Friday, June 08, 2012

An Appreciation: Robert Aldrich

Apache (1954) *** - Burt Lancaster began his long and illustrious career with Aldrich in this adept western as an Indian waging a terrorist war against his white man oppressors. There are two or three terrific sequences here: Lancaster’s first entrance into the town of St. Louis…. A montage of violence that seems to place Lancaster’s warrior Indian everywhere at the same time…. And several hard bam-bam cuts which push the narrative forward in a manner that would later befit his noir masterpiece “Kiss Me Deadly”. The only drawback to this one- watching it in high def exposes the awful make-up job that transforms Lancaster and female costar Jean Peters into red faced Indians.

World For Ransom (1954) ***½ - Starring the always watchable Dan Duryea as a private eye caught up in political kidnappings and murder, “World For Ransom” earns its merit for stripping the film noir genre from postwar America and placing in among the hot and humid streets and jungles of Singapore. Thick humid air and dank corners are the film’s main setting here which gives the genre a wholly fresh spin. After a nuclear scientist is kidnapped, Duryea’s old cronies end up framing him for the crime and he embarks on a one-man mission to uncover the truth. Like later Aldrich films, the threat of nuclear annihilation is at the heart of the story and it also features some interesting themes of friendship and betrayal. Not one of the more recognizable Aldrich films, but a great starting point. Not available on DVD, streaming video only.

Vera Cruz (1954) **- The air of a Saturday afternoon special hangs over this languid western that pits outlaw Lancaster alongside soldier Gary Cooper in a fight against the Mexican army as they escort a wealthy woman across the west. Looks nice, but its ultimately harmless and without any real cinematic teeth.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) ****- A turning point for Aldrich’s career and a true capstone to the film noir genre comes “Kiss Me Deadly”, a terrifying, nihilistic and paranoid thriller that pits private investigator Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) against a shadowy organization with a very deadly hidden briefcase. From the opening credits where the titles spiral backwards from top to bottom and a cryptic woman enters Hammer’s world for a short car ride dressed only in a trench coat, “Kiss Me Deadly” never plays by the rules. Mimicked to no end by future filmmakers (Tarantino and Spielberg of course), the golden glowing briefcase is probably cinema’s most intriguing ‘maguffin‘, made all the more unsettling by the violent hissing added to the soundtrack. All in all, “Kiss Me Deadly” deserves its place as one of the more forward-thinking pictures of its time and a true masterpiece.

The Big Knife (1955) ***- Hollywood in the 50’s doesn’t appear to be any less morally bankrupt than today. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but “The Big Knife” lies all the ugliness out on the table. Based on a play by Clifford Odets, Jack Palance stras as an A-list actor separated from his wife, spurning the advances of several women, and trying to re-negotiate his contract with a studio boss (Rod Steiger) who seems to be more Al Capone than Daryl Zanuck. Confined to only a few settings, “The Big Knife” is a pessimistic attack on the creative process and the inner turmoil of a man whose had enough of the good life. Palance is the film’s beating heart and he gives a complex performance. Aldrich tightens the spectrum with simple a shot/reverse shot formula, never allowing the strict confines of a word-bound play to suffocate his big-screen version.

Attack (1956) **½- Another stage play transported to the screen by Aldrich and his film company, “Attack” opens with a very gritty Sam Fuller-like scruffiness which ends with a soldier’s helmet rolling violently down the hill after a platoon has been decimated due to a coward colonel. Jack Palance plays the leader of the decimated squad and Eddie Albert is the coward. The rest of the film examines the vehement verbal tug of war between the men. As a war film, one can’t but help imagine the great possibilities Aldrich could have ended up with… instead the film lags. Much like Kubrick’s “Paths Of Glory”, “Attack” strives for a higher calling of anti-war rhetoric, but ends up writhing due to its stage-bound wordiness.

The Garment Jungle (1957) **- It’s debatable how much Aldrich truly contributed to this film, as he was replaced during production with director Vincent Sherman. The film itself, which contains little resemblance to any creativity behind the camera, is a generic tale of the New York manufacturing block and the Union’s attempt to take a stronghold on its impoverished workers. As the Union idealist, a young Robert Loggia is good, but it’s the performance of Gia Scala (an actress who died way too young with numerous personal demons) as Loggia’s young wife that really impresses. Sultry one minute and intelligent the next, she raises the overall pleasure from an ordinarily mundane cinematic effort.

Autumn Leaves (1958) ** - Aldrich’s first enterprise with Joan Crawford- whom he would later exploit for more gaudy effect in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?“- “Autumn Leaves” is an interesting title that explores the late-in-life romance between Crawford and mentally unstable, but much younger Cliff Robertson. Alternating between uneasy drama and psychological thriller, “Autumn Leaves” isn’t entirely successful because its such a rote, bland film. Recently more accessible due to Robertson’s death, “Autumn Leaves” is an average Aldrich film. Not available on DVD.

The Angry Hills (1959) ***- Robert Mitchum stars as an American military journalist caught up with Greek Resistance fighters and the Nazi Gestapo working to uncover a list of important names he’s been entrusted with. Solid acting all around, but the real meat of the film lies in Aldrich’s razor-sharp mise-en-scene which seems to be growing in confidence. One set piece- with Mitchum being led into a trap in a small Greek church- is a mesmerizing example of editing, music and camera movement. I watched this scene over and over, definitely a trend-setting moment. Gia Scala (above) also co-stars. Not available on region 1 DVD.

Ten Seconds To Hell (1959) ***- The second of two films Aldrich made in the UK for Hammer studios after his disastrous affair on “The Garment Jungle”, “Ten Seconds To Hell” is a gritty, hollowed out post-war tale about a group of German soldiers returning home to work as bomb disposal experts. The opening, with a voice over lending a prose-like history of each soldier, threatens to sink the film before it even begins with overbearing wordiness, but Aldrich pulls back the reigns and allows the basic tension of a bomb blowing up in one’s face to be the real star of the film. Not only does Jack Palance give a terrific performance, but the film out-tensions “The Hurt Locker” in its quiet, protracted scenes of death-on-the-line as the men work to disarm their various assignments throughout the leveled city. Not available on region 1 DVD.

The Last Sunset (1961) ****- An interior western and a superior one. All the regular genre tropes are there: a cattle drive, outlaw and sheriff, open vistas…. But the real tension in Aldrich’s understated masterpiece is the simmering tension boiling between all involved. Kirk Douglas is an outlaw on the run when he finds his way to the cabin of an old flame (Dorothy Malone), immediately hooks up with her and her husband’s cattle drive, and then finds the sheriff chasing him (Rock Hudson) join the fray as well in order to serve the existing warrant on him the minute they cross the Texas border. Throw in a 17 year old daughter (Carol Lynly) who develops a crush on Douglas, and “The Last Sunset” turns into a chamber drama under the sun with every principal character hiding an ulterior motive. The way in which Aldrich moves the chess pieces around the board is hugely satisfying, and it all culminates in an extremely moving testament to the individual lost amidst the lawlessness of the Old West and his quiet redemption.

The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) *½ - The obligatory 60’s religious epic by a named filmmaker finds Aldrich examining the waning years of these infamous Biblical cities in a very sanitized and boring manner. We get 1960’s eyeliner and Stewart Grainger badly miscast as the Hebrew savior. Beyond that, the cheekiness of the city’s destruction and the all-too-important acting moments are fun to watch in a very guilty pleasure sort of way. Not available on DVD.

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) **½ - Also known as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford hamming it up well past their prime. Highly regarded as a camp classic of sorts, Aldrich does his best to heighten the tension of the story while remaining (mostly) fixed in the old decrepit house where ex-Hollywood star sisters have a very tortured existence. The main reason to see this film is Bette Davis, though. Appearing caked in make-up and often looking like an insane circus clown, clomping around her house in slippers and delivering pent-up maliciousness against Crawford… it’s a performance that resembles a force of nature. Overall, it’s hard to take the whole thing seriously though.

Four For Texas (1963)- *½- A rat pack western that crumbles under its own fragile existence, failing to elicit any real laughs or thrills. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin are cowboys in South Texas playing games with a town’s corrupt banker. As a Technicolor effort, “Four For Texas” is surprisingly flat and even the sexy goodness of Ursula Andress can’t elevate the film. And I’ve said it before, but any film that tries to locate its setting in Texas amongst tall, rolling mountains automatically loses points with me.

Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) ***- A return to grand guignol with Bette Davis as a reclusive Southern belle dealing with whispers of long-ago-murder and foreclosure on her looming estate. Unlike “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane”, “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” feels like Aldrich having more fun, mixing up genres (psychological horror and tabloid ‘dramady‘) with panache. It’s certainly his most striking film to date, though…. like a 40’s Jacques Tourneur movie, full of looming shadows and people framed by light and darkness.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) ***½- A crew of oil workers crash land in the Arabian desert with plenty of guilt and apathy to go around. Featuring an eclectic cast (including James Stewart as the pilot, Richard Attenborough as his co-pilot, Peter Finch as a tight lipped army captain and Ernest Borgnine as a sniveling crack-up), “The Flight of the Phoenix” is gritty, tense stuff. Not only does Aldrich heighten every sun-burned tear on the men’s faces, but the psychological distress is just as engulfing. But the most interesting conflict in the film emerges between Heinrich Dorfmann (played by Hardy Kruger) and Jimmy Stewart. The patriotic good ‘ol American versus staunch German pride, staged just a few years after the end of World War 2 as both men are pitted against each other to take possession of great savior for the lot. The remake from a few years ago doesn’t do this underrated film justice.

The Dirty Dozen (1966) ***½- Boy, watching this again for the first time in years and I’m reminded how much of a genre-stealing hack Quentin Tarantino really is. With an all-star cast, Aldrich basically upped the ante on the “men on a mission” war genre that would see itself re-invented and re-imagined for years to come- and on both sides of the ocean as well. The great conceit in Aldrich’s adrenalized affair is just how long he spends humanizing the ‘dirty dozen’ before their fatalistic mission to wipe out the German high command at a Paris chateau. Nihilism doesn’t begin to describe the lengths Aldrich goes in that final battle, and its all very non-Hollywood, which probably earns the film even higher regards nowadays. This was 1966 and we’re treated to Lee Marvin sadistically trying to break off the vent hoods so his men can drop grenades down into the underground hideout of the German men and their party-goers. As an action film, “The Dirty Dozen” is aces. As a film that successfully inverts our expectations about the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, it’s a revelation.

The Killing of Sister George (1968) *½- A potboiler subject treated in a very ham-fisted manner. As the title character, Beryl Reid gives a shrill and off-putting performance while Susan George, as her much younger and sultry girlfriend, alternates between sexy lounge candy and poutiness. Based on a play, “The Killing of Sister George” focuses on the deteriorating relationship between two swinging London lesbians after Sister George is written off her long running BBC television show. Unable to cope with the psychological impact of not going to work every day, plus the fact that her lover is quite the younger dish, Sister George takes it out on everyone around her. One or two scenes really stand out, such as a dance club altercation with a prim and proper studio employee, but the possibly brave subject matter is neither sensitive nor introspective and Aldrich’s direction feels flat.

Too Late the Hero (1970) ***- Workmanlike war film that details the mission of one American radio expert (Cliff Robertson) and a squad of British soldiers (including Michael Caine and Denholm Elliot) trying to disable a Japanese communication center in the South Pacific. The violence is quick and harsh (such as the death of a wounded sergeant left behind and a soldier stepping on a landmine), the characters a bit stock, but it all adds up to a tense series of war scenarios with the usual class differences built in. Michael Caine, in particular, enjoys chewing the scenery though.

The Grissom Gang (1971) **- White trash crime spree is the best way to describe Aldrich’s Depression-era kidnapping saga whose best moments include the twisted performance of Scott Wilson. A backwoods family kidnaps a Southern heiress and then has to deal with her being locked upstairs. Watching Wilson fall in love with the kidnapped heiress (Kim Darby) dwarfs anything else in the film. Clearly influenced by “Bonnie and Clyde” and the other white-trash exploitation flicks of the early 70’s, the film never really gels as a whole though.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972) **- The last of Aldrich’s westerns, it does pair him with favorite actor Burt Lancaster once again, this time with middling results. It’s a curious film, to say the least… failing to fall squarely on either side of the fence between soldiers led by a young lieutenant (Bruce Davison) and Indian hunter (Lancaster) or the bloodthirsty and violent Apache Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez). It does look terrific even if the final results are problematic.

Emperor of the North (1973) ***½- A very unique subject for a film as scruffy tramp A No.1 (Lee Marvin) pits wills against train conductor Shack (Ernest Brognine) and attempts to hitch a ride on his train for free during the Great Depression. Seemingly one long action set-piece, “Emperor of the North” excels in grubby viciousness as the two men fight their way across the Pacific Northwest. Before long, the film almost becomes an existential battle, with no real accomplishment in sight for either man, each one simply trying to invade the other’s worldview and personal confines. I suppose there’s something there about the “haves” and have nots”, but Aldrich has little use for that type of preachiness, instead crafting an action film that penetrates both the psychological and the physical.

The Longest Yard (1974) ***- Aldrich loved working with the same crew both behind the camera and in front, and here begins a mini love affair with actor Burt Reynolds over the course of two films. While “The Longest Yard” is a serviceable dramady, Reynolds is highly magnetic as the once superstar quarterback dealing with life and deadly sport behind the big wall of a prison. Not without its typical Aldrich flare for violence- especially the arsonist death scene that always felt very creepy and nihilistic- “The Longest Yard” just may be one of the best football movies ever put to film as well.

Hustle (1975) ****- One of the great character studies of the 70’s with Burt Reynolds as a Los Angeles detective working the death of a young girl whose father (Ben Johnson) just won’t let her death go unnoticed. Like many other sun-noirs of the 1970’s, “Hustle” wallows in the genre tropes- political corruption cover ups, beaches awash with immoral subplots and cops trying to balance it all. But the brilliance of “Hustle” is it’s complete inversion of the genre. Reynolds isn’t trying to solve the case… content to shove it under the carpet and focus instead on the marred relationship with his hooker girlfriend (Catherine Denevue) and a police chief (Borgnine) who just wants to hear how good things are going. It’s Ben Johnson, as the dead girl’s father, who really pushes the story forward with his old-school sense of morality and gruff, Biblical views of redemption. All of this comes full circle with a shocking conclusion as the world exacts revenge on pretty much everyone. One of the more underrated 70’s films.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) ****- Burt Lancaster and two other escaped convicts violently seize control of a missile silo and hold demands to the President (Charles Durning). Aldrich’s laser sharp direction and editing- including a highly inventive use of split screen- rally what could have been typical material to the point of exhaustion… in a good way. This is a nail biter of a movie, constantly shifting between the Army’s plan to break into the compound, the President’s debate with his cabinet at the White House, and the grainy black and white images of the security cameras while the convicts anxiously watch their surroundings. “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” deserves some type of mainstream release. It’s excellent, sweat-inducing 70’s cinema at its finest. Not available on DVD.

The Choirboys (1977) *- The novel it’s based on (by Joseph Wambaugh) essentially had its author disavow the film and one can easily see why. A group of L.A. policemen (including Charles Durning, Louis Gossett Jr, James Woods and Randy Quaid) blow off steam as they drink, cajole and fight with each other. It starts off promisingly well as a visual Jacques Tati like comedy- the police hit the street and cause a traffic jam before they even exit the police station parking lot. The titular “choir practice” is simply the cop’s word for their nightly excursions, which often ends in someone being tied to a tree or an all out brawl. The idea of stress manifesting itself in crude, unrelenting ways is an interesting idea, yet Aldrich’s version too often swerves into deplorable moments of unfunny castigation or racism/sexism. Struggling to find a tone, “The Choirboys” is a misguided effort of the highest degree. Not available on DVD.

The Frisco Kid (1979) **-- Occasionally funny western starring Gene Wilder (who usually raises the pedigree of ANY comedy) and Harrison Ford as an unlikely duo traveling from east to west, facing the dangers of the rugged western exterior and the bad guys that dwell in it. Wilder, playing the part of a Hassidic Jew, probably offends a lot of the archetype he portrays with his uneven accent and bumbling persona, while Ford fares only marginally better as the outlaw-turned-good-guy who helps the helpless Wilder. It’s interesting to see Aldrich’s failed attempts at humor with a few loose canon comedies, but “The Frisco Kid” and “The Choirboys” needed something more.

…All the Marbles (1981) ***- After years of choosing strong females to base his theater around, Aldrich closes with a boisterous, magnetic female duo. Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon are female tag team wrestlers managed by Peter Falk, knocking around cold Ohio and eventually earning their way to a major match in Nevada. The scruff-dog atmosphere, zero to hero narrative, and especially the presence of Burt Young, undoubtedly earn comparisons to “Rocky”, but “…All the Marbles” is something unique. There’s real heart and humor in Mel Frohman’s script and Peter Falk is just magnificent. And if all that doesn’t win one over, then the protracted, punishing final wrestling bout surely will.

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