Robert Aldrich: Soldiers, Suckers and Psycho-Biddies

Robert Aldrich (1918-1983) might seem an odd director for the creator of this blog to have a close affinity with. After all, comedy and vaudeville are our abiding obsessions; whereas Aldrich is best known for the 1967 action film The Dirty Dozen. Not only is “action” my least favorite genre per se, but it’s almost impossible to tell when Aldrich is trying to be funny or not. Yet even The Dirty Dozen has much to attract me. I DO happen to like World War Two movies. And in this film, as in most of his movies, Aldrich indulges his love for grotesques, misfits, and underdogs. In fact, my first Aldrich film, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), which I watched on TV at quite a young age, is sort of a dry run for it in some ways. A motley and diverse cast of fallible men must collaborate or die (The guys in The Dirty Dozen die anyway!). Aldrich is very strong on character — so many directors are not. He is clearly an enormous influence on Quentin Tarantino, not just in Inglorious Basterds, but in the quoted faux films in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and in the title of The Hateful Eight (which resembles The Dirty Dozen in spirit much more than The Magnificent Seven). The French New Wave critic-directors loved him. I see a lot of John Ford influence in his work (enlisted men over officers; sympathy for Native Americans) and Hitchcock as well, especially in his work in the so-called “Psycho-biddy” genre, which Aldrich essentially invented. Aldrich made a huge impact across multiple genres: westerns, noir, melodrama, etc. He ought to be acknowledged as one of the masters.

One reason I am intrigued by him is that he is a distant relation; we are both descended from Colonial founders of Rhode Island, and share some mutual ancestors. From the post-Civil War period through the mid 20th century, the Aldriches were one of the first families of Rhode Island. His aunt was Abby Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr, hence he was first cousins of those five remarkable brothers: Nelson, Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States; John III, one of the founders of Lincoln Center; David, Chairman & CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank (whom I actually met once); Winthrop, Governor of Arkansas; and Laurence, pioneering venture capitalist and philanthropist through the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Nelson was named after Robert’s grandfather, Nelson Aldrich, a U.S. Senator for 30 years and one of the prime architects of the Federal Reserve System. In addition to the aforementioned daughter Abby, Nelson Aldrich’s children included U.S. Congressman Richard Aldrich; Edward Aldrich, publisher of the Pawtucket Times and Robert’s father; and Winthrop Aldrich, American Ambassador to the U.K. and Chairman of Chase National Bank (named, like Winthrop Rockefeller, after their Puritan ancestor John Winthrop).

It was uncle Winthrop Aldrich who helped secure 23 year old Robert his entry level job as a production clerk at R.K.O. in 1941. Pure speculation: I would guess that the connection was Joe Kennedy, who’d also been Ambassador the the U.K., and was one of the founders of R.K.O. Any way you slice it, it was a big leap for Robert Aldrich, one that got him disinherited and thrown out of the family. There was more to it than that. The Aldriches were a major Republican family at the national level. Robert, who grew up during the Depression during a time of great change, and who majored in economics in college, tacked WAY to the left. Sympathy for those at the bottom was always at the core of his films. Behind the cameras, he showed support for the blacklisted leftists in his industry, including outright communists. During the ’70s he served as President of the Director’s Guild. When R.K.O. hired him, he had the option of starting out as an associate producer, which was pretty common for well connected newbies, but he opted instead to start all the way at the bottom and work his way up.

On Robert Stevenson’s Joan of Paris (1942), Aldrich was elevated to assistant director, a position he held for a decade before moving up to director. He has roughly as many credits as an A.D. and other minor crew positions as he does as director (about 3 dozen in each case). Movies he assisted on included The Southerner (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), The Red Pony (1949), Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952), and most notably Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). Along the way, he learned from such directors as Chaplin, William Wellman, Jean Renoir, Joseph Losey, and perhaps most significantly, the leftist Abraham Polonsky.

In 1952, Aldrich began directing for television and that too would inform his cinematic voice. Many of his films actually look like they were shot for television. One of his earliest, World for Ransom (1953), actually uses the star (Dan Duryea) and many of the sets from the TV show, China Smith, which Aldrich also directed for.

It is amazing to me how quickly established himself as one of Hollywood’s most gifted directors. IMMEDIATELY. He must have been sitting on great ideas for years. There were two critically acclaimed westerns with Burt Lancaster, Apache and Vera Cruz, both 1954, followed by Ulzana’s Raid with Lancaster in 1972. His other notable westerns were The Angry Hills (1959), The Last Sunset (1961) with Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas, and 4 for Texas (1963) with the Rat Pack.

In 1955 Aldrich made the incredible Mike Hammer mystery Kiss Me Deadly, a hard boiled Mickey Spillane detective yarn, with an overlay of noir, starring Ralph Meeker (whom Aldrich would later cast in The Dirty Dozen). I first saw this stunning movie at the Virginia Film Festival, at the University of Virginia (Aldrich’s alma mater, which may have been one of the reasons they showed it). It addition to a darkness that is downright apocalyptic, in this movie Aldrich begins to exhibit his attraction for freaks and grotesques, populating his ensemble with characters like Jack Elam, Percy Helton, and Strother Martin.

That propensity would especially inform his melodramas, starting with his very next film, an adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Hollywood take-down The Big Knife (1955) which features Jack Palance (who always looks like a Dick Tracy villain), Rod Steiger in a bleach blond wig, pock-marked Wendell Corey, bug-eyed Everett Sloan, and Strother Martin again. “Over the top” became a key element of Aldrich’s signature style. His very next film, Autumn Leaves (1956), which depicts a romance between an unhinged young man (Cliff Robertson) and his much older lover (Joan Crawford). This unwholesome tale points the way toward an entire subgenre that largely owes its existence to Aldrich, “Psycho-biddy” horror, starting with the notorious Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). These intimate, sick little stories owe something to William Castle, I believe, as well as to Hitchcock films like Psycho, and the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Largely psychological, somewhat claustrophobic, with big stars giving BIG performances. Aldrich followed Baby Jane with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), The Killing of Sister George (1968), and Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), the latter of which Aldrich only produced.

I find the critically reviled Lylah Clare particularly interesting. Penned by Robert Thom (Wild in the Streets, etc), it invokes Hitchcock films like Vertigo (right down to starring Kim Novak), as well as Marnie and Rebecca, mixes in freaky sex, the supernatural, and cheesy Hollywood soap opera a la Valley of the Dolls, The Oscar, Inside Daisey Clover etc. It’s so over the top it even has WEEPING CIRCUS CLOWNS I first saw it yesterday and it’s already one of my favorite films. It seems oddly autobiographical. The self-recrimination of a movie director, played by Peter Finch, seems to be an indictment of his own cruelty, or of the sort that Hitchcock was guilty of when he tortured Tippi Hedren on The Birds. This isn’t his first autobiographical stand-in, I feel. The overweight, bushy-browed Victor Buono, who’s in Baby Jane, 4 for Texas, and Sweet Charlotte, physically resembles the director — I think Aldrich may have put him in things as a kind of comical alter ego. At any rate, this entire portion of his work is endlessly intriguing to me, given his more dominant obsession with macho subject matter. Melodramas are traditionally thought of as “women’s pictures”. Yet Aldrich’s are out control, carnivalesque, nightmarish. What does it say? More on many of these films here.

War pictures are probably Aldrich’s next most significant category of film. After The Dirty Dozen, his most notable one is probably Too Late the Hero (1970), where Cliff Robertson is a WWII naval officer who becomes trapped on an island surrounded by the Japanese, and is confronted by the choice of just laying low, or by commiting an almost certainly fatal act of heroism that will save others.

The prison/football dramedy The Longest Yard (1974) might be the best known of Aldrich’s remaining films, and would be even if it hadn’t been remade a few decades later. The original version is vastly superior to the shallow remake, by the way, and fully scans with Aldrich’s usual theme of men at the bottom doing the noble thing, even if it is downright Quixotic. Aldrich, btw was captain of his high school football team, as well as his high school track team and continued to play sports in college. The male camaraderie (and conflict) that forms the texture of most of his films surely owes more than a little to that experience.

Another interesting movie from this time is his ’30s crime drama The Grissom Gang (1971) with Kim Darby of True Grit, Scott Wilson of In Cold Blood, Tony Musante, Connie Stevens, et al. It has a lot in common with AIP’s Bloody Mama, penned by Lylah Clare’s Robert Thom and released the year before, as well as Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, et al., constituting a minor sub-genre

Aldrich’s career was a roller coaster of highs and lows, massive hits punctuating periods of disappointment. Sadly he died during one of the troughs. His last three films were varying species of turkey. The Choirboys (1977) was a cop story that was disavowed by Joseph Wambaugh, author of the book it was based on. Next came the weak comedy western The Frisco Kid (1970) with Harrison Ford and Gene Wilder, lame both as a comedy and as a western, which I wrote about here. His last was …All the Marbles (1981), a comedy about women’s wrestling, that paves the way in some respects for G.L.O.W. (and I can’t imagine that Marc Maron would mind being compared to Peter Falk!)

Alfred Molina played Aldrich in the terrific series Feud: Bette and Joan, although most who knew anything about Aldrich decried the portrait of him in the script. To be fair to Ryan Murphy and company, they do what they do. I’m sure they threw the reality out the window and drew a mostly fictional portrait in the name of serving a racy, over the top story. Since it’s the kind of story of which Aldrich himself would probably have approved, no harm, no foul, in my view. It’s in a noble tradition of ignobility.