To fully appreciate the vast range of director Robert Aldrich (1918–83), consider that he is the man who oversaw these two films, released eighteen months apart: The Dirty Dozen (1967), a brutal World War II epic, in which women are all but absent, about a suicide mission carried out in France by rapists and murderers, and The Killing of Sister George (1968), a domestic drama that centers on a fractious London lesbian couple and that renders men entirely superfluous. “The Associates and Aldrich,” Metrograph’s 23-movie salute to the filmmaker, who’s been too rarely celebrated in the city, borrows its name from his first independent production company, its strange ordering of words emblematic of his refusal to follow convention.
If any one quality unites Aldrich’s variegated oeuvre, it is fury, which abounds not only in his action pictures and revisionist westerns (like Ulzana’s Raid from 1972) but also his weepies (or, in the case of Sister George, screechies), noirs (whether apocalyptic or reconstructed), and barbed portraits of stardom. “All of the Aldrich movies are in some way angry,” Peter Bogdanovich wrote in his preface to his interview with the director, collected in Who the Devil Made It (1997). Four decades earlier, Jacques Rivette, who, along with his confrères at the Cahiers du Cinéma, proclaimed Aldrich among the greatest of the American auteurs, put it more ornately in a 1955 essay titled “Notes on a Revolution”: “[He] achieves harmony through a precise dissonance, the lucid and lyrical description of a world in decay….”
Two of the Aldrich films that Rivette singled out for praise in that piece, Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife, both from 1955, indeed tackle corrosion, on a macro level in the former (the world blows up in a nuclear conflagration) and a micro one in the latter (a movie star confronts his own rotted soul). Both were made early in Aldrich’s solo film-directing career, which began in 1953 with Big Leaguer (not in the Metrograph series), after his years assisting such titans as Jean Renoir and Charlie Chaplin, and helming TV episodes.
Famously, the Mickey Spillane adaptation Kiss Me Deadly opens with a panicked, breathless woman, clad only in a trench coat and played by Cloris Leachman in her big-screen debut, running barefoot down a dark highway. The disorienting power of that scene is sustained throughout, just one bizarre incident of many in this delirious study of atomic-age anomie. “Too many people like you have contempt for anything resembling the law,” an LAPD lieutenant chides Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker, supremely batty). The id-driven private investigator prowls Bunker Hill looking for clues as to who killed Leachman’s character — named Christina, after Rossetti, whose 1862 poem “Remember” figures prominently, the high-Romantic reference somehow making perfect sense in Hammer’s sordid milieu.
Confined primarily to the living room of a deluxe spread in Bel Air, a much tonier Los Angeles neighborhood, The Big Knife centers on an even baser kind of degeneracy: that of Hollywood operators. Against his better instincts and the wishes of his distraught wife (Ida Lupino), screen idol Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), identified by an offscreen narrator as “a man who sold out his dreams but [who] can’t forget them,” signs a seven-year contract with studio boss Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), a despicable executive who demands his star sink into the muck with him. Though Charlie’s spacious home is clearly a prison, Aldrich opens up the film, based on Clifford Odets’s 1949 play of the same name, via canted angles; by the end, the parlor has become a bottomless abyss where Lupino’s screams of “Help!” will never be heard.
The conclusion of The Big Knife is echoed in the final scene of The Killing of Sister George: The flawed heroine, a tweedy, gin-soaked, scone-hurling middle-aged butch named June Buckridge (Beryl Reid), lets out a long, plaintive “Moo!” The bovine wailing expresses her self-pity and disgust with the world after she’s been sacked from a longtime gig on a BBC soap opera and has lost her girlfriend to the uptight station bureaucrat who told her she was being axed. These films are two of several that Aldrich made about the indignities and hazards of celebrity, a mini-corpus that also includes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a paragon of extreme Grand Guignol starring real-life foes Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as dueling former-thespian sisters, and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), in which Kim Novak, in a role highly reminiscent of the one she played a decade earlier in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, headlines as a reluctant performer remade in the image of a Teutonic celluloid goddess.
An ethereal French-cinema divinity — Catherine Deneuve — acts opposite Burt Reynolds, then at the height of his rakish charm, in Hustle (1975). However strange the pairing may at first seem, the actors quickly find a tarnished grace in their neo-noir roles. Reynolds plays L.A. cop Phil Gaines, who, like Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, follows up with a variety of debauchees to understand the grisly circumstances behind a young woman’s death; Deneuve is Phil’s girlfriend, Nicole Britton, a transplant from Paris who may be moviedom’s most aloof sex worker. The worldview here is especially bleak: Hustle uncovers lowlifes in the highest of places, repugnant men who were agents of, in Rivette’s words, “the destruction of morality.” This time, the film ends not with a howl but with Deneuve’s barely audible gasps.
‘The Associates and Aldrich’
September 15–October 6