BY DAVID THOMSON
GUNPLAY: Aldrich shows Ralph Meeker how to use his pistol in Kiss Me
Deadly. "If you doubt how dark, brilliant and tormented Aldrich was, take
another look at Kiss Me Deadly." (Credits: UA/Photofest; AMPAS)
It's easy to look back on the mid-1950s and take it for granted that America was gridlocked in the opposed, concrete attitudes of a foolish melodrama—Cold War anxiety and Dwight Eisenhower's power presidency—with the country's seemingly unstoppable drive for prosperity throbbing away beneath it all. Don't believe it. It was not a congested, arid time. It was the moment when Norman Mailer broke free from the model of a Hemingway-esque writer. It marked the arrival of Miles Davis as a moody solo voice. It was the era of Pollock, De Kooning and Rothko. And in the movies, in a few young directors, there was an anguished conflict between independence and playing it safe. You could agree not to be "un-American," or you could say that America deserved better. There was an article in the December 1955 issue of the French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma that picked out several of these rebels—Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Richard Brooks and Robert Aldrich.
Of course, in 1955, few English-speaking movie people read Cahiers du cinema or paid much attention to it. When Aldrich visited Europe and was interviewed by the Cahiers kids, he was candid enough to say, well, thank you very much, but I'm not sure I always understand what you're saying about me. It's an intriguing question: Does an artist need to understand or share the language his best critics use to praise him? In Cahiers, Jacques Rivette had said, "Robert Aldrich achieves harmony through a precise dissonance, the lucid and lyrical descrip-tion of a world in decay, aseptic, steely, closed in; the chronicle of the final convulsions of what remains human in man in the midst of a purely artificial universe from which nature…has been almost systematically eliminated."
Granted, that florid writing gives a better impression of the French romanticism about movies (Rivette and the other Cahiers writers—Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Rohmer—were all determined to be directors themselves) than of an Aldrich picture. But to show that they were not kidding, when the Cahiers writers voted on the best 15 films of 1955, Robert Aldrich placed three pictures (more than anyone else) in the group: The Big Knife, Kiss Me Deadly and Apache. Aldrich was still in his 30s, and he was liked and esteemed in Hollywood for his humor and professionalism (he was also inclined to the left), and for the violent, crazy way he had taken charge of his own life. Manny Farber was one of the few American critics who had felt the spasms of anger and contempt in Aldrich's work and knew that it was a force to compare with Pollock's action painting or the surging tenor voices of Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane. If you doubt how dark, brilliant and tormented Aldrich was, take another look at Kiss Me Deadly.
Yes, it's the adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel, and in 1955 to take Spillane seriously in America was sticking your neck out. But Aldrich believed that Spillane's thug hero, Mike Hammer, was a nearly fascist figure. So Aldrich played the book straight, encouraging the leering, loutish excesses in Ralph Meeker's Hammer, and let disgust mount as Hammer worked out a drug scam in Los Angeles which culminated in a local nuclear explosion fierce enough to make the sea boil in Santa Monica.
I'll come back to Kiss Me Deadly, because I think, in a way, it's greater than Aldrich ever intended it to be. In large part, that is because between the fornication and the fighting, there's no room for a tidy message. That's what one of Aldrich's friends said, and it speaks to the absolute lack of prim, didactic warning in the picture. You either get it, or you don't. But if you get it, you know you've seen the end of the world and a metaphor for uncaring violence that turns into a box housing the devil. That sort of observation could seem to put Aldrich in a league with Ingmar Bergman (both were born in 1918)—and that's going too far. But Bergman never made anything as insolent, lovely and bleak as Kiss Me Deadly.
So who was Aldrich—the overweight, bespectacled fellow, who usually had a grin on his face, and who loved every aspect of moviemaking, from being an assistant director to running his own studio. He was born in Cranston, Rhode Island. In America, the "Aldrich" name and that place ring bells. In fact, Robert was the grandson of Edward Burgess Aldrich, senator from Rhode Island. He was a cousin to Nelson Rockefeller and was within sight of an enormous amount of money, including the Chase Bank. No American film director was born as wealthy as Aldrich—and then so thoroughly cut off from family money. He formed his production company, The Associates and Aldrich, when he traded away the residuals from The Dirty Dozen for a studio property on Occidental Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. As such, Aldrich battled through thin and thick and then thin again, resisting the standard studio overhead and the larger practices of studio exploitation. He was not just a champion for other directors; having served as president of the Directors Guild from 1975-1979, he was a strict union man and an eloquent voice on how independent film-making might be made to survive. The DGA's award for meritorious service is named in his honor. So there is no more proper place for this essay of appreciation.
Aldrich attended the University of Virginia where he studied law and economics. Family connections offered a comfortable career in banking. But when he married Harriet Foster (also from a wealthy family), Aldrich decided to honeymoon in Los Angeles because, at college, he was booking bands for the school dances and had fallen in love with show business. So he dropped out of college and took a $50-a-week job as a clerk at RKO. In school, Aldrich had been an outstanding sportsman, but his knees had been shot playing football and his 4-F status kept him out of the military. He was happy, but word came back from Rhode Island that if he persisted with this nonsense he would be cut off from the family. He took the risk and set out on his own. And he was never forgiven.
On the set of Apache with Burt Lancaster. (Photo Credit: MGM)
Directing Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Aldrich and Lee Marvin on the set of The Dirty Dozen. (Photo: Everett Collection.)
Just like any poor kid seeking a way to the top in Hollywood, Aldrich reckoned that being an assistant director was the way to start a career. Historically, the role of assistant director has tended to be training for a kind of on-set management that directors treasure and preserve. So it's important to stress that Aldrich had a better record of AD credits than almost anyone in the industry. It includes The Southerner for Jean Renoir; Limelight for Charles Chaplin; Story of G.I. Joe for William Wellman; Body and Soul for Robert Rossen; Force of Evil for Abraham Polonsky; and M and The Prowler for Joseph Losey. Aldrich and Losey remained friends and Losey would say of him, "He had such immense energy and such good humor that everybody who worked with him adored him."
It's impossible to study that list of AD jobs without seeing the development of a radical spirit who was very interested in social criticism of postwar America. Body and Soul and Force of Evil were made by Enterprise Productions, a short-lived but welcome newcomer on the studio scene. Moreover, it has been suggested that once Polonsky was blacklisted (in the early '50s), he became a helpful script doctor for Aldrich as he began his own career.
After a brief foray into television in the early '50s (he directed three episodes of the series, The Doctor), Aldrich made two B pictures—Big Leaguer and World for Ransom—and then signed on to be a director for Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster's company. Their first project was Apache, based on the novel Bronco Apache. This had been a venture that Joseph Losey planned to direct, and as he too was blacklisted, Aldrich inherited the material and the chance to make one of the first pro-American Indian films to come out of Hollywood. For Lancaster, who starred in the film, it was a way of showing off his bronzed athleticism. But Aldrich's picture is a defiant celebration of a rogue warrior who refuses life on a reservation and goes into the wilderness with his wife. Still very powerful in many ways, the subject stayed with Aldrich—nearly 20 years later he would reaffirm his allegiance to the wild Apache with Ulzana's Raid.
The same year, he directed Lancaster and Gary Cooper together as competing cynics in the Western Vera Cruz. In turn, that was followed by Kiss Me Deadly; The Big Knife, an adaptation of Clifford Odets' scathing attack on corruption in Hollywood; Autumn Leaves, a melancholy romance, with Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson; and Attack! a war story in which one honest soldier (Jack Palance) is destroyed by the compromise and cowardice of superior officers (played by Eddie Albert and Lee Marvin).
Palance was Aldrich's house actor—he also played the shattered movie star in The Big Knife, and the two men would make one more film together, Ten Seconds to Hell. All the films of this era are fascinating, but in several cases there's an awkward struggle between melodrama and analysis, frenzy and a unique coldblooded point of view. All of this encourages the notion that Aldrich was being urged into political territory by the encouragement of men like Polonsky. That shouldn't take away from the courage of these films, but they also expose the miraculous calm of Kiss Me Deadly, which really is so much better than anything else Aldrich ever made that it leaves one wanting to know so much more about the production.
Kiss Me Deadly is credited to the writer A.I. Bezzerides, and it's shot by Ernest Laszlo, one of Aldrich's favorite cameramen. Meeker goes for broke at being unlikeable, and the film has a gallery of actresses—Marian Carr, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman and an outstanding Gaby Rodgers—who anticipate the 1970s in their unexplained mix of instinct and neurosis. Kiss me Deadly is also a rare, curdled view of Los Angeles and a thorough disavowal of that clichéd favorite character—the smug private eye. It hardly matters now if other hands helped the film—a masterpiece belongs to all of us. But at the same time it has to be admitted that, as his projects grew grander, something slipped away from Aldrich—a kind of contemptuous authority very rare in the insecure '50s.
Aldrich wanted to make films of his own choice—and why not? In the '60s, he was a director of importance as the studio system faded away. The Last Sunset (1961) was an overblown Western and Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) was the biblical epic he allowed himself to make because that genre was so in vogue.
It was then that he met the writer Lukas Heller and had the greatest commercial deal in his life: They would make a movie of Henry Farrell's novel, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? about two sisters driven mad by the film business. The coup was in casting Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and in letting lurid bad taste and a roasted rat have their heads. It was all typical of Aldrich's nerve: He bought the book rights himself and hired the actresses. Only then did he discover that most studios were afraid of the project. In the end, Elliott Hyman and Seven Arts Pictures put up the
money—close to $1 million. It was said the picture made a profit after two weeks, and it was a huge worldwide hit. Yet a lot of the money did the vanishing trick that can happen in Hollywood, and left Aldrich more intensely soured against the system.
But the success game must have been intoxicating, and in hindsight, one has to see him moving over to be a more commercial director. A few years later, he and Lukas Heller tried again—with The Dirty Dozen—and this time there was no doubt about the results. Aldrich would have been rich, but $1 million from Dirty Dozen paid for his studio. In the next few years, Aldrich's career rose and fell—Four for Texas, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (an attempt to repeat Baby Jane), The Flight of the Phoenix, The Killing of Sister George, The Legend of Lylah Clare, Too Late the Hero, The Grissom Gang, Emperor of the North Pole. In a business sense, he also made the mistake of refusing to lease his studio to other directors.
Bit by bit, the Aldrich reputation drained away. But this very unpredictable career rallied in 1972, with Burt Lancaster playing a veteran Indian scout in Ulzana's Raid. It was a metaphor for Vietnam, but also a riveting desert Western, done with madness and cruelty, and still full of respect for the Apache who will not yield. There was also Hustle—an unlikely pairing of Burt Reynolds as a cop and Catherine Deneuve as the hooker he loves. Amazingly downbeat, here was another poisoned love song to Los Angeles. And then came Twilight's Last Gleaming—torn apart by the studio—in which Burt Lancaster plays an officer ready to start a new world war.
So where is the summary? Well, if you like hits, Baby Jane and The Dirty Dozen are world famous. You know them already. The Longest Yard was another success (as well as a remake of The Dirty Dozen). Then there are Aldrich films that are not very good. But if you're ready to search, there are astonishing things—Hustle, Ulzana's Raid, Apache, The Big Knife, Attack! and Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich died in 1983, not too far from broke, having been forced to sell off his own studio. He never complained. No matter that he never got an Oscar nomination (he did get two DGA Award nominations, for The Dirty Dozen and Baby Jane). But Kiss Me Deadly didn't believe in Oscars, heroes, or a future. If only he'd made a picture about a reckless guy like himself, a man who gave up the world for a vision.