Robert Aldrich, alongside Samuel Fuller, personified the film director as two-fisted spinner of dark tales perched just this side of pitch-black misanthropy, a clear-eyed, yet just as often hysterical observer of violence who was often brilliant at the task of conjuring the virile, hostile charge of men in chaotic conflict, and later the various gradations of psychological tension in women, into a series of brutal, bilious and superb films noir, films which themselves sometimes crept into the arena of art.
After several years as a studio production clerk, script clerk and assistant to the likes of Edward Dmytyrk, William Wellman, Abraham Polonsky, Joseph Losey and Charles Chaplin, he made his inauspicious debut with The Big Leaguer in 1953, a mediocre drama starring Edward G. Robinson as a baseball manager shepherding would-be ballplayers through a baseball tryout camp. (The movie remains of interest today less to Aldrich admirers than to Dodger fans who are afforded rare glimpses of Brooklyn bums Carl Hubbell and Al Campanis in a setting other than mid-game on the baseball diamond.)
Then came the first string of movies that would later typify the words “A Robert Aldrich Film”—the westerns Apache (with Burt Lancaster) and Vera Cruz (Lancaster and Gary Cooper), both released in 1954; the film noir classics Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife, both from 1955; and the vividly realistic WWII actioner Attack!, from 1956, starring Jack Palance and Eddie Albert. (The atypical romance Autumn Leaves, with Vera Miles and Cliff Robertson, for which Aldrich won Best Director at the West Berlin Film Festival, was also released in 1956.)
Aldrich began the ‘60s helming the big budget Italian production of Sodom and Gomorrah (1961; codirected by Sergio Leone), my favorite entry in the biblical epic genre. But he cemented his commercial success with the gothic psychodrama of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which pitted Bette Davis in full-on hag mode as a demented former child star playing twisted cat-and-rat games with her sweet-tempered paraplegic sister, played against type by Joan Crawford. (Aldrich would revisit the ghastly template of Baby Jane in 1965 with Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, this time pitting Davis against a deceptively sinister Olivia De Havilland.) James Stewart and The Flight of the Phoenix would follow in 1966, paving the way, both in box-office receipts and directorial sensibility, for Aldrich’s biggest hit, the WWII action classic The Dirty Dozen in 1967. The director closed out the decade with two insider looks at the Hollywood machine-- The Legend of Lylah Clare and The Killing of Sister George (1968). Both were hit-and-miss in terms of quality, and neither managed to come close to the phenomenal success of The Dirty Dozen.
The first half of the ‘70s proved to be a fertile period for Aldrich as well. He turned out another WWII thriller with an all-star cast, Too Late the Hero starring Michael Caine, Cliff Robertson, Henry Fonda, Ian Bannen and Denholm Elliot, and the crude, wacky and nihilistic gangster epic The Grissom Gang, with Kim Darby, Scott Wilson, Tony Musante and Connie Stevens, in 1970 and 1971, respectively. Then it was time for Aldrich to revisit two of the tough action icons with whom he had had previous successes. Burt Lancaster reteamed with the director for the brutal, thrilling western Ulzana’s Raid (1972), and the following year Aldrich reunited with Dirty Dozen squad leader Lee Marvin, joined also by Ernest Borgnine and Keith Carradine, for what may be Aldrich’s masterpiece, Emperor of the North Pole (1973). Two outings with Burt Reynolds would follow—the popular hit The Longest Yard (1974) and the cult drama Hustle (1975), which saw Reynolds costar with upscale beauty Catherine Deneuve in what might be, along with Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich’s bleakest noir. In 1977 the director helmed his last critical hit, the electrifying adaptation of Walter Wager’s novel Viper Three, retitled Twilight Last Gleaming. Lancaster returns again, heading another typical Aldrich all-star cast which included Melvyn Douglas, Paul Winfield, Richard Widmark, Joseph Cotton and Charles Durning. That same year he had a hit with his critically reviled adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys, though his final two films-- The Frisco Kid starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford in a misguided comedy-western, and …All the Marbles featuring Peter Falk navigating the world of female wrestling-- have to be considered disappointments when placed up against the vitality of what might be thought of as a representative Robert Aldrich film.
But why the attention paid to Robert Aldrich? There is no centennial birthday to be celebrated in 2006—the director, who died in 1983, would have been 88 this year—and there is no corresponding retrospective of his work underway in any major city that I know of. Most of his films are now available on DVD, however, and that’s reason enough for me to announce this first official call for a Robert Aldrich Blog-a-Thon to convene just over a month from now, on Monday, October 16.
I invite you to post pieces on any Aldrich-related subject you so choose, be it a single film, a series of films, a performance, thoughts on the director’s styles, anything at all. If you can let me know as far ahead of time as possible that you will be posting an Aldrich-themed article for the Blog-a-Thon on that day, it would be extremely helpful to me in gathering all the appropriate links and turning SLIFR into an blog-a-thon hub for the day, Aldrich Central Station for the dissemination and sharing of all the great pieces that will undoubtedly become available on October 16. And if you’re a reader without a blog to call your own and would like to contribute a piece anyway, please feel free to contact me and I will post your work on Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.
I look forward to hearing from all the potential contributors, but most of all I look forward to reading what you have to say about this punchy, antiestablishment director and his ragged, pulsating films.