Paradise Gained

Tony Pipolo on Robert Aldrich

Robert Aldrich, Hustle, 1975, 35 mm, color, sound, 120 minutes. Nicole Britton and Lt. Phil Gaines (Catherine Deneuve and Burt Reynolds).

THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALDRICH, like those of his contemporaries Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, Sam Fuller, and Otto Preminger, not only have stood the test of time but have become more affecting, more authentic, and more precious with each passing decade. Placed at “The Far Side of Paradise,” perhaps the most aptly titled, most beloved category in Andrew Sarris’s taxonomy of the American cinema, Aldrich was among those dark angels who couldn’t quite follow Lucifer to hell but remained ambivalent gatekeepers on the rebellious fringe. If many of his characters teeter on the edge of psychic dysfunction, this often mirrors a greater insanity in the social sphere. The very premise of The Dirty Dozen (1967), voiced by its leading character, is that an army manned by maniacs and sociopaths is the best way to win a war. On the other hand, even the most deranged can shatter our preconceptions with a tenderness that erupts unexpectedly through their cruelty.

Aldrich saw past the menacing ghouls embodied by Jack Palance in Sudden Fear (1952), Shane (1953), and The Silver Chalice (1954) and directed him in his most heartbreaking performance as the besieged movie star in The Big Knife (1955). It was Aldrich who, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), transformed Bette Davis’s childish response to Joan Crawford’s “deathbed” confession—“You mean all this time we could have been friends?”—from simple plot twister into a moment of awful, belated truth, into which the film’s sadistic horrors all but dissolve. And it was Aldrich who gave the flamboyant, teeth-flashing Burt Lancaster his most gracious, understated performance in a Hollywood movie as the expert on Apaches in the sorely underrated Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

Robert Aldrich, Kiss Me Deadly, 1955, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 106 minutes.

Before directing his first feature in 1953, Aldrich was first assistant director for such heavies as Jean Renoir, William Wellman, Lewis Milestone, Abraham Polonsky, Joseph Losey, Robert Rossen—even Chaplin (on Limelight [1952]). Excluding the first and last, his directorial filmography easily matches that of the others, although his often radical views owed more than a little to these mavericks. At ease with crime and action thrillers (The Grissom Gang [1971], The Emperor of the North Pole, [1973]), westerns (Apache and Vera Cruz [both 1954], The Last Sunset [1961], 4 for Texas [1963]), and war films (Attack! [1956], Ten Seconds to Hell [1959], The Dirty Dozen [1967], and Too Late the Hero [1970]), Aldrich also gave us the cockiest of private eyes in Ralph Meeker’s sadistic Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)—a film whose apocalyptic denouement blew the genre out of the water—and two of the juiciest horror vehicles for over-the-hill Hollywood divas in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964).

The Big Knife, perhaps the best screen transfer of a Clifford Odets play, preceded the more gothic Baby Jane and the utterly nutty Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) in the Hollywood-as-Dante’s-hell genre, but along with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), and Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), it’s as corrosive an image of the dream factory as one could expect from an insider at the very time the studio system was under siege. Given its contained soundstage look, in fact, it could pass for the kind of teleplay that ran live on the Schlitz Playhouse and the Four Star Playhouse in the early 1950s, some of which Aldrich directed. But the constricted look of The Big Knife also resonates powerfully, turning the spacious Bel Air home of Charlie Castle, its protagonist (Palance), into a prison, in which he paces and squirms and huddles, seeking a corner to hide from his torment.

While there is little effort to conceal the play’s act changes, the film reveals that Aldrich’s aesthetic strength was not limited to impressive command of the outdoors and physical action but also lay in psychic interiors slowly unraveling from increasing assault. The pain is visible on Palance’s face, a ragged terrain of failures and regrets, poignantly offset by his genuine love for his wife—Ida Lupino in one of her most moving performances—and a vulnerability that ultimately triumphs over the forces of darkness, but at great cost. Next to his costars, Palance seems almost ascetic, his suffering all the more credible when contrasted to Rod Steiger’s typically overwrought turn as the scene-chewing, corrupt studio head Stanley Hoff (apparently modeled after Columbia’s notorious Harry Cohn) and Wendell Corey’s cold-blooded, steel-edged performance as his ruthless aide who makes inconvenient people and situations disappear for the good of the studio. If the thrust of the film’s indictment seems passé today, it’s more than redeemed by the moving rapport between Palance and Lupino, who, despite stereotypical situation and predictable dialogue, manage to convince us that they have, as Charlie says, “chosen each other out of millions.” That conviction carries the force and pitiable truth of a closing scene that could easily have collapsed into bathos.

Robert Aldrich, The Legend of Lylah Claire, 1968, 35 mm, color, sound, 130 minutes. Lylah Clare / Elsa Brinkmann / Elsa Campbell (Kim Novak).

One of the most striking things about Ulzana’s Raid, Aldrich’s best western and arguably his last great movie, is its astonishingly understated atmosphere and three-dimensional characterizations. Lancaster, who played a rebel Apache in Aldrich’s film of 1954, is now the sage whose deep knowledge of the tribe’s ways he tries quietly to instill in the Gospel-driven lieutenant (Bruce Davison) assigned the task of tracking down Ulzana and his band of renegades. The results are disastrous—but quite appropriately, it is the Apache scout trusted by Lancaster (Jorge Luke) who has the final confrontation with Ulzana. Each time I’ve seen this film, I am struck by its nearly stoic economy, the absolute necessity of virtually every shot—a quality rare in outdoor action films. And in posing ethical questions about the comparable savagery of the Indian and the white man, it is among the few westerns that reflect convincingly on the very conventions that once sustained the genre.

The Big Knife and Ulzana’s Raid represent the poles of Aldrich’s art, confirming not only his range and adaptability but the strength of personality that comes through all material. In that context, Metrograph’s series will allow us to reevaluate such late films as The Longest Yard (1974) and Hustle (1975), two Burt Reynolds vehicles, as well as The Choirboys (1977), the only best-selling novel Aldrich adapted, and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), an ambitious, controversial political thriller that flopped at the box office.

“The Associates and Aldrich” runs September 15 through October 6 at the Metrograph in New York.