Fear is a man’s best friend: deformation and aggression in the films of Robert Aldrich

Uploaded 30 June 2000

The recent proliferation in the United States of shootings by adolescents of parents and peers has occasioned yet another ritual of moral hand wringing over the violence encountered in the popular media. Rather than focus upon any systematic resolution of the causes of these homicides – the ease of gun ownership, for example – attention has shifted instead to the purportedly unquenchable ingestion of what Michael Medved pejoratively characterizes as “toxic doses of weirdness” on the part of the adolescent population. [1] Few of these jeremiads acknowledge the fact that the failure on the part of parents, and society at large, to curb their progeny’s appetite for spectacle flies in the face of the rampant use of the mass media as a soporific. Instead, by conflating civic order with familial tranquillity, social ills are diluted into domestic infractions. National instabilities of race, class and gender become in the process nothing more than a family spat. The failure to dedicate public policy and government funds to the resolution of social needs would seem to have transformed the United States into an atomistic landscape of Candides, content to tend their security-protected gardens while the V Chip and other devices keeps any nagging presence of “toxic weirdness” far, far away.

At the same time, it is interesting to contrast the amount of attention paid to body counts in these cultural diatribes with the paucity of deliberation over what each of those bodies count for – the complex computation that might be thought of as a calculus of extermination. More newsprint is given over to the number of bodies laid waste than the human cost of terminating a unique identity. Furthermore, most if not nearly all of the deaths one witnesses in popular narratives nowadays are of individuals who possess neither a distinct personality nor anyone to mourn or even acknowledge their loss. Both Deep Impact (USA 1998) and Armageddon (USA 1998)- recent cinematic equivalents of the apocalypse du jour – topple the cities of Manhattan and Paris with a remarkable absence of interest in the extermination of their inhabitants. Death retains its sting only when we are able to keep a tally of its victims. Absent that computation, the bodies become interchangeable and anonymous. Pyrotechnics takes the place of pathos and catharsis gives way to calculation.

A notable exception to this evacuation of affect is the revisionist western Ulzana’s Raid (USA 1972). Directed by Robert Aldrich, scripted by Alan Sharp and starring Burt Lancaster, this “austere” and “fatalistic” confrontation of naive Western European morality with the unfathomability of the Native American has come to be viewed, in the words of David Thomson, as “one of the best films of the seventies, and a somber adjustment of the Western to the age of Vietnam”[2]   even by those who consider Aldrich’s career a depressing instance of a once notable talent succumbing to excess and exhaustion. It is a cold, gut-wrenching narrative, replete with evocative images of human depravity: bodies burned and mutilated, mouths stuffed with the carcasses of animals, severed organs tossed to and fro. However, rather than subordinating the shock of life’s extinction to the audacity of the human imagination, Ulzana’s Raid renders us at one and the same time queasy and quizzical, awed by the depths to which humanity can sink and convinced of the need to comprehend the causes of that butchery.

To summarize the narrative: weary of captivity and willing to risk recapture and probable execution, the titular Apache chief, Ulzana, escapes from a reservation and leads a war party which slaughters all the whites they encounter with a zealous savagery. In response, the military send out a squad led by an eager and untested Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and a world-weary scout, McIntosh (Lancaster) accompanied by a platoon of anxious men and a native tracker, Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) who is brother-in-law to the renegade chief. DeBuin’s Christian upbringing fails to prepare him for nor offers any explanation of the anarchy he encounters on the part of both the Native Americans and the military. [3]  In a most unusual and convincing exchange of dialogue, he inquires of Ke-Ni-Tay what makes their quarry act as they do.

DeBuin: Why are your people so cruel? Why are they like that? What is the reason?
Ke-Ni-Tay: Is how they are. They have always been like that.
DeBuin: Would you kill a man like that?
Ke-Ni-Tay: Yes.
DeBuin: Why?
Ke-Ni-Tay: To take the power. Each man that die, the man that kill him take the power.
DeBuin: What kind of power is that?
Ke-Ni-Tay: Here in this land man must have power.You not know about power.
DeBuin: I want to understand.

DeBuin’s perplexity is a matter of routine, virtually a prerequisite of the Western genre. Military men are not meant to comprehend or even wish to analyze their enemy. The degree to which most Western Europeans have historically been unwilling to pursue such an inquiry illustrates their belief, as Roy Harvey Pearce acknowledges, “that in the savage and his destiny there was manifest all that they had long grown away from and yet still had to overcome.” [4]  However, Aldrich’s narrative takes that process a step further. In order to comprehend Ulzana and his raiding party, the film refuses to dismiss their actions as the brutal behavior of a hostile “other” specifically by means of comparison to DeBuin’s, and implicitly the audience’s, purported sophistication. Instead, their cruelty is analyzed on its own terms, however alien or unappetizing those terms might be.

The effort to pursue such an inquiry in the context of a popular action-based narrative is unsurprising on the part of Robert Aldrich. His career constitutes an insatiable fascination with what literary critic John Fraser has called that “combination of gusto and ruthlessness that leaves one feeling simultaneously relaxed and toned up.” [5]  Best known and most admired for the motion picture many commentators consider the quintessential film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (USA 1955), Aldrich time and again embraced the extremities of human experience and behavior as eagerly as the characters in this film pursued the “great whatsit” empowered by a form of frenzy Nick the mechanic (Nick Dennis) characterizes as “va va voom.” The French filmmaker/critic Jacques Rivette acknowledged this propensity for annihilation, the achievement of “harmony through a precise dissonance,” quite early in the director’s career; he recognized in 1955 that Aldrich was drawn to accounts of “moral suffocation, whose only way out must be some fabulous destruction.”[6]   Throughout his career, Aldrich consistently refused to reduce his characters or his themes to either simplistic binaries or one-sided diatribes. [7] What Rivette characterizes as a “negative morality” on the director’s part amounts not so much to a perspective that obliterates the distinction between good and evil as a point of view that dismisses the need for such categories as absurd through and through.[8]

A parallel furthermore exists between the perpetuation of “fabulous destruction” on the part of his characters as well as that of the director himself. More than once, Aldrich’s career seemed on the verge of imploding like the mushroom cloud over Malibu at the conclusion of Kiss Me Deadly . Conscious of the vicissitudes of corporate culture in Hollywood, he endeavored to control his own destiny virtually from the start. Aldrich hoped to lessen the enemy or, at least, broadside the opposition by starting his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich, in 1955 and purchasing a studio with the profits from TheDirty Dozen (USA 1966) that remained, however tenuously, in business from 1967 to 1971. At the same time, while he played by the industry’s rules, or adapted them to his own purposes, he collided with executives, the ratings board and unruly or self-involved performers on more than one occasion. A comment made by Robin Wood about the career of Arthur Penn provides an apt characterization of his peer, Aldrich: in the work of both, “the communicated excitement of the creative act is closely related to the characters’ abandonment to destructive acts: they have in common the sense of a surrender to impulse.” [9] It is this predilection for breaking through limitations that allowed Aldrich so vividly to dramatize the characters’ obsession with Kiss Me Deadly ‘s thermonuclear Pandora’s box or DeBuin’s quandary about ritualized slaughter.

In the remainder of my comments, I wish to elaborate upon not only how the exchange of dialogue in Ulzana’s Raid provides a synecdoche for Aldrich’s pursuit of harmony through dissonance in his other films but also how that endeavor to achieve some command over raw power dominated Aldrich’s haphazard experience in Hollywood. Common to both the conduct of his career and the direction of his thirty films is a recognition that, as John Fraser observes, “among the merits of certain violent and irreversible situations is that they can bring one to a point beyond which certain options cannot continue to remain open and a choice must be made.”[10]  No one could accuse Aldrich of prevaricating or sitting on the fence. Aldrich remained a life-long gambler with his bank account as well as his professional capital. He kept up a whirlwind professional pace throughout his career, releasing one film, and sometimes more, virtually every year between 1953 and 1981. Aldrich stated, “I think that’s the most interesting thing in the political-social aspect of life: how far can you push?”[11]   His professional life illustrates that one can push quite a distance, even though Aldrich assumed “history is filled with unwise martyrs” for one can “rock the boat just so far.” [12] That shaking kept him steady, for, in one of Aldrich’s most repeated metaphors, as long as he could “stay at the table”, engaged in the game, power might be exercised, for good and ill, and he could continue to investigate the permissible limits of human endeavor. [13]

For most critics, it is not harmony but dissonance that characterizes Aldrich’s films. With few exceptions, a hothouse atmosphere prevails within a hostile environment that Aldrich depicts with a reciprocal animosity.[14] Little romance exists in this domain and even less humor. Despite two overt comedies to his credit (4 for Texas, USA 1963, and The Frisco Kid,USA 1979), Aldrich is as jocular as a jackhammer. For the most part, his universe amounts to a homosocial world populated with homicidal protagonists. Even an admirer like Andrew Sarris emphasizes the larger-than-life, overripe quality of these films; he writes, “Aldrich’s direction of his players generally creates a subtle frenzy on the screen, and his visual style suggests an unstable world full of awkward angles and harsh transitions.”[15] One of his detractors, Jean-Pierre Coursodon, suggests that his temperament always gravitated in the direction of a “nocturnal tendency towards bombast, excess, distortion, vulgarity.”( [16] Despite the early acclaim, most notably from the body of critics associated with Cahiers du cinema , and the persistent kudos attached to Kiss Me Deadly , Aldrich remains in the eyes of most analysts “le gros Bob”: a figure as devoid of subtlety and as empty of complex motives as are many of his protagonists

However, I would argue, the baroque, overemphatic, hyperactive surface of Aldrich’s films results not from a failure or absence of sensibility but a canny and deceptive effort on the director’s part to ameliorate if not conceal the emptiness that dwells at the heart of virtually all his narratives. With few exceptions, the goals of his characters remain elusive; their motivations clouded by irreconcilable cross-purposes; their occasional victories pyrrhic at best. As Richard Combs observes: [17]

Self-destruction, politically, morally and psychologically, is often the inevitable result of this combustive style: the jagged editing patterns and fiercely combative compositions seem engaged in the Sisyphean task of clamping together a chaos they are continually creating.

An analogy might be drawn between the activities of the bomb disposal sqaud in Ten Seconds to Hell(UK/USA 1959) and those of the director. More often than not, the effect of watching an Aldrich film resembles the quest for the “great whatsit” in Kiss Me Deadly : when one cracks the code and the seal lifts, the film virtually explodes in one’s face. This process can be exhausting, for Aldrich routinely witholds the accepted defense mechanisms of genre convention and audience expectation. Take, for example, the Depression-set Emperor of the North (USA 1973). The epic dimensions of its conflict between the hobo protagonist A No. 1 (Lee Marvin) and the sadistic conductor Shack (Ernest Borgnine) for supremacy over access to the railroad dissolves in the end into a sweat-drenched slug-fest between two middle-aged men. Even Marvin’s conquest of Borgnine amounts to little more than the opportunity to ride the train to the end of the line.

A lack of dramatic resolution, certainly the kind of epidemic up-beatness that pervades contemporary Hollywood cinema, occurs time and again in Aldrich’s films. A number of his protagonists end up dead or little better than clinging to survival: virtually the entirety of the combatants in the war films Attack! (USA 1956),Ten Seconds to Hell, The Dirty Dozen, and Too Late the Hero (USA 1970); Burt Lancaster in three of the four films he did with Aldrich: Vera Cruz (USA 1954), Ulzana’s Raid and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (USA 1977); and the willful suicide of the entrapped screen actor played by Jack Palance in The Big Knife (USA 1955). On more than one occasion, Aldrich concludes a film with a dramatic fade to darkness, as in The Big Knife and The Killing of Sister George (USA 1968) wherein the female protagonists find themselves, abandoned and irrevocably injured, in a bleak and unresponsive universe. Even those narratives that purport to achieve some manner of closure provoke suspicion rather than certitude. For example, the alleviation of Cliff Robertson’s dementia in Autumn Leaves (USA 1956) leaves him emotionally crippled and virtually an infant in the care of his surrogate mother, Joan Crawford. In this context, Aldrich’s work might be compared with that of Sam Peckinpah, who shares a fascination with masculine aggression and the romantic allure of the excessive. [18] However, while the final montage of apocalyptic antagonism in Peckinpah’s masterpiece The Wild Bunch (USA 1969) has been described as a “cascading avalanche of comprehension,” Aldrich’s comparable sequences of orchestrated entropy amount to a purposeful avalanche of deformation. [19]  Far fewer occasions arise in his films than Peckinpah’s that romanticize the protagonists or tie up the narrative threads with a neat bow. More often than not, we are left literally in media res , without directorial assistance to accommodate all that the narrative has torn asunder.

Two other instances of deformation are important to note in Aldrich’s process of characterization. First, Aldrich routinely makes the ideological propensities of his protagonists ambiguous if not misleading. Richard Combs observes, “Aldrich has a perverse habit of working against any grain … his most liberal characters … frequently take on a fascistic cast, while his most reactionary, totalitarian figures … can be revealed in a more sympathetic light.” [20] The latter process pervades the depiction of Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in Kiss Me Deadly but is even more effective in the actions of the German aeronautical engineer Heinrich Dorfman (Hardy Kruger) in The Flight of the Phoenix (USA 1966). Overbearing and single-minded, his actions virtually deserve the nationalistic stereotypes directed toward him by some of his fellow survivors of an airplane crash in the Arab desert. However, his knowledge of physics and engineering skills are their only means of survival after their plane crashes in the desert, even if their attitude toward this imperious know-it-all remains less than grateful. His objectionable monomania proves to be the final solution to their dilemma. The manner in which a liberal sensibility may harbor fascistic tendencies can be observed in Twilight’s Last Gleaming . The protagonist Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) absconds with a nuclear missile bunker and threatens to fire off a warhead unless government secrets about the conduct of the Vietnam war are revealed. Dell’s ethical idealism coexists with a potentially lethal disregard for human life.

The second instance of deformation in Aldrich’s process of characterization occurs with those individuals who are narratively coded as monsters or at the least beyond the pale of normative behavior. One might think of them as examples of what the medievalist E.R. Curtis called “maximized” figures: individuals who “embody in terms of contemporary references maximum states of age, beauty, strength, revenge, or whatever.”[21] The characters portrayed by Bette Davis in the Gothic melodramas Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (USA 1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (USA 1964) are at one and the same time villains and victims. Each commits murder but is exonerated in the process of a crime they have been accused of for the whole of their lives. The revelation of their innocence amounts to yet a further red herring in a set of conventionally misleading narrative threads, but at the same time, Aldrich undermines our expectations with a convincing twist of fate. The cycle of films that arose in the wake of the success of Aldrich’s works diluted their dramatic impact. They feature protagonists who are more harridans than heroines. Admittedly, it would be hard to imagine outdoing Davis’s over-the-top explosiveness as Baby Jane Hudson. Her performance possesses in sheer chutzpah what it lacks in subtlety, while her successors succumb to that willful exploitation of superficial effects Pauline Kael once characterized as “kooky kabuki.” [22] Even more effective and unsettling is the depiction of the simple-minded sociopath Slim (Scott Wilson) in The Grissom Gang (USA 1971), Aldrich’s adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s noteworthy thriller No Orchids for Miss Blandish . For a director not given to romantic plotlines, it remains the height of irony that the one of the most evocative emotional alliances in all his films comes between a killer and an upper class ice queen. Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller effectively argue that the narrative re-writes the trope of beauty and the beast and thereby systematically underscores the thoughtful use of the familiar standard I can’t give you anything but love as the film’s theme song. [23]

If the films Aldrich directed illustrate a propensity for “fabulous destruction,” he treated his professional career in no less volatile a fashion. The dissection of the exercise of power illustrated by the conversation between DeBuin and Ke-Ni-Tay must have particularly fascinated a man who sought out and reveled in the exercise of power within the Hollywood studio system over the course of forty years. Of that industry, David Thomson has stated that “nothing reveals a man’s instinct about the medium as much as the job he wants.”[24] Clearly, as much as Aldrich wished to be a director – he toiled as an assistant and underling for eleven years before he helmed his first film, The Big Leaguer (USA 1953) – he desperately wanted to be in charge of a studio. To amplify his gambling metaphor of “staying in the game,” Aldrich desired to control the whole house. In addition to the formation of his production company, Aldrich and Associates, in 1955, the director maintained a consistent body of technicians and business partners.([25] In an environment known for back-stabbing and abandonment, Aldrich remained committed to the principle of personal loyalty. He financially supported a number of blacklisted individuals, including the widow of writer Hugo Butler, and furthermore refused to allow race to stand in the way of demonstrated competence, hiring the first African-American head of an electrical department in all of Hollywood. At the same time, when the opportunity arose to cash in his profits from The Dirty Dozen in 1966 and purchase his own studio, Aldrich arguably proved to be an “unwise martyr”. He made one unfortunate decision after another: from releasing the lesbian-focused melodrama The Killing of Sister George during the Christmas season of 1968 to taking the M.P.A.A. to court over their “X” rating for the film to presuming such a bleak and abusive drama as Too Late the Hero might repeat the audience-pleasing bravado of The Dirty Dozen . In Aldrich’s eyes, each of these films stood on their own (to him, considerable) merits, but failed at the box office due to a virtually systematic misjudgment of the zeitgeist. It seemed as if, like the hand grenade assault engaged in by Jim Brown’s character in The Dirty Dozen , Aldrich could not help dropping one explosive after another, only to have the result blow up in his face time and time again.

Furthermore, the series of films he directed set in Hollywood amount to one of the most dyspeptic portraits of the motion picture industry on record: they include The Big KnifeThe Legend of Lylah Clare, and the unreleased promotional reel The Greatest Mother of Them All (USA 1969). In each of them, Aldrich appeared to be eager not merely to bite but eviscerate the hands that fed him. To focus on but one, the overwrought Lylah Clare ends with a freeze frame of a dog commercial in which a pack of canines charge the camera; the image of a ravenous animal conjures up all the venom Aldrich held for a system that he alternately reviled and revered. At the same time, in his professional life, Aldrich never succumbed to the cynicism that pervaded his films. His acute professionalism extended beyond the set to the union office and bargaining table. Aldrich held an unflappable allegiance to the Director’s Guild of America (D.G.A.) throughout his career. He served as National Vice President from 1971 to 1975 followed by two terms as President from 1975-79. During that time, he helped to bring about some of the most radical changes in the entitlements granted to filmmakers then or since. These include reformation of the Trust & Retirement Fund, an overhaul of the Health & Welfare system, and a resolution of the dispute over directors’ right to alter scripts during the course of production as circumstances require.

Most important, a compact was instituted between the two producers associations and the D.G.A. that consecrated a director’s right to the full version of their film as they saw fit. Aldrich summarized the terms as follows:

So now in the latest contract, we have a provision whereby your employer, the studio, cannot dispense with your physical presence. A, you get to the picture first, nobody (else) cuts the picture. They will have to stay back and wait until you’re through. B, they can’t dispense with your body anymore. If they’re going to cut it, you’ve got to be there. If somebody else is going to score it, you’ve got to be there. If somebody else is going to take it to preview, you’ve got to be there. But … that’s minimum contract. [26]

The extent to which this agreement leveled the playing field is self evident, although Aldrich’s management of the accord damaged his own bargaining position and made his last years as a professional entertainer fraught with disappointment. Studio heads certainly did not forget the positions he took in negotiations and more than likely held them against him. “Remember the rules,” the scout McIntosh tells Lieutenant DeBuin in Ulzana’s Raid ; “The first one to make a mistake gets to burying some people.” More than once, Aldrich came close to interring himself.

At the same time, the trajectory of Aldrich’s career amounts to a courageous effort to remain true to his principles and confront the exercise of illicit power whether within the industry he loved or on the part of the characters he created. While his films provide one with many forms of pleasure, they never reduce themselves to the kind of self-congratulatory diminution of cinema that Andrew Britton has characterized as “Reaganite Entertainment.” Aldrich’s attraction to “fabulous destruction” and propensity for encouraging audiences to consider the outcome of its exercise amounts to the farthest thing from this dubious phenomenon. “Reaganite entertainment,” Britton states, “affirms through metaphors of disavowal and, when it maps the real, it most emphatically insists that we are exploring the land of make-believe.” [27] Notwithstanding Robin Wood’s characterization of him as an “emotional barbarian,” a comment he later retracted, one could argue that the director’s films not only prefigure but also epitomize the critic’s notion of the “incoherent text.” [28] The consistent dissonance, both thematic and stylistic, in Aldrich’s work illustrates not so much that he did not know what he wanted to say as that his endeavor to unify his ideas collided with the conflicts at the core of his being. Therefore, Aldrich time and again embroils his narratives in the “real” and refuses in the process to disavow their occupation of that fragile and fragmentary environment. We may neither admire nor accept the worlds he conceives, but we find ourselves, like Lieutenant DeBuin, compelled to understand them.

In conclusion, one can tell a great deal about a director’s career as much by what they did not film as what they did. The list of Aldrich’s unrealized projects is long and thought-provoking. One in particular stands out: the optioning in 1964 of Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky, which Aldrich’s son, William, would eventually produce under Bernardo Bertolucci’s direction in 1990. Bowles’s embrace of the abyss must have appealed to the director’s fascination with the emptiness that potentially obscures if not erases all human efforts. At the same time, while he never attempted to adapt a literary classic other than his failed effort to dramatize Gogol’s Taras Bulba, elements of his temperament would have been appropriate for Shakespeare, the violent tragedies in particular. Not withstanding the fact that it was his contemporary Anthony Mann who sought unsuccessfully to construct a contemporary version of King Lear , something about the mad king’s efforts to claim some logic amidst life’s worst calamities reflects Aldrich’s career. “The art of our necessities is strange,/ And can make vile things precious,” Shakespeare wrote.[29] In a similar manner, Aldrich at the least illustrates and at his best illuminates the humanity beneath his characters’ excesses while at the same time acknowledges that, in the end, for all our efforts, “nothing will come of nothing”.[30]


[1] Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America . (New York: Harper Collins, 1992) xiii
[2] David Thomson. A Biographical Dictionary of Film . 3rd edition (New York: Knopf 1994) 5.
[3] Part of the richness of Aldrich’s film arises from the fact that Sharp’s script refuses to parcel out either guilt or culpability to one party alone. In fact, the soldiers act as savagely as their quarry, a matter that particularly disrupts Lt. DeBuin’s rigid sense of morality. McIntosh says to him, “What bothers you is you can’t bear to think of white men behaving like Apaches. Kind of confuses the issue, don’t it?”
[4] Roy Harvey Pearce. Savagism and Civilization. A study of the Indian and the American mind (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965) v.
[5] John Fraser, Violence in the Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974) 7.
[6] Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a revolution,” in Jim Hillier, (ed), Cahiers du cinema. 1950s. Neo-realism, Hollywood, New Wave . (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985) 96.
[7] Aldrich’s depiction of gender is, admittedly, not so much an exception to this observation as a difficult test of its accuracy. On the one hand, as I will address later in this essay, his depiction of women in his Gothic melodramas Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) possesses an arguable degree of complexity, rendering Bette Davis’s protagonists at one and the same time harpy and heroine. On the other hand, he frequently severely caricatures the gender – Bernadette Peters’s big-haired bimbo in The Longest Yard (USA 1974) comes to mind – in such a manner that he rightfully deserves Robin Wood’s castigation of his work as that of an “emotional barbarian” [Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986) 32.
[8] Rivette, 96.
[9] Robin Wood. Arthur Penn . (New York: Praeger, 1969) pp. 12-13 .
[10] Fraser, 140.
[11] Quoted in Richard Combs (ed.). Robert Aldrich . (London: British Film Institute, 1978) 39.
[12] Quoted in Combs, 38.
[13] Alain Silver and James Ursini. What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? His Life and his Films . (New York: Limelight Editions, 1995) p. 346.
[14] David Thomson uses this language to describe Arthur Penn’s work, p. 579.
[15] Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema. Directors and Directions 1929-1968 . (New York: Dutton, 1968) p. 85.
[16] Jean-Pierre Coursodon (with Pierre Sauvage). American Directors volume II.(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984) 1.
[17] Combs, 3.
[18] Aldrich said of Peckinpah, “I think Peckinpah’s a fine director. I don’t think he’s as good as I am, but I think he’s sensational.” (Quoted in Silver and Ursini, 36). Connections between the two directors occur in Vera Cruz and The Flight of the Phoenix . The former predates and bears a narrative resemblance to The Wild Bunch as a body of duplicitous renegades engage in political machinations in Mexico. The latter features a credit sequence that resembles the opening of the 1969 western. Aldrich, like Peckinpah, freeze-frames his entire cast at the moment the titular plane crashes in the Arab desert. However, while Peckinpah’s black and white photogravure style simultaneously fixes his characters in time and implicitly romanticizes their exploits, Aldrich more matter-of-factly catches his characters at their moment of crisis and forces the viewer to confront their terror.
[19] Richard Gentner and Diane Birdsall, “Sam Peckinpah: Cutter.” Film Comment 17, no.1 (Jan.-Feb.1981): 37.
[20] Combs, 2.
[21] Lawrence Alloway, Violent America , the movies 1946-1964 . (Greenwich, Ct.: New York Graphic Society, 1971) 12.
[22] The body of these films are situated in the latter years of the 1960s and routinely feature notable actresses in roles that at times challenged audiences’ patience more than the performers’ talents. Among them are Tallulah Bankhead’s grim homicidal evangelist in Die! Die! My Darling (GB 1965) and Joan Crawford’s notable effort in nostril-flaring histrionics, Strait-Jacket (USA 1964). One of the most notable and prophetic of these narratives is Lady in a Cage (USA 1964), wherein Olivia de Havilland is trapped in her home and at the mercy of a group of thugs. This underrated film is both a devastating critique of “momism” as well as a telling prefiguration of the urban paranoia of the present day
[23] Edward T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller, The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986) 156-64.
[24] David Thomson. America in the Dark. (New York: Morrow, 1977) 82.
[25] The number of technicians Aldrich employed time and again would be hard to illustrate, but among his major collaborators are the following, with their number of associations: producer (and his son) William Aldrich (8), cinematographer Joe Biroc (15), producer Walter Blake (12), composer Frank DeVol (15), and editor Michael Luciano (20).
[26] Arnold and Miller, 216; for details about Aldrich’s tenure at the D.G.A., see Arnold and Miller, 213-17.
[27] Andrew Britton, “Blissing out. The politics of Reaganite entertainment.” Movie 31/32 (Winter 1986): 7.
[28] Wood [1986], 47.
[29] Shakespeare, King Lear , 3:2:70-71.
[30] Shakespeare, King Lear , 1:1;:99.

About the Author

David Sanjek

About the Author

David Sanjek

David Sanjek is the director of the BMI Archives. His publications on film have appeared in Cineaste, Film criticism, Post script, Literature/film quarterly, Spectator and Cinema Journal. He is a contributor to Re-viewing the British cinema, The films of Oliver Stone, and Cinesonic: the world of sound on film. His work on film will also appear in The horror studies reader; Film genre 2000: new critical essays; The trash reader; and Video versions: drama into film. He is at work on a collection of essays, Always on my mind: music, memory and money, and a study of musical copyright, Holding notes hostage: American popular music as intellectual property.View all posts by David Sanjek →