Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Scholar and Cinephile John Conomos writes on the cinema of American auteur Robert Aldrich (originally posted on Facebook)

Editor's Note: Scholar, Cinephile, Critic and Film-maker John Conomos wrote this lengthy study of Robert Aldrich some twenty years ago. It was never published. Recently John posted the text on his Facebook page. With John's permission I've reformatted it for the Film Alert 101 blog and added some pictures. It is a remarkable piece and one worthy of much wider circulation.

Robert Aldrich
“If you’re going to spend 25 years as a filmmaker, as I have, you have to make films to please yourself. Whatever I’ve thought of them later, and whatever the critics and the public thought of them, the way I’ve made my movies has seemed right......... If you blow one, that can’t be the end; you pick up the pieces and go on. If you’re a filmmaker you cant disappear into a bottle of whiskey or anywhere else.
"But you’ve given a year or two of your life to a film. And if it fails, you have no idea how emotionally painful it can be. Still, win or lose, you put yourself back together and move on, because that’s all you want to do.” Robert Aldrich

“His films resembled him : lean, extrovert, punchy, framed in concrete and edited with
a trowel. Enough to wake up any sleeping buff
.” Claude Chabrol
“The last drainings of the underground film show a tendency toward moving from the plain guttural approach of Steel Helmet to a Germanically splashed type of film. Of these newcomers, Robert Aldrich is certainly the most exciting - a lurid, psychiatric stormer who
gets an overflow of vitality and sheer love for movie-making into the film. This enthusiasm is the rarest item in a dried, decayed-lemon type of movie period. Aldrich makes viciously anti- something movies...... .” 
Manny Farber

Introduction: Inside and Outside of Hollywood Mainstream Cinema
Add caption
Robert Aldrich is one of the enigmas of post-war American narrative cinema. He had two passions in his complex, generous and turbulent life: making films and film politics. Both were inextricably intertwined throughout his career inside and outside of Hollywood. No-one of his generation conveyed so enthusiastically as Aldrich did the sheer existential joy of shooting a film. Witness the numerous photographs of Aldrich discussing a shot with one of his actors. Aldrich’s explosive body is always being transported by the physicality of filmmaking: for example, Aldrich demonstrating to Lee Marvin how to kick John Cassavetes in The Dirty Dozen (1967) (left). In another telling photograph, Aldrich explains with the aid of one of his raised legs what he wants for a particular scene from Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) (below).
Aldrich’s uncompromising apocalyptic cinema of misfits, survival and violence suggests a filmmaker whose fierce anarchic spirit ironised the illusions and rituals of American life, and which markedly oscillated between art and commerce. Aldrich’s distrust of authority and his staunch anti- Republican sentiments meant that throughout his short but rich career as one of the distinctive genre stylists of his era (along with Nicholas Ray, Donald Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann and Joseph Losey) he endeavoured to chart the aesthetic, cultural and moral complexities of occupying “a border-line” inside/outside position as a filmmaker apropos of Hollywood’s mainstream culture.(1) 
Aldrich’s privileged Rhode Island background (Governor Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was his cousin) meant that he could have made it far more easy on himself than he did when he sought employment in Hollywood. Aldrich used his class and wealth connections only to seek a low paid job as a production clerk at RKO in the early forties. (In the generic parlance of Aldrich movies [viz. The Dirty Dozen and Hustle (1975), amongst others] he only used enough “juice” to get his foot inside the door of the Dream factory. The rest was up to Aldrich: his unbridled instincts for survival, an unshakeable integrity for the art and craft of narrative cinema and a social conscience that graphically coloured his cinema and politics. 
This signified throughout Aldrich’s elaborate conflicting career - from his beginnings as an assistant director to established filmmakers and president (twice) of the Director’s Guild of America - a sustained trajectory to create a personal “cinema of the auteurs” throughout the last stages of the breakup of the Hollywood studio system. His acerbic absurdist vision of class, power and decadence was immutably predicated on an existential view of human conduct and scorching satirical irony. 
Aldrich’s cinema and life is riddled with the tensions, ambivalences and complexities of Hollywood narrative cinema at a moment when it was being reconfigured by television, international art cinema and the emergence of new visual technologies of modernity. Furthermore, Aldrich’s overall “trickster” role as a survivor in Hollywood - from the forties to the early eighties - meant the pliable cunning ability of “staying at the table”, having the mercurial capacity to occupy different and conflicting roles: filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, studio owner, and union leader. Like many of his social outcast protagonists, Aldrich’s ethical refusal not to conform had a unique resonance throughout his unjustly overlooked oeuvre and life. Aldrich, who was an outsider, a Melvillian truth-seeker loose in the mirror-hall of illusions, remained also an insider seeking an uncompromised perspective of art and life. The televised images of Huston’s Moby Dick in Hustle has a specific moral weight here in this context. 
Thus, Aldrich’s insider/outsider role pointed to the filmmaker’s unswerving objective to find a space - an Archimedean vantage point - in Hollywood’s convulsing cultural landscape as an independent filmmaker to produce his bleak expressionist and energetic films of disorder and instability. As to whether Aldrich succeeded in locating a sustainable space (and long enough) in Hollywood to articulate his extraordinary demystifying films - not ignoring (where applicable) their dramaturgical unevenness, structural flaws and lapsing production values - will be one of the main critical aims of my exploratory overview of Aldrich’s post-60s cinema as an expression of his life-long maverick pursuit of artistic and commercial freedom. 
Robert Aldrich's debut feature The Big Leaguer (Edward G Robinson, left)
Contrary to Andrew Sarris’s pessimistic thesis that Aldrich’s cinema precipitously declined after the early sixties, a commonplace view today that demands critical scrutiny, I will argue that Aldrich’s cinema still remains unexamined in any substantial form and our hermeneutic task is not to ( as Richard Combs has wisely cautioned us) rescue Aldrich as a grand 50s Hollywood auteur, that is a hopelessly untimely and simplistic romantic pursuit, but rather to investigate ( in a speculative - empirical fashion) his films in their dynamic contexts of production, exhibition and critical reception. (2) In short, to define an archaeology of Aldrich’s work in terms of the filmmaker’s singularity as a genre moralist working in Hollywood and outside of it as a distinctive transitional figure (as described by Peter Bogdanovich) between the “A” and “B” studio director and the battling independent which has become the norm today. This entails a discursive look at Aldrich’s cinema of the 60s and 70s as an expression of the filmmaker’s unyielding maverick status as an insider/outsider in Hollywood and Europe. Relatedly, we need to explore new post-humanist ways of analysing Aldrich’s oeuvre - from The Big Leaguer (1953), the watershed noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the various “Industry” exposes like The Big Knife (1955) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) , the Second World War films Attack! ( 1956) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), the revisionist westerns Apache (1954) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972) to the social protest dramas like The Longest Yard (1974) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) - and, most significantly, underling its notable generic breadth and the films’ propulsive expressionist mise-en-scèneconfigurations and their tough-minded lyrical dramatic, thematic and overall formal preoccupations. 
The Big Knife (Jack Palance, Ida Lupino)
I will examine two films from Aldrich’s oeuvre in the 60s and 70s - The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and Hustle - in the context of my main argument that Aldrich’s cinema is unique not only for its baroque existential, thematic and visual elaborations centering around his characteristic eruptive compositions of apocalyptic mood and social anger, but also in terms of the filmmaker’s inexorable drive to obtain independent stability which always seemed to elude him. Aldrich as an independent director-producer since the 50s was like the breathless club tout protagonist Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) in that he was always working on the run trying to make new deals in order to survive. This view of Aldrich, as recently expressed by Peter Bogdanovich, and supported by Alain Silver and James Ursini in their substantial treatment of Aldrich’s complex dealings as a failed film studio owner in the late 60s, suggests that he was one of the first independent American filmmakers in the Korean War era to survive the end of the studio system and ended up in the late 70s as a hired hand himself. (3) Hustling became Aldrich’s burning modus operandi as an independent filmmaker. To the end, Aldrich’s unflinching regard for the film artist as maverick in Hollywood’s topsy-turvy bottom-line commercial world coloured his Weltanschauung.
Aldrich, for my own 60s generation of auteurist-inflected cinephilic peers, as represented by his noirish geometrically patterned universe of unstable off- beat camera angles, harsh transitions, fragmentary framing devices and stimmung shadows was a unremitting subversive cynic whose own dynamic compact physiology corresponded to his combustible signature visual style of delirium and moral outrage. (On the latter point, Chabrol’s prefatory quote accurately captures this particular aspect of Aldrich’s artistry and personality.) But it should also be noted, that Aldrich’s cynicism had an absurdist quality to it: again and again, his lucid films and their rigorous morality demand a multi-faceted existential view of society as a ritualised theatre of bad faith, cruelty, engagement and survival. Our definition of ourselves is articulated through our dynamic antagonistic interface with the environment, the world and society. This dialectic on survival stamps the highly mobile conceptual and formal architecture of Aldrich’s cinema. This is a dialectic that demands the assertion of one’s own existential fulfillment as an individual in the flux of everyday life. It’s a dialectic that, as certain commentators since the fifties have claimed, readily merits a Sartrean existentialist interpretation. (We shall return to this later when we discuss The Flight of the Phoenix.) At this juncture, it is critical to note, that even with the several existing detailed book evaluations of Aldrich’s career, there remains an urgent demand to dig deep into the filmmaker’s oeuvre - beyond the usual standard example of Kiss Me Deadly - and probe his vastly unjustly overlooked films. 
The Grissom Gang, Scott Wilson
Irrespective of our different theoretical orientations - in the past and now - auteurist, formalist, feminist, Marxist, and (post)structuralist : Aldrich’s oeuvre still remains greatly unknown. Who amongst us nowadays watches Aldrich’s little appreciated gangster film The Grissom Gang (1971) or the memorable western Ulzana’s Raid? And this is not to forget other equally noteworthy genre films like Attack! (1957) or the nostalgic neo-noir Hustle? All examples are archetypally as Aldrichian in their respective ways as Kiss Me Deadly and deserving of our attention. In short, we are obliged to familiarise ourselves with Aldrich’s entire corpus of works including especially his last twelve films, which Chabrol once wittily termed “his [Aldrich’s] dirty dozen,” films made after the commercial success of The Dirty Dozen which permitted him to acquire a small production facility, East Hollywood’s Sutherland Stage, which became part of the basis for the Aldrich Studios which were formally opened in 1968. (4)
Aldrich’s films were initially recognised for their vivid , kinetic visual immediacy, raw emotional energy and social consciousness. Their critical and formal complexities as genre films vis- a-vis the dominant mise-en-scene and narratological tropes of Hollywood narrative cinema suggest a cinema that operates on complex levels of representation focussing , as Alain Silver and James Ursini point out, on a central dramatic conflict beeen myth and anti-myth, between hero and anti-hero., and idealism and pragmatism. (5) The filmmaker’s recognisable cinematic vocabulary of jagged editing patterns, zoom and overhead long shots, extreme low angles, depth-in-focus staging, clutter in the foreground and strong side lighting crystallised from the start of his career , and finding apotheosis in Kiss Me Deadly, in conjunction with his outlook of ironic social anger, made him attractive to the Europeans ( witness the various film festival awards that greeted his films, The Big Knife [ Venice Silver Award], Attack! [ the Italian Critic’s Prize] and Autumn Leaves [the Berlin Film Festival Award ] ). Aldrich’s recurring character actors ( Eddie Albert, Maxine Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, Wesley Addy, Dave Willock, etc ) markedly give his films a distinctive personal signature to them. Moreover, Aldrich’s protagonists (in keeping with their imperative to survive at all costs ) are quintessentially more vicious, cynical and selfish than the usual villains in his films.
Autumn Leaves, Joan Crawford
This overriding moral pragmatism of staying alive in a hostile world coupled with intense physical brutality and violence made his iconoclastic and daring films moral parables about the necessity to find one’s own code of living in a harsh competitive world. Consequently, Aldrich’s cinema with its many moral complexities often produced conflicting critical audience responses : Aldrich was seen as an apologist for war as in The Dirty Dozen, when it is may be read as a trenchant anti-war tract, and in other contexts, as in Kiss Me Deadly, a leftist or a staunch Democrat who satirised Mike Hammer’s cynical and fascistic persona . (Spillane , contrary to Aldrich’s liberal critique of his private- eye hero, regarded Aldrich’s adaptation of his book as the best of the existing several screen versions.)
In the Shadow of French Auteurism
Kiss Me Deadly
Aldrich, like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Wellman, to name a few, was a filmmaker who did not really care for critics and their critical adulation that greeted his films since the fifties: especially Cahiers’ and Positif’s acclamation for Kiss Me Deadly as one of the definitive noir films of the fifties. Although he did appreciate the enthusiasm in which critics like Truffaut, Chabrol, Borde, Bitsch and others, showed for Aldrich’s anti-McCarthy film he believed its success rested elsewhere due to its anchorage in a specific cultural ethos. (6 ) Aldrich, whose career pivoted on a perennial conflict between art and commerce, trusted his own artistic and economic instincts as a director-producer-studio owner. 
Despite the changing fortunes of his career - whether it was his personal films or commercial assignments - Aldrich believed that whatever hand you played in Hollywood it was a “no-win” situation. You make the films that interest you, to the best of your ability, and “if the critics like it, great. If they don’t, forget them.” (7) Small wonder then, when Aldrich first appeared in the fifties with his first five films, particularly with Kiss Me Deadly, he represented ( along with Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann and Richard Brooks ) to Rivette and his Paris Cinémathèque peers, a “gust of fresh air” from America ushering in a new highly personal auteurist cinema noted for its intelligence, subtlety and lyricism. (8) In Aldrich’s case,  Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife, for Rivette, symbolised an absurd world of suffocating decay and the negation of morality. Aldrich’s professional life started on such a high unsustainable critical note in the mid-50s that, as Silver and Ursini correctly suggest, with the shifting critical and career interests for the Cahier critics-turned filmmakers like Truffaut, Marcel Ophuls, Rivette, and Chabrol ( and including the important non-Cahiers cineaste Bertrand Tavernier) during influential formative decade of the French New Wave auteurism, Aldrich was critically abandoned so to speak. (9)
And in the wake of Sarris’s “Far Side of Paradise” categorisation of Aldrich’s cinema in the early 60s, placing him with Losey, Fuller, and Ray, as “one of the most striking personal directors of the last two decades” the subsequent critical neglect of Aldrich’s works has a regrettable sad edge to it. (10) So, in a critical sense, Aldrich was snookeredby Sarris’s early critical praise : where else could Aldrich’s critical reputation go except downwards or into some kind of stasis. This is particularly darkly ironic considering Aldrich’s compelling need to seek commercial self-determination in a town where what counted, so Aldrich argued, was the box-office success of one’s last movie and the telling fact that he, born into a family of banking and publishing fortunes, struggled in an industry where art and capital were so intricately and uncomfortably intertwined with each other. In the early 60s Aldrich lamentably realised that despite his background in the classic Hollywood studio system (including his invaluable time during the 40s at RKO and Enterprise Studios) and his intense workaholic drive to create, Hollywood was no longer in “the movie business, they’re in the money business.” (11)
All the Marbles, Peter Falk (l)
So by the time of Aldrich’s final film, an interesting although marred wrestling film aptly titled All the Marbles was released in 1981, Sarris conceded that despite Aldrich’s initial pronounced underrated “va-va-voom” dramatic and visual gifts as a genre director, by the end of his 28 year career his movies appeared , in a mindless era of emerging “dumbing-down” mainstream film culture, by default to be “ intelligently forceful.” (12) (It is interesting to observe, that All the Marbles [according to Aldrich] was a loose reworking with The Longest Yard, another one of his sporting films, of Abraham Polansky’s Body and Soul script. [13]) In the wake of the French critics of the 50s, and of Sarris and Movie in the 60s, a new wave of French critics emerged supporting Aldrich’s cinema. Unfortunately, Aldrich’s critical fortunes in English were not so supportive: with the exception of two director book-length studies (as cited earlier on) appearing after his death in 1983, little of substance has been published directly on the filmmaker’s career. Aldrich’s films and the economic and political forces shaping them deserve a much fuller informed appraisal than that which has been the case so far. Even those films deemed as unsuccessful are far more engaging to watch then a lot of other filmmakers’ works: this, for me, is one of the appealing facets of Aldrich’s cubist cinema of self-destructive ambition, gothic humour and paranoia.
It should be remembered, that the new violence that characterises post-war American B movies as eulogised by Manny Farber in his important essay “Underground Film”, with their sharp, punchy and laconic visual style and resistance to the star system, flashy production values of a big screen, colour and box-office success has a noteworthy significance for Aldrich’s cinema in terms of its rich melodramatic aesthetic of cruelty and pessimism and moral thematic complexities. (14) Like Budd Boetticher, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Nicholas Ray, Aldrich transformed the overall conventions of action movies by treating violence with more intensity and naturalism thereby (in Lawrence Alloway’s words) exposing “ audiences to the spectacle of violence and death in a context of psychic depth, institutional doubt and existential solitude.” (15 ) 
On the latter issue of film noir’s vernacular existentialism (hard- boiled crime/tough guy fiction and Camus’s and Sartre’s existentialism) in conjunction with its diffused combination of scepticism and popular Freudian psychoanalysis (as correctly emphasised by Alloway ) we should point out that it gave that trans-generic category or “genre of genres’( John Orr) of American cinema (including Aldrich’s cinema ) its characteristic pessimistic violence , driven heroes and extreme situations.(16) Further, it is also useful to observe that the original French auteurist embrace of Aldrich’s films ( particularly the independently produced Kiss Me Deadly) as represented by a critic like Raymond Borde took place in Sartre’s Marxist-Existentialist journal The Modern Times and, in conjunction with his co- author Etienne Chaumeton in their influential “Panorama du film noir americain” (1955), a book in which Aldrich is photographed with on the set of Attack! in 1956, (17) a book whose cover, ironically, features Richard Widmark’s harassed face.
What attracted Borde and Chaumeton, amongst other French auterists critics like Jacques Doniol-Valcroze , Louis Chauvet and Charles Bitsch, to Kiss Me Deadly was its frenzied lyrical surrealism and its disorienting baroque Wellesian visual style . Aldrich’s tour de force work, one of the American films of the 50s, along with Joseph Lewis’s equally landmark B movie poem of l’ amour fou in Gun Crazy (1950), was a savage indictment of official American life and its pervasive stress on individual success. Both films, but on a more deliriously oeneric surreal level, epitomise Robert Warshow’s classical multifaceted insights about the gangster film and the American Dream. (18 ) Kiss Me Deadly’s pervasive atmospheric cubist mise-en-scèneof destruction, hysteria and disequilibrium signified for the 50s French critics a film whose dark eroticised violence and speed suggested that it may have been made in an atomic accelerator. For Bitsch, not excluding the film’s spectacular “the great whatsit” atomic-explosion ending, Aldrich was “ the first filmmaker of the atomic age”. (19) A key reference cited by the Cuban author G. Cabrera Infante in his 1955 playfully pun-encrusted review of Kiss Me Deadly.
Apache, Burt Lancaster
On the other hand Aldrich, happy discovery of the Hecht-Lancaster company, director of grade B movies, creator of the audacious Apache and of the verist Vera Cruz, and the latest big talent in Hollywood, has disintegrated the script by A I Bezzerides and integrated it again. Using the camera as an aesthetic cyclotron, he has bombarded the absurd truculences of Spillane with inner action protons, megatons of baroque photography and electrons of movement and mobile actors; he has achieved - as the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema so well said - the first film of the Age of Atom. (20)
Thus, Kiss Me Deadly represented for these critics not just an extraordinary re-invention of the Chanderlesque/noir thriller , but of cinema itself - Chabrol’s fitting words in this context merit citing , “ the thriller of tomorrow” notable for its blinding dense richly evocative “enigmatic arabesques.” (21)
Of crucial importance to Aldrich’s cinema - its themes, style, icons, narratives and performances - was his experiences as a first assistant director in the 40s and early 50s to diverse filmmakers of such creative stature as Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Joseph Losey, Abraham Polonsky, and Lewis Milestone, amongst others. For the filmmaker, several directors stood out from his point- of- view: Losey, for the sympathetic way he interacted with his actors, Renoir, for his attention to detail and authenticity, Wellman, for his pace on the movie set, and finally and most importantly, Milestone, for his capacity to know how to deal with studios. Relatedly, Aldrich’s time spent in television in the 50s with NBC’s 
The Doctor half-hour series, and in particular, the espionage series China Smith whose star Dan Duryea was cast as the protagonist for Aldrich’s second feature World for Ransom (1954), several Four Star Playhouse episodes, and later, Adventures in Paradise, considerably expanded his mise- en-sc
ène palette of noir thematic and visual concerns. 
Vera Cruz, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper
For Aldrich coming through the studio system, and with the economic successes of Apache and Vera Cruz for United Artists, the ideal form of filmmaking meant working with a trusted reliable group of people that Aldrich respected: hence the creation of Associates and Aldrich initially for The Big Knife and subsequent films. The “associates” for Aldrich included his immediate family (his wife and four children) plus long- term collaborators like cinematographers Ernest Laszlo and Joseph Biroc, editor Mike Luciano, composer Frank de Vol, agent Ingo Preminger , attorney J.H.Prinzmetal , Walter Blake, and many production technicians like grip John Livesley and property master John Orlando. Enterprise Studios with its clean efficient operations had been a strong influence on Aldrich’s desire to set up his own studio group.
Let us now return to our two films - The Flight of the Phoenix and Hustle- as succinct vivid illustrations of Aldrich’s post- Kiss Me Deadly absurdist noirish thematic and visual outlook in the context of the filmmaker’s own aesthetic, cultural and production vicissitudes in the 60s and 70s.
The Real Thing
Flight of the Phoenix, James Stewart, Richard Attenborough
The Flight of the Phoenix is one of Aldrich’s best crafted and darkest ironic parables about the necessity through cohesive action to articulate one’s own self-definition in order to survive in a harsh ever-changing world environment. As an “adventure” disaster film The Flight of the Phoenix embodies the legacy of film noir’s humanistic incorporation of existential concepts and, as James Naremore lucidly demonstrates, surrealism’s emphasis of the absurdist theatre of cruelty. (22) These two interrelated themes cut across Aldrich’s oeuvre and in this film in so many telling ways find their maximum dramatic impact in the unforgettable “gallows humour” sequence showing pilot (James Stewart) and his hero-worshipping navigator (Richard Attenborough) discovering that their saviour, the German (Hardy Kruger), is not an aeronautical designer as they were led to believe (“the real thing” as Attenborough terms it) but a model plane designer. The choker close- ups of Attenborough’s paroxysms of absurdist laughter - his face contorting with tears of laughter and then crying, suggest a Kafkaesque understanding of the world and its bizarre insanities - epitomises one of the cruelest and bleak moments in American 60s cinema.
Flight of the Phoenix, Hardy Kruger
Aldrich’s existential dramatic penchant for depicting diverse male figures living under extreme pressure and uniting (despite their ethnic, ideological and class differences so graphically signaled in the film’s long pre-credit scenes) so they may endure their collective ordeal of being stranded in a desert after their cargo plane has crashed is evident throughout all of his genre films - Westerns like Apache and Ulzana’s Raid, war films like Attack!, The Dirty Dozen and Too Late the Hero, and his prison film The Longest Yard. All his films stress the critical importance of people struggling against big odds by deciding on a plan that goes against the Sisyphean grain of the world. The world is unjust, absurd and brutal, Aldrich’s non-sentimental pragmatic perspective is saying, but through hope as expressed by action survival is possible. 
Action is redemptive in Aldrich’s Sartrean context of “hell is other people”: and, all the stranded characters with the exception of the aloof egomaniac German, who is a realist, are interacting with each other in non-productive destructive terms. As the days pass, the stranded characters lose their socially civilised values and face the brutal absurdity of life with clear-eyed comprehension. But it is the crazy German and not the iconic Stewart character that, in Aldrich’s typical undercutting of genre expectations, initiates a positive responsible scheme to recycle the crashed plane into an operative one. This can only take final successful form through the navigator’s goading of his pilot colleague to face the future and not the past and put aside his differences with the model plane designer.
The film’s ironic visual style is typically Aldrichian in its critical focus of striking grim symbolic images of the characters and their intense individual reactions with each other, the hallucinatory labyrinthine quality of the desert, and off - beat low heroic images of the stranded figures around the plane in the desert. In a powerful framing shot of the pilot and his German nemesis that speaks volumes about their different outlooks on life we see the foregrounded guilt-ridden pilot doggedly trying to survive in the shadow of the wrecked plane and in the background neatly framed by the plane’s door we see the relaxed efficient German having a shave. 
Flight of the Phoenix, Peter Finch (front)
The Flight of the Phoenix matters not only for its resonant depiction of Aldrich’s Conradian treatment of his struggling characters in the context of the filmmaker’s existential themes, but also for its exciting overall baroque small mosaic dramatic and narrative features consisting , according to Farber, of unimportant bits of action that seem to squeeze through the cracks of large scenes : The Freakish way in which Hardy Kruger’s Germanicgabble works over a sun-cracked lower lip ; the job- type sensation of watching work procedures from the perspective of an envious, competitive colleague; Ian Bannen doing a monkeyish prancing and kidding around the German.... . (23)
Artie Shaw in Rome.
Hustle, Burt Reynolds, Catherine Deneuve
Hustle is a remarkable haunting and largely underrated neo-noir film and whose divorced detective hero Lt. Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds) is one of the rare sentimental figures in Aldrich’s cinema. Living with a call-girl (Catherine Deneuve), Gaines, who identifies himself as Melville’s Ahab, is afraid to commit himself to a long- term relationship. Resembling the doomed romantic protagonists of the 40s and 50s, Gaines, is an honest disillusioned cop located in a harsh violent world (epitomised by the smooth corrupt lawyer Leo Sellers [Eddie Albert]) and valorises a forgotten past world of Cole Porter, old baseball players, Artie Shaw, longing one day to revisit Rome whose poster image hangs on his office wall. 
Gaines becomes caught in the moral morass of a long drawn-out and complicated investigation of the murder of a teenage girl whose body is washed up on a beach in the film’s early first scenes. The victim’s shell shocked Korea War veteran father Marty Hollinger (Ben Johnson) is pitied by Gaines as he sees him hopelessly trying to find justice in an evil class conscious world. As Gaines’s careerist boss Santoro (Ernest Borgnine) asks Gaines of Hollinger’s social standing in the world (“Is he somebody?”) sums up Aldrich’s acute representation of a world gone wrong (Auden’s description of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles as “the great wrong place” comes to mind) where Gaines’s own moral outrage is also reflected in the psychopaths and criminals and their hate against the social system. 
Hustle, Burt Reynolds
Sellers is tracked down and shot by Hollinger in his blind fury to avenge his young daughter’s senseless death. Gaines, persuades his partner (Sgt. Louis Belgrave), on arrival at the death scene at Seller’s mansion to set it up so it appears that Sellers tried to kill Hollinger and Hollinger shot him in self-defense. This radical reconfiguring of Hollinger’s fate acts as a cathartic release for Gaines and he hurries off to see his girl-friend only to be gunned down in a bottle shop. 
Hustle’s subtle expressive visual and directing dynamics and lush dreamy European romanticism links Gaines, from the film’s beginning, with a long crane zoom shot between the dead young girl on the beach and the call-girl on her balcony and consequently their moral similarities are echoed throughout Hustle. Also, Gaines and Hollinger, are often linked in visual and narrative terms through tightly balanced framing and matching shots.
Hustle, Catherine Bach
In conclusion, Aldrich occupies a unique place in recent American narrative cinema for many elaborate artistic, cultural and historical reasons. Aldrich’s ambition to make energetic dense genre films that espouse an existential gothic thematic outlook and a florid lyrical Wellesian visual style critical of American life meant that he had to adhere to a tricky dialectical dance as an independent director - producer in Hollywood during the 50s and through the next two decades. Aldrich’ s art and life is therefore highly marked by the contradictions , ironies and ruptures of the post-war break-up of Hollywood’s classical studio system.The rich melodramatic and visual contours and moral complexities of Aldrich’s dynamic cinema meant that it became a “limit test case “ oeuvre against the excesses of the politique des auteurs and its underlying existential Bazinian impulse as articulated by the French auteurist critics of the 50s who elevated his early cinema to almost mythic dimensions. This critical position was subsequently reinforced by Movie’s auteurist formalist view of Aldrich in the 60s and, in a qualified sense, by Sarris in his extremely influential pantheon study of auteurism “The American Cinema” (1968). Any future critical non-hagiographical negotiation of Aldrich’s fascinating underrated films is obliged to engage to question the post-auteur position to either pretend that his complex courageous cinema does not exist or to see it as a sad narrative of artistic decline. Both options are problematic. Because of Aldrich’s chameleon-like insider/outsider ability to be part of and apart from Hollywood’s mainstream culture he was able to produce films of engaging consequence. Survival was all for Aldrich but not to a simplistic binary view of good and evil, but to an adaptable personal code of existential morality. It is time we re-visited Aldrich’s films (flaws and all) for their timely magnetic dramatic and visual ability to communicate to us today.
(1). For the idea of Aldrich as an insider/outsider in post-war Hollywood see Peter Bogdanovich, “Robert Aldrich ( August 9, 1918 - December 5, 1983) Deadly Kiss Me", in Peter Bogdanovich, Who The Devil Made It ( New York : Ballantine Books, 1997), 780-783.
(2). See Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema ( New York : E.P. Dutton, 1968), 84-85 and his entry on Aldrich titled “Robert Aldrich” in Cinema : A Critical Dictionary, ed. Richard Roud (New York : The Viking Press, 1980) , vol. I, 21-25. For Richard Combs' helpful insights about the dangers of trying to rehabilitate Aldrich’s career in naive romantic terms refer to Richard Combs, ed., Robert Aldrich ( London : BFI, 1978), 3.
(3). Alain Silver and James Ursini, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? (New York: Limelight Editions, 1995), 3-51.
(4). Chabrol’s quote is located in his suggestive article , “B.A., or a dialectic of survival", in John Boorman and Walter Donohue, eds. Projections 4 1/2 ( London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 38. And on Aldrich acquiring the Sutherland Stage in 1968 as part of Associates and Aldrich see Silver and Ursini, ibid., 28-29. 
(5). Silver and Ursini, ibid., 57.
(6). For Truffaut’s reviews on Aldrich see respectively Kiss Me Deadly, Vera Cruz, and The Big Knife  in Francois Truffaut, The Films of My Life (New York, 1978), 93-94, 95- 98, and 98-100. For Chabrol consult his article “ Evolution of the Thriller’, in Jim Hillier, ed., Cahiers du Cinema The 1950s (London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), 158-164. On Raymond Borde’s surrealist view of Aldrich’s refer to Silver and Alain, op.cit., 53-55 and their anthology on film noir, Film Noir Reader (New York, Limelight Editions, 1998), 4-11, and in particular for an extract from Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du Film Noir Americain, 17-25. Borde and Chaumeton’s emphasis on Aldrich’s savage lyricism especially as evident In Kiss Me Deadly is noted in James Naremore’s fine film noir book "More Than Night" ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988 ), 18-22.
Finally, Charles Bitsch’s review of Kiss Me Deadly is reproduced in Jean Douchet’s new invaluable funky The French New Wave ( New York : D.A.P., 2000), 28-29.
(7). Silver and Ursini, op.cit., 53.
(8). Jacques Rivette, “ Notes on Revolution’, in Hillier, op.cit., 97.
(9). Silver and Ursini, op.cit., 54-55.
(10). Sarris, The American Cinema, op.cit., 84.
(11). Silver and Ursini, op.cit., 49.
(12). Cited in Silver and Ursini, ibid., 54.
(13). Silver and Ursini, ibid., 46.
(14). Manny Farber, "Negative Space" (New York : Hillstone, 1971), 12-24.
(15). Lawrence Alloway, "Violent America" (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1971), 26.
(16). Alloway, ibid., 25. On Orr’s Nietzschean definition of film noir as “ a genre of genres” in relation to Hollywood narrative cinema and film modernism see John Orr, Cinema and Modernity ( Cambridge : Polity Press, 1993), 155-180.
(17). Silver and Ursini, Film Noir Reader, op.cit., 10.
(18). Robert Warshow’s 1948 seminal essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” in his profoundly path- breaking posthumous published study of American popular culture The Immediate Experience ( New York : Athenum, 1972 ), 127-133, has been salient to our modern understanding of genre cinema.
(19). Bitsch’s succinct apt description of Aldrich as the first director of the atomic era is located in Douchet, op.cit., 29.
(20). G.Cabrera Infante, "A Twentieth Century Job" (London : Faber and Faber, 1991), 60.
(21). Chabrol’s glowing auteurist praise concerning Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly as speaking the new transgressive truth of cinema’s future is based on the film’s inventive reworking of a genre in putrefaction probing “ the depths of the unspeakable” is cited in Hillier, op.cit., 163.
(22). Naremore, op.cit., 22-23.
(23). Manny Farber’s quote is located in Greg Taylor’s recent important examination of American film criticism , cultism and camp culture see Greg Taylor, "Artists in the Audience" (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1999), 82.
John Conomos
John Conomos,
Associate Professor and Fellow at the 
Victoria College of the Arts, University of Melbourne
Fellow of the Centre of Visual Art, 
University of Melbourne.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.