Nationality: American. Born: Cranston, Rhode Island, 9 August 1918. Education: Moses Brown School, Providence, and University of Virginia, graduated (law and economics) 1941. Family: Married Harriet Foster, 1941 (divorced 1965); children: Adell, William, Alida, and Kelly; married fashion model Sibylle Siegfried, 1966.
Career: Worked for RKO studios, 1941–1944; under contract to Enterprise studios, 1945–1948; TV director, from 1952; founded "Associates and Aldrich Company," 1955; signed contract for Columbia Pictures, then fired after refusing to "soften" script of The Garment Jungle; after five–year period working abroad, returned to Hollywood, 1962; after The Dirty Dozen, established Aldrich Studios, 1967, but forced to sell, 1973; elected president of the Directors Guild, 1975; "Aldrich Company" reorganised, 1976. Awards: Silver Prize, Venice Festival, for The Big Knife, 1955; Silver Bear Award for Best Direction, Berlin Festival, for Autumn Leaves, 1956; Italian Critics Award, Venice Festival, for Attack!, 1956. Died: In Los Angeles, of kidney failure, 5 December 1983.
Films as Director:
The Big Leaguer
World for Ransom (+ co-pr); Apache; Vera Cruz
Kiss Me Deadly (+ pr); The Big Knife (+ pr)
Autumn Leaves; Attack! (+ pr)
The Garment Jungle (un-credited)
The Angry Hills; Ten Seconds to Hell (+ co-sc)
The Last Sunset
Sodoma e Gomorra (Sodom and Gomorrah); Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (+ pr)
Four for Texas (+ co-pr, co-sc)
Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (+ pr)
Flight of the Phoenix (+ pr)
The Dirty Dozen
The Legend of Lylah Clare (+ pr); The Killing of Sister George(+ pr)
Too Late the Hero (+ pr, co-sc)
The Grissom Gang (+ pr)
Emperor of the North (The Emperor of the North Pole)
The Longest Yard (The Mean Machine)
Hustle (+ co-pr)
Twilight's Last Gleaming; The Choirboys
The Frisco Kid
All the Marbles (California Dolls)
The Southerner (Renoir) (1st asst-d)
The Story of G.I. Joe (Wellman) (1st asst-d); Pardon My Past (Fenton) (1st asst-d); The Strange Love of Martha Ivers(Milestone) (1st asst-d)
The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (Lewin) (1st asst-d); Body and Soul (Rossen) (1st asst-d)
Arch of Triumph (Milestone) (1st asst-d); So This Is New York(Fleischer) (1st asst-d); No Minor Vices (Milestone) (1st asst-d)
Force of Evil (Polonsky) (1st asst-d); The Red Pony (Milestone) (1st asst-d); A Kiss for Corliss (Wallace) (1st asst-d)
The White Tower (Tetzlaff) (1st asst-d); Teresa (Zinnemann)(pre-production work)
The Prowler (Losey) (1st asst-d); M (Losey) (1st asst-d); Of Men and Music (Reis) (1st asst-d); New Mexico (Reis)(1st asst-d)
Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (Lamont) (1st asst-d);Limelight (Chaplin) (1st asst-d); The Trio: Rubinstein,Heifetz and Piatigorsky (Million Dollar Trio) (Dassin) (1st asst-d); The Steel Trap (Stone) (pr supervision)
The Ride Back (pr)
Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (pr)
By ALDRICH: articles—
Interview with George Fenin, in Film Culture (New York), July/August 1956.
Interviews with François Truffaut, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1956 and April 1958.
"High Price of Independence," in Films and Filming (London), June 1958.
"Learning from My Mistakes," in Films and Filming (London), June 1960.
"Hollywood . . . Still an Empty Tomb," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), May/June 1963.
"What Ever Happened to American Movies?," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1963/64.
Interview with Joel Greenburg, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1968/69.
"Why I Bought My Own Studio," in Action (Los Angeles), January/February 1969.
"Impressions of Russia," in Action (Los Angeles), July/August 1971.
"Dialogue," with Bernardo Bertolucci, in Action (Los Angeles), March/April 1974.
"Up to Date with Robert Aldrich," interview with Harry Ringel, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1974.
"Aldrich Interview," with Pierre Sauvage, in Movie (London), Winter 1976/77.
"Dialogue on Film: Robert Aldrich," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1978.
On ALDRICH: books—
Micha, Rene, Robert Aldrich, Brussels, 1957.
Higham, Charles, The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak, London, 1969.
Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, Robert Aldrich: A Guide toReferences and Resources, Boston, 1979.
Salizzato, Claver, Robert Aldrich, Florence, 1983.
Piton, Jean-Pierre, Robert Aldrich, Paris, 1985.
Arnold, Edwin T., and Eugene L. Miller, The Films and Career ofRobert Aldrich, Knoxville, Tennessee, 1986.
Maheo, Michel, Robert Aldrich, Paris, 1987.
Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, What Ever Happened to RobertAldrich? New York, 1995.
On ALDRICH: articles—
Rivette, Jacques, "On Revolution," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 54, 1955.
Jarvie, Ian, "Hysteria and Authoritarianism in the Films of Robert Aldrich," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1961.
Cameron, Ian, and Mark Shivas, "Interview and Filmography," in Movie (London), April 1963.
Silke, James, editor, "Robert Aldrich," in Dialogue on Film (Washington, D.C.), no. 2, 1972.
Silver, Alain, "Mr. Film Noir Stays at the Table," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1972.
Beaupre, Lee, "Bob Aldrich: Candid Maverick," in Variety (New York), 27 June 1973.
Ringel, Harry, "Robert Aldrich: The Director as Phoenix," in TakeOne (Montreal), September 1974.
Silver, Alain, "Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style," in FilmComment (New York), March/April 1975.
Combs, Richard, "Worlds Apart: Aldrich since The Dirty Dozen," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1976.
Duval, B., "Aldrich le rebelle," in Image et Son (Paris), May 1976.
Legrand, Gerard, "Robert Aldrich et l'incompletude du nihilism," in Positif (Paris), June 1976.
Gazano, R., and M. Cusso, "L'Homme d'Aldrich," in Cinéma (Paris), June 1980.
McCarthy, T., obituary of Aldrich in Variety (New York), 7 December 1983.
Salizzato, Claver, "Robert Aldrich" (special issue), Castoro Cinema (Firenze), no. 106, 1983.
"Aldrich Section" of Cinéma (Paris), February 1984.
"Robert Aldrich," in Film Dope (London), March 1985, and March 1988.
Lang, Robert, "Looking for the 'Great Whatzit': Kiss Me Deadly and Film Noir," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Spring 1988.
Stefancic, M. Jr., "Robert Aldrich," in Ekran (Ljubljana, Slovenia), vol. 14, no. 5–6, 1989.
Lyons, D., "Dances with Aldrich," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 27, March-April 1991.
Jopkiewicz, T., "Malownicz Apokalipsa," Iluzjon, July-December 1991.
Charbol, D. "B. A., ou une dialectique de la survie," in Positif (Paris), June 1994.
Danel, Isabelle, "Le sale gosse d'Hollywood," in Télérama (Paris), November 9, 1994.
Grant, J., "Bob le copieux," in Cinémathèque (Paris), Autumn 1994.
Ranger, J.-F., "La dernière lueur d'Aldrich," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1995.
Kahn, Olivier, and others, "Hommage à Robert Aldrich," in Positif (Paris), no. 415, September 1995.
* * *
Despite a commercially respectable career both within the studio system and as an independent producer-director, Robert Aldrich remains an ill-appreciated, if not entirely bothersome presence for most American critics. Andrew Sarris did praise Aldrich in 1968 as "one of the most strikingly personal directors of the past two decades"; yet, for the most part, it has remained to the French and the English to attempt to unravel the defiant quirkiness of Aldrich's career. Only the otherworldly Kiss Me Deadly, which Paul Schrader unequivocably dubbed "the masterpiece of film noir," has received anything like the attention it deserves on this side of the Atlantic; yet the film is quite indicative of the bitter ironies, bizarre stylistics, and scathing nihilism characteristic of most of Aldrich's work.
In bringing Mickey Spillane's neo-fascist hero Mike Hammer to the screen, Kiss Me Deadly plays havoc with the conventions of the hardboiled detective, turning the existential avenger into a narcissistic materialist who exploits those around him for the benefit of his plush lifestyle. In an outrageous alteration of the novel's plot, Hammer becomes a modern neanderthal whose individualism is revealed as insanity when it causes him to botch a case involving a box of pure nuclear energy and thus the fate of the world. The result is a final shot of a mushroom cloud rising from a California beachhouse, consuming both Hammer and the bad guys. Only at this extreme and this distance in time has Aldrich's acute sense of irony impressed itself upon a liberal critical establishment whose repugnance to the surfaces of his films has usually served as an excuse for ignoring their savage, multi-layered critiques of Hollywood genres and American ideology.
The extremity of Aldrich's reinterpretations of the Western in Ulzana's Raid, of the war movie in Attack!, of the cop film in The Choirboys, and of the women's melodrama in Autumn Leaves betrays a cynicism so bitter that it could only arise from a liberal sensibility utterly disillusioned by an age in which morality has become a cruel joke. In fact, the shattering of illusions is central to Aldrich's work, and it is a powerfully self-destructive process, given the sweetness of the illusions and the anger of his iconoclasm. In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a gothic horror film whose terms are explicitly the hideous realities hidden beneath the sugar-coating of the entertainment industry, Aldrich virtually defines the genre of camp, offering derisive laughter as the only alternative to an unbearably absurd cosmos. This sense of black comedy (which Aldrich shares with, and developed at the same time as, Hollywood contemporary Stanley Kubrick) has frequently been responsible for the volatile relationship his films have had with popular audiences. Given the context of a life-and-death prison football game in The Longest Yard, Aldrich was able to enlist the audience in the hero's bitter laughter in the face of a triumphant totalitarian authority. But when he adopted the same black humor toward the scandalous chicanery of the marginally psychotic cops in The Choirboys, he angered almost everybody, not the least of whom was the novel's author, Joseph Wambaugh.
Turned in an introspective direction, Aldrich's acid sensibility resulted in an intensely discomforting, stylistically alienated version of Clifford Odets's Hollywood-hating The Big Knife and the madly ambitious The Legend of Lylah Clare, an 8–1/2 cum Vertigo far too complex by any Hollywood standard. When turned outward toward the world at large, that same sensibility was responsible for a downbeat, disheartening masterpiece like the much-maligned Hustle, a film that succeeds better than almost any other in summing up the moral displacement and emotional anguish of the whole decade of the 1970s.
At his most skillful, Aldrich could juggle ideologically volatile issues so well that his most popular film, The Dirty Dozen, made during the politically turbulent period of the Vietnam War, played equally well to hawks and doves. Its story of death row prisoners exploited by the military bureaucracy into participation in a suicide raid, where they are to attack a chateau, slaughtering both German officers and civilians, seemed explicitly antiwar in its equation of heroism and criminality and its critique of the body-count mentality of a morally corrupt system. Yet, The Dirty Dozen still managed to emerge as a gung-ho war movie in the best Hollywood tradition. The multiple contradictions of the film's stance are nowhere clearer than in its climactic scene, where Aldrich has black athlete Jim Brown recreate one of his famous touchdown runs in order to set off an underground holocaust explicitly parallelled to Auschwitz.
In a far less popular film, the revisionist western Ulzana's Raid, Aldrich does confront the horrors of Vietnam with a nearly intolerable accuracy via the properly bloody metaphor of a cavalry company using West Point tactics to fight a band of Apache guerilla warriors. The film relentlessly refuses to diminish the brutality of the red man; even as it demonstrates the poverty of the white man's Christian idealism. The result is perhaps the first western ever to cast America's doctrine of Manifest Destiny in explicitly colonial terms.
More than any other mainstream director, Aldrich insisted on presenting the radical contradictions of American ideology. If we adopt a stance not nearly as cynical as his own in most of his films, we might observe that his capacity to do so has frequently resulted in sizable profits. Yet it is also important to remember that, while Stanley Kubrick (whose 1950s films bear striking stylistic and thematic similarities to those of Aldrich) found it necessary to retreat to England, reducing his output to two or three films a decade, Aldrich chose to fight it out in Hollywood, where his capacity for moneymaking allowed him the space to vent his own personal anger at the compromises we all must make.