comic elements in favor of its underlying themes of empathy and human decency. Light as it may be on the director’s trademark pessimism, though, The Frisco Kid does offer a vision of frontier life consistent with his other Westerns—which is to say, a world defined more by its divisions than its unities. That the film stages an effort to transcend these divisions makes it a sobering genre farewell.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine
US 1973, DCP, color, 118 min
Longstanding Aldrich fixtures Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin go head-to-head in the Depression-era Emperor of the North as sadistic freight train conductor and elite hobo rail hopper, their respective aged features well suited to the atmosphere of every-man-for-himself desperation. The former wants his locomotive purged of filthy parasites; the latter likes the thrill of danger and is unafraid to take on the feared captain in order to one up his fellow vagrants. Shooting on location in the verdant Oregon wilderness, Aldrich brings this obscure pocket of American history to grubby life through soulful characterizations and an unrelenting visual dynamism, with all the action occurring within shouting distance of the moving train. In simultaneously documenting Depression-era class tension and schematizing the enduring American mistreatment of the dispossessed by those in power, Emperor of the North wears its social consciousness on its sleeve. It also represents a spatial concentration of the Aldrich formula, with the train being just another arena for demonstrations of male pride and tenacity.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel
US 1954, 35mm, color, 94 min
Playfully alluding to the differences in the actors’ outspoken politics and studio-branded personae, Robert Aldrich places Burt Lancaster’s charming, coarse and unscrupulous rancher into an uneasy partnership with Gary Cooper’s civil and upstanding Southern military gentleman. Through multiplying twists and double-crosses, the two mercenaries charge full speed ahead on a special mission to Mexico to protect a charming countess. Aldrich’s second collaboration with Lancaster as actor and producer was endangered by its extravagant and unpredictable production, which was riddled with sickness, improvised scenes and live ammunition. Encapsulated in Lancaster’s disarming smile, Aldrich’s fusion of the beautiful, volatile spectacle of the old Western with the complex morality and menacing absurdity of the genre’s modernist revisions blazed a deconstructive trail for the violent, cynical visions of Peckinpah and Leone.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono
US 1962, 35mm, b/w, 132 min
At the height of his directorial powers, Robert Aldrich risked his career by taking a strange, savage bite of the hand of Hollywood with his now-legendary Grand Guignol melodrama about two aging movie star sisters sequestered in an old Hancock Park mansion, haunted by sinister family secrets and delusions that their long-faded careers might one day be resuscitated. Bette Davis exorcised her darkest histrionic demons into Baby Jane Hudson, a demented, gin-soaked former child actress still gripped by rabid jealousy for her sister Blanche’s past glory as a rising star; a stardom cut short, tragically, by the mysterious accident… Costars Davis and Joan Crawford famously despised one another, working hard to sabotage each other’s performance and vowing bitterly to never work together again. The vitriol palpable in the sisters’ every scene boils over into a frightening climax that silences the film's dark comedic undertones and one ups Nathaniel West and Sunset Boulevard. With his brilliant transformation of the then 54-year-old Davis and 58-year-old Crawford into Gothic waxworks trapped in the amber of regret and bitter recrimination, Aldrich held up What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a cracked mirror to Hollywood, a powerful, whispering nightmare of Tinseltown's darkest fear: obsolescence.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger
US 1955, 35mm, b/w, 111 min
Within the legacy of the Hollywood exposé, a subgenre that flowered in the 1950s as much to satiate the egos of industry insiders as to gratify audience appetites for behind-the-scenes scandal, The Big Knife could be slotted alongside Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place as an example of a work that digs a little too close to the bone for comfort. Based on a 1949 Clifford Odets play, the film dramatizes the struggles of a big-name actor (Jack Palance) under threatening pressures from his producers to sign a long-term contract that will further jeopardize his failing marriage—a dilemma that sinks him into depression at a perilous rate as negotiations heat up. Enhancing the atmosphere of despair, Aldrich stages almost the entire affair in the star’s antiseptic Bel Air living room, a designer-chic dungeon in which the perspiring, loungewear-clad Palance holes up to avoid the media’s prying eyes and ears. Shot in lengthy takes at a clinical distance so as to chart how power dynamics play out through body language, The Big Knife penetrates jagged emotional depths in examining the toll of enforced compromise in a system where no subordinate participant can ever fully make a decision in his or her own interest. Print courtesy Park Circus.
Directed by Joseph Losey. With John Barrymore, Jr., Preston Foster, Joan Lorring
US 1953, 35mm, b/w, 75 min
The unsung gem, and also the very last film, of Joseph Losey’s Hollywood period, The Big Night is a surprisingly frank and dark coming-of-age story starring a memorable John Barrymore, Jr. as a would-be Hamlet determined to avenge a vicious injury mysteriously delivered to his father by a sadistic sports writer. Wandering furiously through the mean streets of a Los Angeles loosely posed as Manhattan, Barrymore’s awkward hero encounters a series of vivid underworld characters, including Assistant Director Robert Aldrich, appearing in a memorable cameo as a generous spectator at a boxing match, eager to share his drink with the young man. The Big Night is an outspoken expression of Red Scare Hollywood, boasting an unattributed script by blacklisted writers Hugo Butler and Ring Lardner, Jr. that bristles with open disdain for authority. Losey casts a justifiably jaundiced eye on the postwar US, which The Big Night describes as a crooked world blinded by naked avarice, racism and cutthroat self-preservation. Print courtesy the George Eastman Museum.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotton
US 1964, DCP, b/w, 134 min
The surprise box office success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? dared Aldrich to draw from the same lurid well of Gothic nightmares another black fable of a spinster trapped in a decaying mansion together with the macabre Oedipal phantoms that are her only companions. Bette Davis returns as the unhinged heroine whose beauty and sanity are fading into the dank, fragrant air of Hollywood’s fantasy Deep South, where the actress triumphed long ago as the indomitable Jezebel and the most arrogant of the Little Foxes. Yet times have changed, and Classical Hollywood's more polite innuendos of cruelty have crumbled to unleash the dark and sadistic forces that now ensnare Davis and perfume Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte with a feverish intensity and strangeness. The frenemy role of the long-lost cousin refused by Joan Crawford was gamely accepted by Olivia de Havilland, who glitters with feline charm and malice as she leads Davis and the film into a fascinating, gliding dance between reality and dream, between quaint Southern rituals and barbaric horrors. Print courtesy 20th Century Fox.