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A Guide to the Acerbic Works of Robert Aldrich

Photo: MGM/Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

There may be no great American director who gets written off more hastily than Robert Aldrich. Despite the fact that he made a seminal Western, a vital film noir and a handful of wildly diverse crowd-pleasers — including The Dirty Dozen, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Longest Yard — he’s often dismissed as at best a genre-film craftsman and at worst a pulp impresario who too often strayed toward camp. But any evaluation of Aldrich that overlooks his estimable technical abilities, his singularly acerbic vision, and the way he managed to imbue a remarkably varied body of work with an uncompromising outsider aesthetic ought to be deep-sixed from this day forward.

Born into great wealth in Rhode Island, Aldrich renounced that status (and was disinherited) by decamping to the déclassé world of Hollywood. After working as an assistant director for some of the most renowned figures in the industry — Jean Renoir, Joseph Losey, Charlie Chaplin — he directed his first feature film in 1953. In the following three decades, he made movies in a startling variety of genres that were relentlessly critical of the social structures of power. He was suspicious of all types of authority, but able to articulate the terrible seduction of the ability to exert force over another human being. He was also attracted to fractured characters, and running beneath the surface of nearly every one of his films are electrical currents of sexuality, madness, and violence. Like Alfred Hitchcock before him, and anticipating directors like David Lynch who would follow in his footsteps, Aldrich made movies that continually threaten to pull back the veneer of everyday life and show us that menacing thing lurking below, the thing we would prefer not to face yet cannot deny the existence of, precisely because it so often resides inside us.

On the 55th anniversary of the release of his best-known work, the surprisingly subversive dad-film classic The Dirty Dozen, Vulture presents a selection of the major milestones in his career, and a few deeper cuts for the true adventurer.

Vera Cruz (1954)

“There’s no such thing as an innocent man.”

A film with its fingerprints all over later masterpieces like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy, Vera Cruz was one of three Westerns Aldrich made with Burt Lancaster. In many ways, it established one of the main templates he would follow in years to come: It’s a full-fledged adventure picture, and at the same time shot through with cynicism and seething with carnality. Lancaster plays Joe Erin, the nominal villain in the film, and Gary Cooper plays Ben Trane, the nominal hero, but the two are not so much opposites as they are differing expressions of the same urges. Together, they journey into Mexico during the Franco-Mexican War in the 1860s and ally themselves with the repressive army of the pro-French Maximilian I against the forces of Mexican independence. Tasked with escorting a French noblewoman to the port city of Vera Cruz, the men see the journey as a chance to instead steal the shipment of gold she’s accompanying. As with Anthony Mann’s Westerns of the same period, Vera Cruz reveals that the roots of the anti-heroic “revisionist Western” cycle lie a full decade before that cycle is often presumed to begin.

Available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

“And while you sleep, your subconscious will provide the answer. And you will cry out what it is that you must remember.”

On the short list of most important films noir ever made, Kiss Me Deadly is the first movie Aldrich produced through his newly founded company, the Associates and Aldrich. It’s a fever dream of male anxiety and the horrors of the nuclear age. Ralph Meeker plays private eye Mike Hammer (the film is based on a Mickey Spillane novel of the same name) who finds himself caught up in a mystery involving a woman who escapes from a mental hospital with a terrible secret and is then tortured to death by an unseen villain. A dozen twists and turns later, Hammer discovers that what he’s actually involved with is a terrifying nuclear device created by the government. The film famously features a glowing MacGuffin in a box — a trope paid homage to by movies like Pulp Fiction and Repo Man — and ends with a foreshadowing of nuclear catastrophe, but its greatest impact comes from its pitch-black aura of repressed sexuality and moral corruption (in this telling, Hammer makes most of his money by blackmailing people who are having extramarital affairs). Photographed by Ernest Laszlo in an expressionist-influenced style that Aldrich would work with for much of his career, it’s a sumptuous feast of dyspepsia.

Available on DVD/Blu-ray

The Big Knife (1955)

“What’s happened to your mind, your spirit, your soul?”

It’s entirely typical of Aldrich’s approach to filmmaking that the second film he produced through his own company throws a pail of lye in the face of Hollywood and then kicks the body while it’s down. Based on a play by left-wing playwright Clifford Odets — Aldrich was a lifelong leftist and staunch supporter of blacklisted actors and directors — The Big Knife tells the story of a famous actor (Jack Palance) who kills a kid in a drunk-driving accident and then pays off his friend to take the fall for him. When the incident comes to light, destroying the last shreds of his marriage and providing the means by which a tyrannical studio boss can blackmail him into signing a contract, he ends up committing suicide. Working in his mode as an actor’s director, Aldrich gets a great performance out of Palance, but the real kudos here belong to Rod Steiger as the studio boss, who finds levels of malevolence and depravity that speak to the fury of actors at the abuses they are subjected to by executives in the business. The film won Aldrich the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, but reviewers were put off by its depiction of Tinseltown, as epitomized by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times sniffing about a “defeatist climax.”

Streaming on the Criterion Channel

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

“You weren’t ugly then. I made you that way.”

Unlike many directors of his era, Aldrich’s interest in the wellsprings of conflict and repression wasn’t limited to male characters. Perhaps his best of these examinations — it was nominated for five Academy Awards — came with the thriller/camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? On the surface, it’s the story of a pair of aging sisters, Jane and Blanche Hudson (Bette Davis and Joan Crawford) holed up together in a decaying Hollywood mansion and caught in a spiral of psychological warfare. Jane used to be “Baby Jane,” a famous child star on the vaudeville circuit, while Blanche was paralyzed from the waist down many years ago in an accident that was blamed on Jane. Beneath the melodramatic storyline, though, it’s a film about the torments the world heaps on women, the price that fame and glamor extracts from them, and the particular horrors of aging in a society that doesn’t accept it. As memorialized in the fabulous first season of Ryan Murphy’s miniseries Feud from 2017, the film also features volcanic performances from Davis and Crawford, who were bitter competitors in real life.

Streaming on HBO Max

The Flight of the Phoenix (1964)

“The little men with slide rules and computers are going to inherit the earth.”

An engaging survival yarn that doubles as an astute examination of the psychology of men under duress, The Flight of the Phoenix tells the story of the passengers on an oil company plane forced to make an emergency landing in the Sahara Desert. They’re a motley crew, headed up by pilot Frank Towns (Jimmy Stewart) and his alcoholic navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough). When it becomes apparent that they’ll never be rescued, one of the passengers, a monomaniacal German airplane engineer (Hardy Krüger), comes up with a plan: They’ll take apart their crashed plane and build a new one by strapping the wings and a makeshift fuselage onto the one working engine. Filled with same the kind of internally riven characters that populate Aldrich’s war films, it not only anticipates the disaster cycle that would characterize the following decade ( Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno), but demonstrates his ability to build a tension-filled story out of a small cast and a single location. Despite two Academy Award nominations — Ian Bannen for Supporting Actor and Michael Luciano for Film Editing — the film seems to have been too bleak for audiences, and failed to earn back its money.

Streaming on HBO Max

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

“You’ve seen a general inspecting troops before, haven’t you? Just walk slow, act dumb, and look stupid.”

The Dirty Dozen has been a standard of aging male movie fandom for so long that Nora Ephron was already riffing on it in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle. Since then, it has been anesthetized by endless weekend-afternoon screenings on cable TV to the point where it’s easy to forget how hard-edged a film it really is. Frequent Aldrich collaborator Lee Marvin stars as Major John Reisman, who is given a barbaric mission: Take a group of expendable thieves, murderers, and rapists who have been imprisoned by the Army and sneak behind enemy lines to assassinate high-ranking Nazi officers (and their female companions) by herding them into a basement, dousing them with gasoline, and incinerating them. Featuring numerous other stars — including Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland — it’s a slam-bang action flick. But it’s also filled to the brim with Aldrich’s fury at the amoral idiocies of war and his cynicism about the excuses made for violence, which was a particularly trenchant stance given the American activities in Vietnam at the time. John Wayne turned down the lead role out of disdain for the material (preferring to instead make The Green Berets in 1968, one of the most propagandistic pro-war films in Hollywood history) and our old friend Bosley Crowther at the New York Times moaned that the film was a “studied indulgence of sadism that is morbid and disgusting beyond words.”

Streaming on HBO Max

The Longest Yard (1974)

“All I’m saying is that you could have robbed banks, sold dope, or stole your grandmother’s pension checks, and none of us would have minded. But shaving points off of a football game, man, that’s un-American.”

One of the films that helped found the sports-comedy genre in the 1970s, The Longest Yard stars Burt Reynolds as Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a former star quarterback who gets sent to prison for beating up a couple of cops. There, under the dominion of an abusive warden (Eddie Albert), Crewe is forced to put together a team of convicts to play football against the brutal prison guards. Reynolds infuses the whole thing with his louche cheerfulness, but the real story is about the abuses of authority and the importance of fighting against it. Like other films from that time period in the same vein — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Scarecrow, Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker — it doesn’t see outcasts and the downtrodden as the problem in society so much as its victims. Given how perfectly it encapsulates so much of 1970s culture, it can be startling to remember that Aldrich was removed from the youth of that decade by at least two generations and got his start in the film industry in the 1940s, during a moment when attitudes toward authority and heroism in America were far different.

Streaming on Paramount+

Deep Cuts

Attack (1956): One of Aldrich’s most acidic anti-war films — the U.S. Army was incensed by the script and refused to participate in any way — tells the story of a cowardly infantry captain in WWII who ends up being shot by one of his own men. (Streaming on Tubi)

Autumn Leaves (1956): A fascinating women’s picture, featuring Joan Crawford as a 40-something spinster who begins an affair with a man half her age. (Available on DVD)

Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964): A film that reveals how closely related the American southern Gothic tale is to the Italian giallo murder-mystery genre, Sweet Charlotte features an aging southern belle (Bette Davis) being gaslighted by her relatives and the press decades after the brutal murder of her lover. (Available to rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video)

The Killing of Sister George (1968): Anointed with an X rating upon release because of its depiction of a lesbian relationship, Sister George revolves around an abusive relationship between a TV exec and a soap-opera star. (Available on DVD/Blu-ray)

Ulzana’s Raid (1972): A lamentably under-seen revisionist Western (and knife-edged critique of the Vietnam War) about a running battle between members of the Apache tribe and the U.S. Army in Arizona in the 1880s. (Available on Spectrum)

Emperor of the North (1973): Hearkening back to Aldrich’s Depression-era workers’ party roots, this film tells the story of the battle between a sadistic railroad guard (Ernest Borgnine) and the hobo (Lee Marvin) who defies him by sneaking aboard his train. (Available on DVD/Blu-ray)

A Guide to the Acerbic Works of Robert Aldrich