Robert Aldrich: Pessimism and independenceBy: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1
When Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) was released, discussions would evolve into fights and even ruptures among spectators anxious to know the meaning of a shining suitcase. Did it contain Marsellus Wallace’s soul? That’s why there was a band-aid on his neck! It was the clear symbol of a soulless man. More experienced cinephiles noticed the many allusions to film history in Tarantino’s work and probably realized that the shining in Marsellus’ suitcase evoked one of the most important film noirs of the 1950’s: Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Directed by Robert Aldrich, one of the essential figures in American independent cinema, this film revolves around a mystery which culminates with a Pandora’s box from which radiates a killing brightness. The fact that Tarantino, the new great studio outcast, alluded to Aldrich’s work, established a sort of lineage in which the young director featured as a sort of heir. In Inglorious Basterds (2009) Tarantino would again evoke a film by Aldrich, The Dirty Dozen (1967), thus confirming the master’s legacy.
In Aldrich’s most celebrated films we usually see the credit “Produced and directed by Robert Aldrich”. It’s the mark of an autonomous man who preferred the hard task of becoming his own producer than giving in to the desires of Hollywood executives. With The Associates & Aldrich Company he proved his concern with making of his films a form of personal expression rather than an entertainment factory, although his films are actually quite entertaining. Just like other colleagues of his generation, like Samuel Fuller and Anthony Mann, Aldrich devoted himself to genre and worked in war films, thrillers and adventure films but many of them are linked by his obsessions. His is not a mere act of serial creation like that of hired directors but a constant search within himself and, at the same time, a spectacular offering.
In Aldrich’s cinema we usually see communities of men in extreme situations. In Attack (1956), The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Dirty Dozen survival in war and in the desert creates a tension which will lead the characters into conflict not just with their enemies and the climate but also among themselves. In The Longest Yard (1974) a semi-professional football game will give the inmates in a prison their only chance to humiliate the guards but before that they’ll have to get along. Aldrich seems fascinated by leadership in crisis as he watches how an inept captain is confronted by his lieutenant in Attack. Even before Stanley Kubrick’s criticism of military bureaucracy in Paths of Glory (1957), Aldrich represented the American army in World War II as a corrupt institution in which a promotion is worth more than the lives of the men fighting.
Even though The Flight of the Phoenix was underestimated by critic Bosley Crowther, who called it “grim and implausible”, this film about a group of men stranded in the desert after their plane crashes explores the contrast between several dichotomies like theory and practice, youth and old age, and studies and experience. The pilot, played by James Stewart, is constantly fighting a young German engineer for command but in time they’ll discover that only collaboration can save them. In The Dirty Dozen something similar happens as an officer in command of a suicide mission manages to have a group of undisciplined soldiers behave as a team. Aldrich does this to develop his themes but also as a narrative strategy that turns the final battle into a moving event. By that moment the audience cares for the characters and is affected by their fates.
The protagonist’s personality in Kiss Me Deadly manages a similar effect and describes us another main theme in Aldrich’s work: vanity. Detective Mike Hammer, played by Ralph Meeker, suddenly finds himself in the middle of a government conspiracy when he picks up a girl in the middle of a highway, but what seems to be a punishment meted out by fate soon becomes the result of stubbornness. Mike’s friends start to die around him due to his obsession with the truth and with proving himself to be the great detective he boasts of being. It’s important to mention that Kiss Me Deadly is another Aldrich film that shows no faith in government institutions and thus its characters stay remain far from the kind cops preferred by the authorities.
In Aldrich’s most famous film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), vanity returns to the forefront as a poisonous trait which separates two sisters. Raised by parents who set them against each other, the Hudson sisters resent the other’s fame and destroy one another with deception and mistreatment. Played by real-life rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the sisters reach the same tension as Aldrich’s male casts and affirm a universal vision of human meanness. The shadows in this film evoke those of Attack because in both cases they result unusual, but, more than anything, expressive of a boundless pessimism.
Perhaps the director’s ambiguous denouements owed themselves to this vision. Aldrich usually leaves us with the survivors of a catastrophe in the last moment before redemption or total darkness. On the one hand, these are scenes which please audiences because they can imagine that everything will be fine, but if we consider the cruelty that comes before them, hope becomes an illusion. These endings are in many ways representative of a director who, sailing through the entertainment industry, preferred to be an artist. His work is for us all but it belongs to no one as much as to himself.