The quintessential shot in Robert Aldrich’s filmography is that of a close-up, held for a smidgen longer than the normal length one would think appropriate for such a shot. The face the camera is focusing on is usually a signifier of the most central element in Aldrich’s films: tension. Whether it’s melodrama (Autumn Leaves, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), war pictures (Too Late the Hero, Attack!), or Westerns, both sober and jocular (Ulzana’s Raid and 4 For Texas, respectively), ideological and external forces wrestle within the psyche that defines Aldrich’s cinema. Metrograph's all-35mm retrospective in New York offers us the opportunity to survey the oeuvre of the auteur who hammered out his cinematic legacy with the vigor of an undoubtedly indignant and irreverent artist.
Consistency across genre and modes of filmmaking marks Aldrich as one of the last great studio auteurs, ready and willing to work along the spectrum and thrust his nonconforming liberal views into his movies. So determined to get across his perspective, Aldrich forged his own production company—after effectively disowning his very rich East Coast family and starting over in Hollywood as a production clerk at RKO—only two years into his feature filmmaking career, funded by the success of his ostensible opus, the apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). That such an incendiary film both implicitly and expressly about the most significant subject of tension affiliated with the mid-twentieth century—the atomic threat—cemented Aldrich’s name in both commercial and critical channels evinces the man’s determination to fight the system from the inside. That he later served two terms as president of the Directors’ Guild of America, making landmark progress in creative rights, only compounds the notion.
Indeed, the subjects of Aldrich’s films are usually lone misanthropes whose desires have been beaten out of them by past encounters with the capitalistic infrastructure that dictates what can and cannot be pursued in one’s life, often working directly against their internal philosophy. These leads are never morally whole, however, always graced with serious flaws that impede attempts at redemption. In the hands of a less committed director, these would be superficial obstacles set up to be struck down, but Aldrich barks where others growl. In Attack! (1956), the viewer shares the roiling anger that Jack Palance’s platoon leader feels towards his disgustingly pusillanimous C.O., embodied by Eddie Albert—both actors were part of Aldrich’s rotating company of stock performers, joined by Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Wesley Addy, with Frank DeVol as his regular score composer—but stands somewhat aghast when confronted by Costa’s frenzied determination to murder him. The same apprehension comes when witnessing the vicissitudes of troubled existence that befall Kirk Douglas’s (accidental) incestuous outlaw in The Last Sunset (1961), Kerwin Matthews’s naive union investigator in The Garment Jungle (1957, off which Aldrich’s directing credit was removed), Jack Palance’s compromised movie star in the unfortunately overwrought The Big Knife (1955), and Burt Reynold’s pessimist detective in Hustle (1975). As Aldrich progressed through his films, the tone of his work started to reflect more and more the viewpoint of that latter character, seeing the world as an even more hopelessly oppressive force consisting of systems against which no liberal ideology could withstand.
This mounting nihilism is reflected in Aldrich’s aesthetic values as he entered the late 60s and 70s. As comrade Fernando F. Croce says, “Robert Aldrich likes a jagged image,” and while he was referring to the loaded compositions of Attack!, that statement goes double for the proclivities towards split-screen and freeze-frame techniques that the director developed in his later career. Although one might at first see the split-screens in The Longest Yard (1974) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) as a way of keeping the frame clean and neat while depicting multiple actions, it becomes clear to one familiar with Aldrich’s oeuvre that this is in fact the auteur’s method for dividing the tension in his images into separate but equal parts, and ultimately to pit them against each other until they clash, either with physical or in the case of the latter-mentioned film, potentially nuclear might. His fondness for ending films on a freeze-frame is another potent manifestation of this impulse, a way of searing these jagged shots into our minds (the endings of Twilight’s Last Gleaming and 1968's Legend of Lylah Clare probably the most powerful among them).
It is in these late films about compromised masculinity that Aldrich cements the ethos he worked toward through his whole filmography, undoubtedly aided by the ever-slackening policies of what could and couldn’t be shown on screen in Hollywood in the late 60s. One could draw a line from The Dirty Dozen (1967) to The Choirboys (1977), both films about groups of unqualified men given unruly power criminals in the army and police, respectively. The films are somewhat the inverse of each other, and thus compliment the other nicely; in Dozen, the titular anti-heroes become more charismatic as they conform to the army standards set up by Lee Marvin, himself an outsider and resentful of the brass. The majority of the platoon perish in the pursuit of the mission, and no satisfaction is derived in completing their task on the part of the character, even if the viewer takes pleasure in some of Aldrich’s most taut filmmaking, watching the climactic attack on the Nazi fortress, so propelled forward with rigid frenzy. The officers in The Choirboys share the Dozen’s umbrage with their bureaucratic supervisors, but are themselves despicable in nature and action. The Choirboys is easily Aldrich’s trickiest film, featuring one of the most perplexing tonal shifts in its final 10 minutes that I’ve ever witnessed. The Choirboys—named such for their “choir practice,” which basically consists of them fucking around during their off time and committing heinous acts of abuse of power that are always either racist or sexist—have been called forward to take the fall for a cop’s accidental murder of an innocent (brought on by that officer’s Vietnam PTSD, a subject broached in Ulzana’s Raid 5 years earlier, one of the very strongest Aldrich works). One finds the film rooting for the ostensible hero/leader of this ragtag group of belligerent officers of the law, a career-best Charles Durning, rooting that he pull one over on the ineffective and unscrupulous administration, but when does, one is left with a rotten feeling in their stomach, sucker punched with the realization that these despicable characters get off scot-free. Aldrich’s feelings towards the state are clear: everyone is corrupt, systemically or morally, and the public is too segregated too affect that on a large scale.
The majority of the films discussed thus far have been male-dominated and almost invariable, primarily dealing with the disenfranchisement of alpha masculinity in the face of the system, and indeed the image of the macho director is one that Aldrich cultivated. But it is Aldrich’s “women’s pictures,” some belonging to that actual genre, and some just happening to focus on women, that reveal some of his most interesting qualities as a filmmaker dealing with interpersonal tension. The most famous of these pictures is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which made Aldrich’s name inextricable from the Gothic melodrama for a period of his career in the 60s, which was his second film interested in drawing surreal parallels between the main actresses’ personal lives and that of the characters they hypostatized on screen. The first was Autumn Leaves, and unusually tense 1956 melodrama that dealt with the agonies of personal trauma and the problems facing older single women in the 50s. Joan Crawford, whose image in the 50s had much changed from that she had before Mildred Pierce, stars—making this a film in a prestigious lineage of Crawford-starring films at the time, including Daisy Kenyon and Johnny Guitar, that felt radical when compared to the other contemporary films in their respective genres. Her performance is both raw and withholding, mirroring her characters apprehension at opening up to a significant other at her stage in life, and then having that sort of blow up in her face. Crawford’s resilience and fragility are the elements clashing behind her visage, allowing for the raw intensity of her performance.
Conversely, it is Kim Novak’s iciness that allows her to provide the magnanimity of her work in Legend of Lylah Clare, not only Aldrich’s definitive statement on the vacuity and decaying condition of studio-era Hollywood, but an intertextual work that directly references Novak’s role in Vertigo, and the nature of films like Sunset Blvd. and A Star is Born. Novak again plays the role of a woman forced to embody the spirit of a woman in a man’s past. From the outset, the doomed nature of its tale is locked in place, with no possibility of satisfaction bestowed upon its characters in their desirous quests. The impression one gets of the Hollywood depicted in Lylah Clare is that of a desiccated ecosystem trapped in a glass jar, its inhabitants milling about and committing treachery, all whilst being acutely aware of their collectively rotting state. Undoubtedly, Aldrich understood what this meant for actresses, and the corruptive spirit of the studio leaders. Hollywood is the ultimate racket, and there is no way to survive and not be tremendously compromised, and develop unfeeling toward your common man, a statement seared into cinema by Aldrich’s most literally ferocious final freeze-frame.
Robert Aldrich is the clear descendant of both Samuel Fuller and William A. Wellman (to whom he assisted directed on Story of G.I. Joe) in his interests, inheriting their recalcitrant fury and rebellious vigor. He never delivered less than a punch in his ideas or his images. Aldrich also represents for me the exemplary liberal studio auteur, versatile to the extreme, while never making less than a film on his terms. Although his films never reach the heights of Howard Hawks, or Fuller, he earned his place in Andrew Sarris’s "Far Side of Paradise," and carved his striking images into cinema history, never to be replicated with the same intransigence.