Monday, June 25, 2007

Assessing Aldrich

I was recently asked to name my favorite film from the last four decades. Ulzana's Raid, Robert Aldrich's should-be-classic Western from 1972, wasn't it. But it was close, from a short list that included Burn! (1969) and Night Moves (1975), and more obvious choices, like Jaws (1975) and Chinatown (1974). (Look for the winner to revealed in fall). "Overlooked Aldrich", a six-film series that begins this Thursday at Brooklyn's BAMcinematek, may help put Ulzana's Raid on more Ten Best lists, or at least reveal a gem hidden for 35 years.

By my reckoning there are three gems in this series, one ringer, and one zircon. You always take the good with the not-so-good, or wrongheaded, with Aldrich, who I have written about before. The maverick filmmaker, whose big hits The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Longest Yard (1974), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and influential nightmare noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), have certainly been looked over, fearlessly tackled controversial themes, but often with a sledgehammer or a blowtorch, where a less blunt instrument would have sufficed. He was wedded to obvious or miscast supporting players, like Ernest Borgnine and the new Ernest Borgnine, Burt Young, and the trite composer Frank De Vol, or just "De Vol"--his score for Ulzana's Raid lets the picture down, and should be erased (disdeVoled?) and replaced should it be reissued on DVD, as with the restored version of Sam Peckipah's Major Dundee. But his best films fascinate, and resonate; Aldrich (1918-1983) grabbed American cinema by the scruff of its neck and forced it, kicking and screaming, into more candid portraits of violence, sexuality, and the national underbelly.

The women's wrestling picture, ...All the Marbles (1981), his last credit, wasn't intended to break ground, and unless it's improved drastically since I last tried to watch it the picture (featuring Vicki Frederick, who had graduated from my dad's Wall Street secretarial pool) can remain overlooked. Better choices might have been one of his two lesser-known films from 1956, the galvanizing war film Attack (some enterprising theater company should considering reviving its source, Norman Brooks' 1954 Broadway play Fragile Fox), and his most sensitive picture, Autumn Leaves, which has a deeply etched portrait of middle-age loneliness from Joan Crawford (it gets a rare showing on Turner Classic Movies on August 3).

Despite a semi-embarrassing script from chest-thumping Oscar winner Steve Shagan (Save The Tiger), I've always liked 1975's Hustle, with Burt Reynolds as an LA cop outraged by Seventies vice and corruption and Catherine Deneuve as his high-class prostitute girlfriend, who would prefer he live and love less fatalistically. Reynolds and Deneuve are cool enough to make their odd casting click but the real heat is supplied by the their co-stars. Eddie Albert, who plays a cringing coward in Attack, contributes a memorably sleazy turn as a lawyer pimp who revels in drugs and teen hookers; the squeakily clean Green Acres star obviously relished getting his freak on with Robert Aldrich. And Ben Johnson and Eileen Brennan are touchingly hardboiled as a married couple gone terribly sour, in a neo-noir enthusiastically, if as usual not altogether tactfully, directed by one of the outstanding veterans of the form.

1961's The Last Sunset was new to me when I caught up with it recently on TCM. Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson are fairly restrained as adversaries in a convicts-and-cattle drive oater that late in the story brings incest to the surface, as Douglas unwittingly romances the daughter he never knew he had, played by Carol Lynley. Written by Dalton Trumbo, the film spins off in several directions and is never fully satisfactory, but it does indeed fit the bill as overlooked.

Three of Aldrich's four collaborations with Burt Lancaster round out the programming. The first, Apache, can be readily seen on TCM; the second, Vera Cruz (both released in 1954) was a big hit and hardly overlooked, an entertaining good cowboy-bad cowboy pairing for Gary Cooper and Lancaster that builds to a forceful ending. Its mix of established and rising stars in a buddy-type format has been a Hollywood staple ever since.

Lancaster, who was simpatico with the muckraking side of Aldrich's temperament, stars in the two best films in the series. 1977's Twilight's Last Gleaming, Aldrich's last rousing picture, is a taut nuclear thriller with Lancaster as an unbalanced general who seizes a missile silo to force the current occupant of the White House (Charles Durning, more sympathetic than presidential yet appealingly rumpled and human-scaled) to reveal the former administration's misdeeds in Vietnam. Besides an exciting, 24-like unfolding of the central action, via split screens and the like, the movie has an ahead-of-its-time critique of topical policy matters that is more-than-applicable to our current quagmire.

And then there is Ulzana's Raid, the last film to be screened, with Aldrich's daughter Adell in attendance. Its Vietnam parallels are thankfully unstressed, as the film excavates a true-life flashpoint in US/Native American relations, where the calvary sought to rout the bandit leader Ulzana from the warpath and bring him and his followers back to the reservation. Alan Sharp, who later wrote Arthur Penn's excellent Night Moves, contributes a terse, fast-paced, but never overheated script, which is superbly played by Bruce Davison, as a lieutenant entrusted with the ill-starred sortie, and Lancaster simply magnificent as a grizzled army scout. Aldrich said he was dissatisfied with the way the film, turned around quite quickly, came out, but it really gripped my movie-watching group when I showed it in 2001 and it has the stamp of authenticity to it. No longer should it be overlooked.


Jeffrey Allen Rydell said...

"and the trite composer Frank De Vol, or just "De Vol"--his score for Ulzana's Raid lets the picture down, and should be erased (disdeVoled?) and replaced should it be reissued on DVD, as with the restored version of Sam Peckipah's Major Dundee."

Ya just can't do that. I hate the guy, you hate the guy, but Aldrich LOVED him, and used him all the friggin' time. It's Auteur territory stuff, and really can't be touched.


Robert Cashill said...

I know you're right. But maybe retain the old score on a separate track on the DVD while trying out a new one? Hold a "You Can Score This Great Film Even Better!" on TCM?

If he were alive today, maybe he would come to his senses. Better--maybe at the Q&A with his daughter Adell, someone could ask, "Have you ever thought about rescoring this film?"

Oh, well, I'll just have to muffle it from my mind the next time I see it.