All About Aldrich

It’s been a mini-retrospective on DVD and Blu-ray of late for director Robert Aldrich. A number of films are being issued from the filmmaker best known for such mucho macho movies as The Dirty Dozen, Emperor of the North, and The Longest Yard.

Warner is about to unleash a Blu-ray version of Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the gothic masterwork in which real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford battle it out on screen as feuding show biz siblings in a dilapidated Hollywood mansion. There are extras galore in this special Blu-ray, while the DVD is available in both its regular and two-disc special edition.

Additionally, there’s Olive Films’ release of Twilight’s Last Gleaming, his 1977 thriller in which Burt Lancaster plays a renegade American general holding Montana-based silos housing nuclear missiles hostage so that the president (Charles Durning) reveals secrets of the Vietnam War. The much-requested political suspenser boasts an all-star supporting cast that includes Joseph Cotten, Richard Widmark, Paul Winfield, and Melvyn Douglas, and the DVD and Blu-ray include a documentary with fascinating details of the German/American co-production.

Meanwhile, TCM has included Autumn Leaves, an Aldrich-helmed sudser, in their new Joan Crawford in the Fifties set. Crawford plays a spinsterish typist who gets romantically involved with a young Cliff Robertson only to discover he has serious emotional problems that stem from incidents during his first marriage to Vera Miles.

Then there’s Big Leaguer, Aldrich’s 1953 directing debut, starring Edward G. Robinson as real-life New York Giants baseball scout Hans Lobert. It’s a pleasant sports programmer that offers a look at the early work of someone the French called an “auteur.”

It was, of course, 1955’s Kiss Me, Deadly that was written about and enthusiastically watched by French critics like Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and others who were soon to become filmmakers themselves. Aldrich found poetry in the violent motion of Ralph Meeker as Mickey Spillane’s L.A. gumshoe, as he encountered gorgeously tough gals and nefarious crooks while trying to retrieve a mysterious briefcase with an atom age secret inside.

Aldrich, who hailed from a prestigious family, studied economics at the University of Virginia, where he also played football. Through a family connection, he sought and got work in Hollywood, taking on jobs as assistant director for future blacklistees Joseph Losey, Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky, as well as Charlie Chaplin, whom he assisted on 1951’s Limelight.

He jumped to TV in the early ‘50s, directing episodes of the Dan Duryea adventure series China Smith, and followed with his big screen debut with 1953’s Big Leaguer.  The following year, he reteamed with Duryea and other China Smith collaborators for World for Ransom; further, Burt Lancaster recruited Aldrich for two films he starred in and produced. In Apache, Lancaster plays fierce warrior and Geronimo lieutenant Massai, who escapes imprisonment to lead the tribe against the white intruders of his territory. Aldrich’s original downbeat, historically accurate ending was altered at the behest of the studio.  In Vera Cruz, Aldrich elicited charismatic performances from Lancaster and Gary Cooper as rival mercenaries working together during the Mexican Revolution to rob a countess (Danielle Darrieux) of a shipment of gold that’s earmarked for Emperor Maximilian.

The box-office (and critical) success of Vera Cruz gave Aldrich some Hollywood clout and an opportunity to prove he was expert at injecting cynicism into the cinema, as shown by the ultra-violent, idiosyncratic Kiss Me, Deadly, along with a fierce screen adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Hollywood drama The Big Knife (1955) and Attack (1956), an intense study of cowardice and compromise amongst American soldiers in France during World War II. Aldrich produced the latter two films himself, and continued to do the same with most of his projects throughout the rest of his career.

They were roles he relished, calling his own shots both on the set and elsewhere. “The power is for the director to do what he wants to do,” he said. “To achieve that he needs his own cutter, he needs his cameraman, he needs his own assistant and a strong voice in his choice of writer; a very, very strong voice on who’s the actor. He needs the power not to be interfered with and the power to make the movie as he sees it.”

While his early work helped imprint Aldrich to many as an action director, he was pretty comfortable in many genres. Along with Baby Jane, which some have written “defined the term ‘camp,’” he tackled the gothic horrors of Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, and produced 1969’s What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, with Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon. He had a fondness for westerns, whether serious (Ulzana’s Raid (1972) with Lancaster, a corrective to the finagled editing of Apache and a violent metaphor for the war in Vietnam) or comic (the “Rat Pack”-fueled 4 for Texas (1963) and the Harrison Ford-Gene Wilder Jewish cowboy sagebrusher The Frisco Kid (1979)).

War was a theme visited a few times by the director, in films from the box office smash ensemble action yarn The Dirty Dozen (1967) to the box office flop ensemble military drama Too Late the Hero (1970) with Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson.

There were films like the controversial The Killing of Sister George (1968), centering on the dissolution of a relationship between an aging alcoholic soap opera actress (Beryl Reid) and her flighty young lover (Susannah York), and tales of macho struggle, pride and underdog deeds in films such as The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), The Grissom Gang (1971), Emperor of the North (1973) and The Longest Yard (1974).

Then there were the curiosities—films that made you exclaim in retrospect: “Robert Aldrich directed that?” They would include the complex Hollywood chronicle The Legend of Lylah Clare (1965), with Kim Novak in the dual roles of a glamorous actress who disappears and the unknown thespian chosen to play her in a bio movie; the low-key modern Los Angeles film noir Hustle (1975), reteaming the director with The Longest  Yard star Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve;  the trashy adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s LAPD story The Choirboys (1977); and his last film, the women’s wrestling farce …All the Marbles (1981), with Peter Falk . He passed away in 1983 at the age of 65.

Aldrich was a lifelong liberal, coming up through the ranks with the likes of House Un-American Activities Committee targets Losey, Rossen and Polonsky and a major supporter of Hollywood unions, particularly the Directors Guild of America.

Although he was never nominated for an Academy Award, Robert Aldrich entertained, provoked and sometimes perplexed those who watched his films over his four-decade career.

In speaking about his work, Aldrich said “The struggle for self-determination, the struggle for what a character wants his life to be…I look for characters who feel strongly enough about something not to be concerned with the prevailing odds, but to struggle against those odds.”