Robert Aldrich was born into privilege, but he had pulp in his veins. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was his cousin, and it was an uncle at Chase National Bank who landed Aldrich a job as an RKO production clerk in 1941. When he began directing his own films just over a decade later, Aldrich was drawn to characters who were outsiders, renegades, brutes and Everyman grunts hammering out their own morality in a corrupt, degenerative world. A craftsman first and foremost, he would over his 30-year career fashion a style built for speed and founded on a surface instability, a crash of jarring angles, shocking images and a galvanizing mise en scene.
He was one of the first independent producer-directors to emerge during the collapse of the studio system, and his professional life was marked by precipitous highs and lows. Though never fully embraced by American critics while alive, Aldrich, along with Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray, was hailed by Cahiers du Cinema as the forefront of the auteurist revolution when a handful of Aldrich's earliest films, – Vera Cruz (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Big Knife (1955), Attack! (1956) – reached French shores all within a three-month period.
Aldrich shot a number of box-office hits, among them Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Longest Yard. The record-breaking financial success of The Dirty Dozen (1967) made it possible for him to open his own studio, a short-lived bid for total independence, as he was subsequently plagued by a series of box-office flops, including The Legend of Lylah Clare and The Killing of Sister George. Aldrich had often been accused of making overheated, hysterical movies, and as censorship loosened, his style often boiled over; by the end of his career, even some of his French admirers began to quietly withdraw their support. But Aldrich, who died in 1983 at the age of 65, never stopped making the kinds of films he wanted to make. While his more commercially successful works are staples on video, many of his best films remain unfairly marginalized.
Attack! is a blistering, bitter vision of war in which Lieutenant Costa (Jack Palance) is driven to a murderous rage by the cowardice and incompetence of his commanding officer (Eddie Albert). The driving, intense Western Ulzana's Raid, starring Burt Lancaster as a cavalry scout tracking an Apache war party through the Arizona desert, opens with some of the most powerful crosscutting in American movies. The recent restoration of Aldrich's noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly has brought the director's unflinching body of work back into the spotlight. Kiss Me Deadly, with its long-lost ending, will screen on the opening night of the American Cinematheque's monthlong Aldrich retrospective, but it's only one highlight in a series featuring several rare screenings and plenty of va-va-voom.
Aldrich was known as a vociferous critic of Hollywood's obsession with the bottom line and its denizens' pursuit of power. Nothing he ever wrote in his first-person articles for the New York Herald-Tribune and other publications, however, comes close to the excoriating attacks he leveled at the industry in his films. And, in many ways, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is just the tip of the iceberg. The first film produced by Aldrich's modestly named company, The Associates and Aldrich, was The Big Knife. Based on Clifford Odets' play, it stars Jack Palance as an actor for whom signing a seven-year studio contract is literally tantamount to selling his soul – there's murder in the fine print.
An even more bizarre descent into cannibalistic Hollywood is Aldrich's rarely seen classic The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968). Where Baby Jane is a campy portrait of two washed-up ghouls ripping away at each other, Lylah Clare is an unhinged look at what happens when you throw fresh young meat into the fray. Kim Novak plays Elsa, an actress who's a dead ringer for the dead screen icon of the film's title. Reluctantly, she agrees to become the protegee of genius has-been Lewis Zarkan (Peter Finch), who was both Lylah's director and her lover. To revive his career and relive his seamy past, Zarkan dresses Elsa up as his obsession – Novak here practically reviving her Vertigo role – which triggers a series of trances during which she channels a bitchy Marlene Dietrich. Wild, blood-splattered flashbacks, a slew of mercilessly inflated Hollywood types and impressionistic camera work make Lylah Clare one of the strangest films in its director's oeuvre.
Some of the most fascinating moments in Aldrich's films are their final scenes. Ulzana's Raid ends suddenly with a freeze-frame of Lancaster as he's about to light a cigarette, his fate decided but not yet played out. Lylah Claire abruptly concludes with the most surreal and carnal dog-food commercial ever conceived. And, of course, in the singular case of Kiss Me Deadly, there are now two endings, each one wrapped in its own astonishing ambiguity. Aldrich loved to shock his audiences, and he did it not necessarily through the content of the shot, but through the immediacy of his visual style. There are images scattered throughout his films that can haunt you for days. His professional career came to a conclusion with a whimper, not a bang – his last four features fell far short of his expectations – but Aldrich at his best packs a punch not soon forgotten.
HARD, FAST AND IN CONTROL: The Films of Robert Aldrich
At the American Cinematheque
February 6-21For info call 213-466-FILM; for tickets, (818) 789-8499