Robert Aldrich Centennial

9 Aug

Robert Aldrich was born on August 9, 1918 and would have turned 100 today. (He died in 1983.) He was one of my earliest favorite movie directors. By the time I saw THE DIRTY DOZEN (pictured above, with Aldrich in the red sweater directing, with Charles Bronson on the right) in high school, I’d already seen three of his earlier films, two in theaters (THE LAST SUNSET, HUSH HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE) and one on TV (VERA CRUZ), and I loved DOZEN so much I made it a point to seek out every one of his films as they came out. In fact, just three weeks after I first saw DOZEN, I went to see his newest movie, TOO LATE THE HERO (1970) when it opened on Broadway. I missed the next one, THE GRISSOM GANG (1971), when it opened, but starting with ULZANA’S RAID (1972), a cavalry-and-Indians western starring Burt Lancaster, I saw every one of his remaining films in theaters on their original release. Also, as I began taking film classes in college and seeing movies in repertory theaters in Manhattan, I sought out Aldrich’s older films, especially as I learned of the high esteem he was held in by auteurists, and discovered for myself some of his very best films, including KISS ME DEADLY (1955), ATTACK (1956), and WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), not to mention the chance to see VERA CRUZ (1954) on the big screen. At the beginning of 2018, I finally caught up with Aldrich’s debut film, THE BIG LEAGUER (1953), a baseball drama starring Edward G. Robinson, and, as of this writing, I have only one Aldrich film left to see, the rarely-screened lesbian drama, THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (1969).

Aldrich was one of a group of directors active at the time who made male-themed films of violence about anti-heroes and outlaws, mavericks and outcasts, who didn’t function well in institutional settings and preferred to call their own shots, even when doing so broke rules or laws. I not only followed Aldrich, but also Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY), Sam Peckinpah (THE WILD BUNCH) and Phil Karlson (WALKING TALL), not only catching their newest films in theaters, but tracking down their older films on television and in revival theaters. A lot of my early film writing and film study centered on these men and other contemporaries of theirs, such as Anthony Mann (WINCHESTER ’73) and Sam Fuller (FORTY GUNS), in addition to their spiritual godfathers, John Ford (THE SEARCHERS), Howard Hawks (RIO BRAVO) and Raoul Walsh (WHITE HEAT), whose careers were in their final stages by the time I managed to see some of their films in theaters in my youth.

Aldrich had a most interesting history. The scion of a famous banking family and a first cousin of the Rockefellers, he turned his back on the silver spoon he was born with and opted to enter show business after experiencing some success booking musical acts in college. He asked an uncle with movie industry connections to get him a job in Hollywood and he wound up working at RKO Pictures as a prop man, after which his uncle told him to never speak to the family again. He worked his way up to Assistant Director and learned from some of the most notable directors in the business at the time: Jean Renoir, Charles Chaplin, William Wellman, Robert Rossen, Joseph Losey, Edward Dmytryk and Lewis Milestone. He began directing episodic television in 1952 and managed to get his first feature directorial offer from MGM to do THE BIG LEAGUER, after which he directed WORLD FOR RANSOM (1954), a low-budget spin-off of a TV adventure series he’d directed called “China Smith.” He then got to do the color western, APACHE (1954), starring Burt Lancaster, and then the large-scale western shot in Mexico, VERA CRUZ (1954), his first big hit (and one of only a handful of hits he’d ever have).

Aldrich tended to work in action genres, usually crime, western or war, but he often turned the formula inside out. The protagonists weren’t always heroic and they didn’t always win. They often had more to worry about from their allies than from their antagonists. There was usually a moral dilemma they had to confront, sometimes prompting them to make the right decision, sometimes not. Aldrich never made it easy for his protagonists, nor did he make it easy for the audience. In fact, one can argue that as the reason so many of his films failed at the box office. The ones that succeeded tended to be the most conventional, in terms of offering the audience enough gratification to make it worth their while. His biggest hit was THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), which ends with the dozen military prisoners of the title successfully pulling off a heroic, crowd-pleasing mission of slaughtering dozens of Nazi officers at a chateau in France.

But if Aldrich had followed his usual instincts, he would have had the men fighting among themselves and grappling with issues of obligation, debt, ego and self-interest right up until the end. Contrast this with his earlier World War II film, ATTACK (1956), in which a platoon of G.I.s is more preoccupied with their cowardly captain and the danger he’s put them in than with the enemy.

In TOO LATE THE HERO (1970), an ill-fated mission into Japanese territory on a Pacific Island during the war leads to a dilemma for the survivors of the mission. Word has to get to the Allies of a secret Japanese air base that will spell disaster for an American convoy headed for the island. When the survivors are down to two, one of them (Michael Caine) is more worried about his own survival than trying to save the American convoy and the other (Cliff Robertson) has to force him at gunpoint to accompany him back to the English base where the commander is awaiting a report from the mission.

In ULZANA’S RAID (1972), a grizzled army scout and his Apache companion have to contend with a green cavalry Lieutenant, newly arrived from the east, who’s eager to make his mark by capturing or killing a fugitive Apache leader, despite his lack of knowledge of Apaches or the terrain. McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), the scout, often has to weigh his own chances for survival against the inexperienced command of the Lieutenant (Bruce Davison), who sometimes puts him in more danger than Ulzana does.

Aldrich liked to deconstruct popular genres. Certainly, ATTACK goes against the grain of most World War II movies put out by Hollywood simply by making the protagonist’s superior officers the most dangerous characters in the film. (Needless to say, the filmmakers got no cooperation from the Department of Defense.) ULZANA’S RAID makes the cavalry look pretty weak and incompetent and unable to protect the settlers or even themselves from a small band of vengeful Apache warriors who’ve rejected life on the reservation after mistreatment by the Indian agent in charge. The most layered character, who seems the calmest on the surface while probably the most conflicted, is Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), the Apache scout working for McIntosh. He is a man certain to be deemed a traitor and put to a horrible death if captured by Ulzana, who just happens to be his brother-in-law. Ke-Ni-Tay is, in turn, distrusted by the Lieutenant, who resents having to rely on an Apache. Aldrich has stated that he wanted Ke-Ni-Tay to be more of a central character in the film, but they couldn’t have gotten funding for the film without a major star, Lancaster, in the part of McIntosh, whose part then had to be built up.

THE CHOIRBOYS (1977) was based on a best-selling novel by Joseph Wambaugh, a former Los Angeles police officer who gained fame by writing realistic novels about the police. He acknowledged the underside of police work and the psychological toll it took on law enforcers, but he never treated them with disrespect or as figures of fun. They were the “New Centurions,” the “Blue Knights,” to use phrases immortalized in the titles of other Wambaugh works. His screenplay for THE CHOIRBOYS was designed to be a little funnier, to alternate humorous off-duty antics with the more mundane aspects of police work. In Aldrich’s hands, however, it was downright farcical and the cops came off as variably juvenile, sleazy, perverted, disturbed, unruly, bigoted, alcoholic and downright mutinous. If the cops are there to protect us, Aldrich wonders, then who will protect us from them? Wambaugh tried to take his name off the movie. This was a far cry from “Police Story,” Wambaugh’s weekly anthology series designed to offer respectful and realistic portrayals of L.A.  police officers on and off the job, which was still on the air when this movie came out.

The genre that gets skewered most memorably by Aldrich is the private eye movie in the film KISS ME DEADLY (1955), which adapts a best-selling novel by Mickey Spillane featuring private eye Mike Hammer and turns it on its head. Hammer is no good guy. He makes his living using his sexy secretary Velda to frame married men with photos and recordings of their infidelities and then charging them a fee to keep quiet. When a hitchhiking girl he picks up turns out to be an escapee from an asylum and is murdered after being abducted and tortured by unknown parties, Hammer senses that the case contains something big and possibly lucrative, so he pursues it on his own, even after his police contact confiscates his gun and license. Ultimately, the culprits strike back and kill Hammer’s trusted friend and auto mechanic Nick and kidnap Velda and it becomes personal. As Hammer gets closer to “the big whatsit,” as Velda so helpfully puts it, his failure to share his information with the police and federal agents on the case puts not only himself and Velda in danger, but all of Los Angeles. This is a far cry from the “knight in tarnished armor” that Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett wrote about in their private eye novels. Hammer doesn’t seem to have much of a moral code. (Spillane hated the movie.)

However, as played by Ralph Meeker, Hammer is quite an appealing character to the audience despite his streaks of sadism and cruelty. He has a blunt directness that gets results, a crude charm that wins over the ladies, and he saves his roughest action for the bad guys. (Well, except when he breaks an opera lover’s rare Caruso record to pry some info out of him.) Aldrich insisted he designed the character as a critique of the fascist “end justifies the means” philosophy of the McCarthy era, yet Hammer is still a seductive figure to the audience. For instance, while the character was an unrepentant bigot in Hammer’s novels, here we see Hammer, grieving over the death of Nick, going to a black nightclub to drink and listen to the singer. The bartender and singer both know him and call him “Mike” and not “Mr. Hammer.” For black characters to be this familiar and informal with white characters was quite rare at the time, a groundbreaking scene that has, as far as I can tell, gone quite unnoticed in discussions of this film in the literature over the years. There’s also an earlier scene where he seeks information from a black trainer (Juano Hernandez) at a boxing gym, whom he knows and is friendly with and refuses to tell him what he wants—for his own safety.

Aldrich also refashioned the horror genre when he made WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), about two sisters, former actresses, one of whom is obsessed with her child star glory while the other is confined to a wheelchair and forced to confront her sister’s growing madness. There are no supernatural elements, it’s just one human behaving monstrously toward the other and making her life truly horrific. I found this film much scarier than any traditional horror film. And the fact that there are two grande dames of the cinema in the roles, Bette Davis in the blond fright wig and Joan Crawford as the paralyzed sister, makes it even more frightening. You believe these women. Here’s what I wrote about Crawford’s performance when I re-watched the film for the first time in decades last year on TCM:

“One of the most harrowing movies I’ve ever seen. Human beings are the most frightening monsters. Joan gives the braver performance here, way outside of her comfort zone. She goes through hell in this movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance like this anywhere else in her career.”

Even Aldrich’s biggest hits made sure to push the envelope. In VERA CRUZ, the American mercenaries who travel to Mexico after the Civil War to make a buck selling their services to the highest bidder are a greedy, cynical bunch, with nary a noble or altruistic impulse among them, choosing to fight for the better-paying Emperor Maximilian, a ruler imported from Europe, rather than for the beleaguered Mexican revolutionary Benito Juarez. And these are the good guys! Eventually, of course, one of the two alpha males among the gunmen, former Confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper), comes around to the rebel cause, thanks to the entreaties of a beautiful Juarista (Sarita Montiel), who’s attached herself to the caravan. He eventually has to challenge the other alpha male, Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), to a showdown over who’ll get the treasure taken from the French, Erin or Juarez.

Such characters were new to westerns in the 1950s and were perhaps a spin-off of the new crime movies where war veterans committed heists with military-style tactics (THE STREET WITH NO NAME, WHITE HEAT, CRISS CROSS) and were far more disillusioned than pre-war and wartime heroes. The cynicism of VERA CRUZ and the film’s thematic and stylistic influence on such later westerns as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE WILD BUNCH, and Sergio Leone’s Italian westerns, led to renewed interest in Aldrich’s films in the 1970s and beyond. It didn’t hurt that the film’s cast included such future genre stars as Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and Jack Elam, two of whom would go on to work for Leone and all of whom would make Italian westerns.

In THE DIRTY DOZEN, the Dozen consist of military prisoners–murderers, rapists, gangsters, psychotics, many with death sentences hanging over them—yet they’re the heroes and we’re asked to identify with them. For much of the film their antagonists are not Nazis but their own officers. Then, when they finally go into action to complete their mission of wiping out a gathering of high-ranking Nazi officers, they use extremely ruthless tactics that might have qualified as war crimes, including trapping the Nazis and their female companions in a wine cellar and pouring gasoline through the air vents and then dropping grenades into them. The film was pretty controversial at the time and provoked criticism from World War II veterans who were aghast at the notion that wars were won by unsavory characters using repugnant methods. My father, for instance, got angry when my older brother went to see it. (When I saw it a few years later on a double bill, I identified the co-feature as the one I went to see.)

Still, in both VERA CRUZ and THE DIRTY DOZEN, the worst of the villains get punished, the “heroes” die honorable deaths, and the most moral of the protagonists survive.

THE DIRTY DOZEN just happened to come out amidst widespread anti-war sentiments and Vietnam protests and tapped into the zeitgeist of the time, making it Aldrich’s all-time biggest hit. According to Wikipedia, “It was the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1967 and MGM‘s highest-grossing film of the year.” Aldrich was surprised at the film’s wild success among young people. As he put it in a 1970 interview, referring to screenwriter Lukas Heller:

With THE DOZEN, two things happened. One, Heller and I stumbled onto the dissatisfaction, particularly on the part of the younger public, with the establishment. I’d like to say we anticipated that kind of success; but we didn’t really. If you read the book, however, that kind of antiauthoritarian attitudes, that point of view, isn’t there; and Heller did an excellent screenplay. So we got on a wave that we never knew was coming; not a wave, a tidal wave. But we didn’t see it forming.

THE LONGEST YARD (1974) is probably Aldrich’s most notable attempt at crafting a purely commercial action comedy. He uses the rising star of that era, Burt Reynolds, to play Paul Crewe, a former football star who is sent to prison after roughing up his girlfriend, stealing her car, leading the police on a high-speed chase and then sending the car flying off a dock into the ocean. He also enters prison with the disgrace of having been expelled from football some years earlier for shaving points off a game. Once in prison, however, despite all these points against him, the star’s natural charm and ease around all sorts of other motley characters comes into play and even the prison guards, the designated bad guys against whom the inmates will play a crucial football game, are ultimately won over. The one unmistakable villain is the warden (Eddie Albert), whose driving ambition to field a championship team from his guards leads him to force the reluctant Crewe into cooperating and then threatening Crewe with all manner of repercussions should Crewe’s team win the game. The only real moral dilemma for Crewe is whether he’ll accede to the warden’s demand that he lose the game with a 21-point spread in order to avoid a longer prison sentence. It’s inevitable, of course, that he’ll win the game anyway, the only possible ending a film like this could have.

The following quote is from an interview Aldrich did for the British Film Institute in 1977. It’s in the book, Robert Aldrich Interviews (2004, University Press of Mississippi):

The people audiences really love or identify with are those who fall from grace. It’s their own opinion of themselves that makes them function, not somebody else’s, not outside society’s. And to regain their image of themselves, to redeem their self-respect, they’ll do anything. Therefore they’re to be admired; you can accept failure on that level. If you don’t stray too far from that central character the audience will understand, no matter what he does. They may not root for him, but they’ll love him. When I failed to do that, as I did in Ulzana, it puts the audience in a position where they don’t know how to judge.

As for the rest of interviews in the book, a recurring thread I found was Aldrich’s skewed view of what would work with audiences or not. He’s astounded that some of the movies he felt were most successful in achieving what he’d set out to accomplish failed at the box office.

“I’ll never understand the failure of THE GRISSOM GANG, TOO LATE THE HERO, or FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, because they were marvelous movies.”


“I think the timing was perfect, the style of the picture was perfect. If you’re asking me why that picture wasn’t a success, I haven’t a clue.”

THE GRISSOM GANG is a very problematic movie based on an even more problematic book, “No Orchids for Miss Blandish,” a novel published in England in 1939 and released again after the war with its sadomasochistic elements edited out and a crude attempt made at updating it to include television and helicopters in what was originally meant to be a tale of Depression-era dust bowl bandits. The central relationship in the film is between Slim Grissom (Scott Wilson), a cretinous, murderous kidnapper, and Barbara (Kim Darby), the heiress he and his bandit gang, led by his mother, Ma Grissom (Irene Dailey), have abducted. He’s childlike, vicious, utterly sociopathic, and yet we’re asked to sympathize with his efforts to brutalize the poor girl into liking him and making love to him. My memory of the film is a lot harsher than what I wrote in my viewing log after the last time I watched it (following my reading of the bowdlerized version of the book) in 2010:

The scenes where Slim tries to establish some kind of rapport with Barbara are strangely moving. He’s genuinely trying to show some empathy, a quality he’s never had any prior use for. Yet I also found this horrifying, at least from Barbara’s perspective. She’s got three monsters to deal with in the film, Ma Grissom, Slim, and, eventually, her father. This is really a horror film, in the true sense of the word. She ultimately has to tame one monster (Slim) to keep the other (Ma) at bay. And at the end, she’s afraid to leave one (Slim) for fear of what fate awaits her at the hands of the remaining one (her father). And none of this is in the book, where Barbara is just a plot device, not a real character. Disturbing film, but fascinating.

In any event, when I first saw THE GRISSOM GANG at the Museum of Modern Art in 1975, a number of innocent museum visitors in the audience had no idea of what was in store for them. In the first few scenes of the film, there are several bloody shooting deaths and people climbed all over each other to get out of the theater and stampede toward the exit. It was quite a comic spectacle and the rest of the crowd had a good laugh. Still, I can’t imagine how Aldrich thought this had any kind of commercial appeal beyond his devoted auteurist fans.

There are many other Aldrich films to consider, some of which I liked, some of which I didn’t, and some of which I had mixed feelings about, but almost all of which were unmistakably Aldrich. You knew you were going to be challenged when you saw one of his films and you welcomed that.  I’ll let Manny Farber, in his classic 1957 essay, “Underground Films,” which celebrated the unsung genre films that played 42nd Street and other grindhouse theaters, offer a description of Aldrich’s appeal early in his career:

“Of these newcomers, Robert Aldrich is certainly the most exciting—a lurid, psychiatric stormer who gets an overflow of vitality and sheer love for movie-making into the film. This enthusiasm is the rarest item in a dried, decayed-lemon type of movie period. Aldrich makes viciously anti-Something movies—ATTACK stomps on Southern rascalism and the officer sect in war, THE BIG KNIFE impales the Zanuck-Goldwyn big shot in Hollywood. The Aldrich films are filled with exciting characterizations—by Lee Marvin, Rod Steiger, Jack Palance—of highly psyched-up, marred, and bothered men.”

Sadly, after THE CHOIRBOYS, Aldrich found it harder and harder to find backing for the films he wanted to make, as did Siegel, Aldrich, Karlson and the other filmmakers who emerged after the war only to find themselves cast adrift in the late 1970s as the blockbuster mentality began to dominate Hollywood in the wake of such films as JAWS, STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. There was dwindling interest in the kinds of well-made adult-themed mid-budget genre films I’d always favored.  Aldrich made only two more films, THE FRISCO KID (1979) and ALL THE MARBLES (1981), which are probably my least favorite of his films. He died an untimely death on December 5, 1983, after complications following surgery.

Here are posters from some of the other Aldrich films I haven’t discussed in this piece:

For the record, my favorite Aldrich films remain THE DIRTY DOZEN, VERA CRUZ, KISS ME DEADLY and ATTACK.

I’ll close with this quote from Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas, a filmmaker himself and eventually owner/curator of Anthology Film Archives in New York City, who was a champion of the so-called New American Cinema, the “underground film” movement of the 1960s, which had no relation to Farber’s studio-era action films. Still, Mekas often visited the grindhouse theaters on 42nd Street and actively defended the street in a memorable short piece in late 1962 that cites Aldrich:

IN DEFENSE OF 42ND STREET (November 22, 1962)

“You fools who look down on Westerns, who go only to ‘art’ films, preferably European–you don’t know what you are missing. You are missing half of the cinema, you are missing the purest poetry of action, poetry of motion, poetry of the technicolor landscapes.

“I hear some zealous people want to clean up 42nd Street. What would we do without our movie joints, our hamburgers, our secret places? Clean places! We need more shadows, that’s what I say. There we can cultivate forbidden virtues and forbidden beauties. Man needs unnecessary, unclean corners. And so we need Aldrich, and Westerns, too. I prefer the confusion of emotions to the decadent, closed, hopeless clarity and cleanliness of materialists and rationalists. Blow, you winds of anarchy, confusion, we need you badly!”


2 Responses to “Robert Aldrich Centennial”

  1. Darren E Ryan August 14, 2018 at 2:02 PM #

    One of your best.

  2. squeesh April 22, 2019 at 9:31 AM #

    Aldrich is one of my fave directors too. The Grissom Gang is actually one of my favorite films by him—part of the reason it wasn’t a big hit, is because, frankly, there aren’t that many likable characters in it—the psychopath brother (played by the late, great Scott Wilson) and the woman he kidnaps (Kim Darby) are just about the only sympathetic characters in the entire film. Plus it’s way-too-over-the-top violent—it’s as if Aldrich was trying to top the extremely violent climax of Bonnie & Clyde every time there was a gun battle in the The Grissom Gang. That being said, I still like the film–I just don’t like the violence–which is jarring and disturbing as hell. I also don’t think there’s anything seductive about the main character in Kiss Me Deadly–another great Aldrich film–he’s basically a mean,violent thug, not too much different from the bad guys he winds up pummeling the hell out of. And I like that scene he has with the black couple at the bar–in fact, most of the people he interacts with are people who are clearly considered to be at the bottom rung of society, like he is, which makes the picture a little more interesting. Audiences weren’t ready for Kiss Me Deadly due to the European influences he had all over it, and the fact that it was too violent for the ’50s kept it from being a hit—it was definitely a few years ahead of its time. Not hard to see why it became a cult fave over the years, though.

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