Robert Aldrich: 10 essential films

From Kiss Me Deadly to “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, Robert Aldrich was behind some of Hollywood’s most sardonic classics. We celebrate 10 of the best.

9 August 2018

By Matthew Thrift

Director Robert Aldrich and star Bette Davis during the production of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962)

Cousin to the Rockefellers, Robert Aldrich came from big money. That he took his disinheritance on the chin, heading out west to sweep floors at RKO, is testament to a political sensibility that would colour both his personal life and his career as one of the great Hollywood mavericks. His biggest commercial hit, The Dirty Dozen (1967), might suggest a right-winger in the John Milius mode, but you need only look at his filmography en masse to see a subversive sensibility in thrall to the complexities of human behaviour.

Working across multiple genres, Aldrich’s was a cinema (with a few notable exceptions) populated by men – characters driven by their own personal codes, railing in hostile environments against a hypocritical and unjust system.

Coming up through the studio ranks, as second and first assistant director to the likes of Jean Renoir, Joseph Losey, Abraham Polonsky and Charlie Chaplin, he’d later support blacklisted writers and campaign for union representation, serving as president of the Directors Guild through the second half of the 70s.

Aldrich made 29 features (and one from which he was removed) across three decades. We picked out 10 of our favourites.

World for Ransom (1954)

World for Ransom (1954)

Singapore. A kidnapped scientist – “One of the few men on earth with the secret of the atomic bomb” – on sale to the highest bidder, western or commie. Alias Mike Callahan (Dan Duryea), private dick, unquiet American and “out and out blaggard”, working a two-bit job shadowing one Julian March (Patric Knowles), husband of an ex-flame with Dietrich aspirations. Both are in too deep: March having botched his role in the kidnapping; Callahan the colonial power’s on-the-run patsy. At the centre, a series of MacGuffins, around which the plot revolves like the ever-present fans cutting through the tangibly dripping heat.

World for Ransom is Aldrich’s second film, and his technical prowess is already a marvel, with not a cut wasted. It’s his first film noir, a practice run before he annihilated the genre just a year later.

Apache (1954)

Apache (1954)

The first of many battles waged along ideological lines to be found in the Aldrich canon, Apache remains one of the most complex interrogations of Native American integration to be found in the western genre.

The film begins in defeat, with the 1886 surrender of Geronimo and the capture of Massai (Burt Lancaster), “the last Apache warrior”. Massai’s refusal to stand as “just another whipped Indian” proves the catalyst for his escape, pursuit and rejection of all but the most personally defined sense of self.

Aldrich presents his protagonist (hero is definitely the wrong word) with a series of dehumanising models for conforming: from his tribe’s dishonourable acquiescence in defeat to the Chinese labourers in town, from Charles Bronson’s slavish turncoat to the Cherokee farmer harvesting his own crops with the white man’s tools. The ending was a studio imposition, but Apache’s singular perspective and individualist battle cry belong entirely to Aldrich.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

That opening. A woman in the middle of the road – hysterical, fresh out the “laughing house”. Her gasping for breath as the credits roll backwards. She’s the key to “The Great Whatsit”, but is soon found hanged in a closet. Remember me. “Bedroom detective” Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), “one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself”. A prick if ever there was one, in both action and metaphor.

Kiss Me Deadly is the noirest of noirs and Aldrich’s magnum opus, glancing back at pulp fiction and ahead to Pulp Fiction (1994). Is it the darkest of satires or a deadly serious warning against its own moral vacuity? Either way, Aldrich sends all to hell in a handbasket – or rather a box. There’s no Dr Strangelove-like self-congratulation to be found in the climactic immolation though, just the plug pulled on a world that finds the closest it can get to a hero is the likes of Mike Hammer.

Autumn Leaves (1956)

Autumn Leaves (1956)

Women aren’t a common fixture in Aldrich’s cinema. When they do take centre-stage, as in his trio of 60s pictures, they’re characterised as grotesques. This makes Autumn Leaves, one of his greatest films, something of an outlier. A women’s picture that owes more to Sam Fuller than Douglas Sirk, it begins as a study in loneliness before Joan Crawford’s typist receives a proposition from a much younger man, triggering a second half steeped in Oedipal confusion and sexual displacement.

Aldrich spares little in apportioning violence between the wounded: a typewriter brought down on a hand, a vivid dose of electroshock therapy – all captured in frantic close-up. Crawford is nothing short of magnificent, but it’s Aldrich’s stylistic vitality that drives the film, right up to its proto-Phantom Thread kiss-off: “I think people are staring at us.”

Attack! (1956)

Attack! (1956)

A year after the release of Attack!, American audiences saw one of the defining anti-war pictures: Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. While Kubrick saw his film’s conflict as a game of chess, Aldrich’s characters tear up the board and violently lob the pieces at each other from close quarters. Of course, the anti-war film had been around for some 40-odd years, but Attack! is unique in its total disregard for moral binaries or hymns to pacifism.

A cowardly officer (Eddie Albert), his self-serving superior (Lee Marvin) and a “brave” lieutenant (Jack Palance) knock heads at the front line. In other hands, Palance would march to heroism and Albert slink into shame, but Aldrich sacrifices both on equal terms, with Palance maniacal in his religiously fevered vengeance. A first glance suggests another of Aldrich’s rages against authority, but it’s in William Smithers – as the trio’s go-between, and the only one to retain his dignity amid the madness – that the director best shows his hand.

“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962)

"What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962)

Notwithstanding the success of both this and 1967 mega-smash The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich hardly produced his best work in the 60s, despite opening his own studio. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is the most enduring of the nine pictures he directed that decade, famed for its camp appeal and the bitter rivalry between its stars – as dramatised in the 2017 TV series Feud, featuring Alfred Molina as Aldrich.

Here, Aldrich’s wickedly satiric eye transcends the gothic grotesqueries that would diminish the female-driven pictures that followed: spiritual sequel Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and The Killing of Sister George (1968). Of course, Bette Davis’s eponymous performance is one for the ages (sorry Joan), but it’s the director’s take on Hollywood’s ruthless disposal of its product – human or otherwise – and his refusal to entirely demonise his antagonist that best stands the test of time.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

A mother and son crossing hostile terrain. A lone guard and an Apache attack. The guard executes the woman and makes a run for it, blowing his own brains out when his horse goes down. The young boy halts the mutilation of his mother’s corpse. “How can they do these terrible things?” asks the naive lieutenant tasked with taking out the raiding party. “Are we not all men, created in God’s image?”

One of the great films of the 70s, and the most confrontational of the decade’s Vietnam allegories, Ulzana’s Raid locks eyes on the hypocrisies and atrocities of imperial pursuit. “It’s how they are,” says Jorge Luke’s Apache ally of his tribe’s violence. Yet Aldrich holds little truck with apportioning claims of savagery, nor does he find room for heroism – just blinkered stupidity and the circuitous inevitability of death. Whether noble or feeble, in the context of such systemically reinforced ugliness, it’s all the same to Aldrich.

Emperor of the North (1973)

Emperor of the North (1973)

Aldrich’s anti-authoritarianism gets stripped down to essentials for this man vs The Man railway romp. Lee Marvin’s king of the hoboes takes on Ernest Borgnine’s Shack, the meanest mother that ever ran railroad security. In place of character, there’s an elemental battle of wills, with the barest of plots seeing Marvin ride the infamous No 19 train to the end of the line and Borgnine try to stop him.

Sure, the Depression-era setting gives voice and power to the disenfranchised, but really it’s all about the direction of Aldrich’s most concentrated and sustained action spectacle. Emperor of the North is breathtakingly violent right up to the final face-off: a mano-a-mano tussle, until Marvin picks up that axe.

Hustle (1975)

Hustle (1975)

Given the pessimism that colours Aldrich’s work, it’s easy to see why he’s often considered a nihilistic director. One of his most brilliant, underrated pictures, Hustle is a case in point. The characters here – from Burt Reynolds’ cop and his prostitute girlfriend (Catherine Deneuve) to the father of the girl washed up on the beach as the credits roll – are all haunted by memories of lost, better times. Even the film’s music – and Reynolds’ love for old movies – sounds a mockingly nostalgic tone.

Nihilism isn’t quite right though. It’s more a sense of apathy – the result of exhaustion at a broken and exploitative system whose deck is stacked against all but those in power. There’s a noirish fatalism at play here, as there often is in Aldrich’s work, but it’s a fatalism that seems randomly doled out. Individual action and idealism only serve to maintain the status quo in a social structure designed to keep everyone in their allotted roles.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)

Aldrich’s films – especially the 60s ones – sometimes suffer as a result of their expansive running times. Yet, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, one of his longest, makes its 146 minutes count, maintaining a relentless tension throughout. The director makes outstanding use of split-screens, simultaneously quickening the pulse and compressing a 350-page shooting script.

Considered a favourite by the director himself, it takes place over one day, with its race-against-the-clock narrative seeing an idealistic general (Burt Lancaster) seize control of nine nuclear warheads and attempt to blackmail Charles Durning’s “honest” president into revealing the government’s lies about US involvement in Vietnam.

The film’s political pessimism sealed its commercial failure, but a recent Masters of Cinema Blu-ray affords an overdue reappraisal within the context of an outstanding body of work.

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