The hunter gets captured by the game: Robert Aldrich’s Hollywood

Uploaded 30 June 2000

This essay discusses three Robert Aldrich films that deal with the worlds of film production. The first is The Big Knife (USA 1955), a bitter, hyper-real tragedy set within the Hollywood studio star system, and which in 1955 was the first film to be produced under the Associates and Aldrich banner. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (USA 1962), a rather odd and quite transgressive star vehicle featuring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The Legend of Lylah Clare (USA 1968), made immediately following The Dirty Dozen (USA 1967), and, of these three films, Aldrich’s most typical and self-conscious example of the film-on-film genre. This essay will discuss these films in the context of Aldrich’s broader career and reputation, and situate them in relation to the film-on-film or Hollywood-on-Hollywood genre. In so doing, it examines the paradoxical nature of these three films with explicit emphasis upon how they represent such stereotypical elements as the star system and the spatial geography of Hollywood, as well as their importance in relation to Aldrich’s celebrated and much-touted independence. [1]

The game: Aldrich and the film-on-film genre

Despite obvious connections, this is a strange trio of films to examine collectively. They do not fit the conventional definition of a series. They appear to be disconnected and quixotic works. Although Aldrich often seems to express a love of the cinema – both when speaking about it and through the making of his films – all three of these “Hollywood” films are both bitter and extremely dispassionate works. In this respect, they reflect Aldrich’s frustration at never achieving real independence, an ideal of freedom that remains tantalisingly out-of-reach. Nevertheless, one must be careful not to misread these films, to overly generalise and schematise what they signify within the arc of Aldrich’s career. These films are not the outcome of a baroque or even playful cinephilia. (Such a condition informs such similarly themed works as Billy Wilder’s Sunset blvd. (a.k.a. Sunset Boulevard) (USA 1950), Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (France 1996), Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (Italy 1963), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris(France 1963).

Aldrich’s films in this mode do not seem to directly reflect or comment upon the conditions of their own making, nor display a playful interconnectedness. Such a tendency is discernible in works such as Abbas Kiarostami’s trilogy (Where is My Friend’sHouse?, Iran 1986, And Life Goes on, Iran 1991, and Through the Olive Trees, Iran 1994), and Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (USA 1952) and Two Weeks in Another Town (USA 1962). Each of the subsequent films in these two series attempts to internalise the previous work, creating a stratified and cumulative series of fictional levels. For example, the first film in Kiarostami’s trilogy is ostensibly “realist” in style and content. The second film is about the “director” of the first film returning to the area where the first film was made to find the two boys who starred in it. The third film revolves around the filming of a short sequence in the second film. Godard’s films in this genre, such as Le mépris and Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma (France 1986), also display a degree of interconnectedness and intertextuality (specifically with Minnelli’s films in the case of the former), while playfully reflecting the “actual” conditions of production of the films themselves. These films also speak volumes about Godard’s own position within international cinema at particular historical junctures. Aldrich’s films in this genre seem to largely reject such interconnected and autobiographical gestures. It is partly the lack of these characteristics that makes them difficult and fascinating works to consider within the rubric of auteurism and the film-on-film genre.

On their surface Aldrich’s three films purvey an overt, unambiguously negative view of Hollywood. Of course, as films produced in Hollywood they are themselves examples of this cinema and can thus be seen, initially, as contradictory or paradoxical texts. However, Aldrich’s “Hollywood” films do not seem or act like many other examples of this genre, and their priorities and points of focus are somewhat skewed. Christopher Ames has called the Hollywood-on-Hollywood genre a “paradoxical” form because it invariably critiques the system to which it belongs, and because this does not discount the films which sit within this genre from also belonging to Hollywood cinema.(1) It is typical for these films to present a relatively negative view of the Hollywood system, particularly the upper echelons of management and the manner in which commerce stifles the expressive potential of art. Rather than consider this genre as paradoxical, it might be more useful to think of it as “inevitable”, and its often critical approach to the film industry as part-and-parcel of the logic of the form itself. I suggest that this genre is “inevitable” because all art forms have a tendency towards self-regard, and the critical approach of this genre to the system is one of the key ways of making such works credible and not totally compromised. Although Aldrich’s three “Hollywood” films belong to this genre, it is quite revealing that Ames barely mentions them in his extended account of the Hollywood-on-Hollywood genre. This may well suggest that they are difficult, extreme or iconoclastic works that are hard to conceptualise alongside other generic examples.

These three films also speak of a more general ambivalence in Aldrich’s cinema. Meaning is often abstracted and elusive in his work. Characters display afaux sophistication, and utilise a set of grand gestures and stories inappropriate to the harsh worlds that the narratives carve out. In these three films we are given little sense of Hollywood producing anything other than dead, decaying, and blithely material films. The “system” is built upon repetition, fetishism and redundancy. Filmmaking as an activity is mostly absent. Even in The Legend of Lylah Clare, the only one of the three films that revolves around the production of an actual film, we never see the successful shooting of any scene until the fatal final sequence. This should not imply that Aldrich’s “Hollywood” films lack the characteristic iconography of the Hollywood-on-Hollywood genre. Such clichéd locations as swimming pools, Hollywood mansions, home screenings; character types like egomaniacal directors, yes-men, meek agents, and starlets; or situations such as the failing star’s dance toward death, or the Svengali director, creating a star from common clay – all are present. However, these elements are often only briefly glimpsed or suggested in order to appear diminished or be critiqued. Indeed, in The Legend of Lylah Clarerg these elements are given such breezy treatment that icons and situations become the stuff of pastiche.

There is also something inflated and pretentious – or just plain aspirational – about certain aspects of Aldrich’s Hollywood films. [2]  This inflated quality is noticeable in several aspects of these films, including their self-conscious, quizzical, obliquely suggestive, and almost biblical dialogue, and their numerous visual and verbal references to modern art. It is also an aspect of the big themes (e.g. celestial, biblical, nuclear, existential) that these films seriously and playfully explore ? themes whose precise significance often stays just beyond the understanding of the audience and the films’ characters. However, these aspects invariably seem quoted, impure, not quite serious, and part of a larger exaggerated effect or strategy that the films deploy. (This contributes significantly to the attraction of these films to us now.) At the same time, Aldrich’s films are commonly described in terms of their dynamic, overtly cinematic and refreshingly raw qualities. Many of these descriptions utilise a language that is informed by an appreciation of B-movie aesthetics, and a recognition of the principles of auteurism. For example, Claude Chabrol sums up Aldrich in the following manner: “His films resembled him: lean, extrovert, punchy, framed in concrete and edited with a trowel. Enough to wake up any sleeping film buff.” [3]  These inflated and serious, impure and somewhat playful aspects add much to the contradictory flavour and combinatory nature of Aldrich’s work.

Aldrich is often also lauded, or criticised, for the treatment of violence in his films. However, this “trilogy” – let’s call it that, though this suggests a unity or sense of development not immediately apparent in these three films – investigates a different kind of violence, a violence done mostly to bodies and actors by the mechanism of cinema itself. It is this type of violence which remains under-analysed in studies of Aldrich’s work [See Adrian Martin’s article elsewhere in this issue. –Ed.]. Perhaps this is because this impulse or preoccupation appears as contradictory or secondary to our received conceptions of Aldrich. It is also significant that these three films rarely dominate or are used to lead discussion on his work. This is strange, as one would expect that such outwardly self-conscious films would be presumed to express or reflect particular aspects of a director’s work, as do similar films by Godard, Wilder, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami and Minnelli. (Godard, Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami even force the spectator to note some of these connections by performing, both as “themselves” and other characters, in their own films.) Even an obvious director figure like that played by Peter Finch in The Legend of Lylah Clare tells us little about Aldrich as an authorial presence or essence, other than in the film’s rather lame references to “his” critical reappraisal by Cahiers du cinéma and the Cinémathèque Française. Yet, these three films also present what is one of the most sustained and consistent sets of thematic and spatial markers anywhere in Aldrich’s cinema – one can even plot them at convenient, almost revealing, points in his career. [4] Despite all this, Aldrich himself has nevertheless been reserved in reading any of these films in an autobiographical, reflexive or ironic fashion. For example, Aldrich warned against such an “obvious” ironic reading of The Big Knife,”It seemed almost too pat that I should be shooting a theme of major-studio wickedness on Hollywood’s smallest lot.” [5]

The Hunter: Associates and Aldrich versus Hollywood

Associates and Aldrich was formed in 1955 after the modest success of Kiss Me Deadly, and produced fourteen films over the next seventeen years. The company’s foundation continued (rather than initiated) a post-war movement towards independent producers and production companies. Associates and Aldrich were specifically determined to make an issue of this independent (non-studio) status by producing work that critically addressed some bourgeois American conventions. The company adapted the methods of exploitation and poverty row movie producers to market, as well as to stylise, its product. At the same time, the films produced by the company transcend many of the aesthetic, thematic and technical limitations associated with this cinema. The amalgamation of these two traditions or conditions in the films produced by Associates and Aldrich underlines the hybrid qualities of Aldrich’s cinema.  The Big Knife was the first film produced under its auspices. Its Hollywood-on-Hollywood settings and themes make it a deliberately iconoclastic and antagonistic production by exploring the terrain of the cinema from which it expresses a degree of separation.

In terms of production, financing, resources and control, Aldrich’s three “Hollywood” films exist in a sort of nether-world between more mainstream studio-based production and truly independent cinema. They are essentially schizophrenic works which cannot help but betray their heterogenous influences and sources (in terms of production and distribution systems, genre, and narrative). Within these limits or parameters they use the most unlikely of resources. There is an emphasis on the oddity of certain actors’ features or bodies, their age, or even the wilful exploitation of the difficulty and confusion of their performance. In Aldrich’s “Hollywood” films the fundamental battle between art and commerce, so central to films of the film-on-film genre, is hardly a battle at all as commerce comes to so completely dominate, alienate, fetishise and disfigure the films’ characters and worlds. Most films of this genre play in the space between these two extremes while establishing a medium, happy or otherwise. Aldrich’s films only vaguely suggest the possibility of such choices and pragmatic compromises, choices which actually are nowhere in sight.

In keeping with this, The Big Knife gives little sense of Hollywood as an artistic, economic, social and/or production system. The film depicts Hollywood as categorically seedy and fallen; in-bred, corrupt and criminal. Rather than stressing studio corporatism or end-of-Hollywood Hollywood, the film employs the model of organised crime, complete with studio bosses who give false blessings, vaguely suggested mob hits: every second line spoken sounds like an ominous threat. The script, based on Clifford Odets’s vitriolic play, is less a coherent argument about Hollywood than a tirade of brilliant one-liners which both inflate and deflate the dialogue’s epic importance. The collective dialogue of the characters resembles the singular dialogue of Gloria Swanson in Sunset blvd. (a.k.a. Sunset Boulevard) This bombastic, theatrical and epigramatic dialogue (typical of Aldrich’s films) evokes a universe dominated by epic figures competing on a celestial playing field. In this regard, the film bears comparison with a Sergio Leone film, but with none of the knowing world-weariness or obviously expressive landscapes. In films like The Big Knife and Kiss Me Deadly we witness the end of a “classical” world; or, rather, this world and its sense of order have ended, replaced by a meaningless, arbitrary but also self-important morass. As Aldrich has often suggested, it is only the struggle, no matter how pointless, against or within this lost, orderless world that matters:

Maybe the end is doomed, but it’s possible to have temporary victories… And that’s man’s measure of himself. That knowing about the doom he continues to struggle… Why not struggle and maximize the victories. They may not come, probably won’t come, but they might come, and if they come you’re one victory ahead of total defeat. [6]

Gestures such as Palance’s off-screen suicide in The Big Knife, Joan Crawford’s admission of guilt towards the end of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Novak’s grotesque, banal and clichéd dying-for-her-art in The Legend of Lylah Clare, are exemplary of this stoic position.

The Big Knife is openly bitter and critical of the commercial straightjacketing and typecasting that the Hollywood studio system embodies. It is concerned with the struggles of a Hollywood actor to break free from the contracts, systems of power, and moral quagmire that define his professional experience. In the process, the film side-steps the irony of being a “Hollywood” film adaptation of a play that stringently critiques the film industry. Aldrich seems uninterested, at this point in his career, in the complexities and compromises that such an adaptation entails. This is exemplified by the film’s script which offers a pithy, extreme, vulgar and negative representation of the top studio brass. Aldrich gives a sense of the film’s less-than-subtle approach to its characters and situations when describing the correspondences between the character of the studio boss Hoff (played by Rod Steiger), and various studio executives of the day (Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer):

But when everybody worked under those guys, they hated them. So we took the drum roll from Nuremberg and put it under the Hoff character’s entrances and exits??? The Hoff crying [in order to convince Palance’s Charlie Castle to sign his contract] came from Mayer, who is reported to have been able to cry at the drop of an option. But the big rebuff that Odets suffered was at the hands of Columbia, so there was more Cohn in the original play than there was of Mayer. [7]

Given its timing, The Big Knife seems to articulate a very real separation from the systems to which it now appears to closely belong. The film speaks of Aldrich’s attitude to the broader film industry. It is surely a provocative film to make as a marker of initial independence: it expresses a simplicity, a fortitude, and an obviousness that are no longer appropriate by the time of the bloated epic, The Legend of Lylah Clare.

Despite its quite extreme, self-conscious, theatrical quality, and comparative immobility, The Big Knife has affinities with Aldrich’s most celebrated and dynamic film, Kiss Me Deadly. The films share several actors, are made by basically the same set of technicians, have similar cryptic dialogue and excessive performances, and seem to rely on a jazzy visual style that tends to fragment the body, emphasising it as a site over which the battle of meaning ensues. The Big Knife notably plays upon the reputation of Jack Palance as a physical, expressive and explicitly facial actor who is commonly associated with a grimace or sneer that seems to be constantly plastered on his face. The manner in which sounds rush from his mouth or his words seem tightened indexes the themes of constrictedness and compromise that preoccupy the film. Palance’s energy and frustration find nowhere constructive to express themselves, at least not within the confined space of this film, or this Hollywood. It is only upstairs, out of frame, that his character can finally open his veins, thus freeing himself from the pictorial and studio confinement to which he is subjected throughout the film. There are bouts of action which relieve the tension in these three “Hollywood” films. However, at the same time, characters are often contained within, squeezed into, or dismembered, by the frame. This spatial constriction is contrasted with, and reiterated by, the domestic interiors that dominate these films, and which help define characters’ relationships to each other, as well as the industry and topos from where they emanate. The houses in The Big Knife and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? lack the characteristically sinister or obviously Gothic qualities of the Hollywood-on-Hollywood film. Both are light and suburban, almost mundane, rather than haunted, although the iconography of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has something of a suburban Gothic feel. In this sense, the domestic environments in these films mirror a broader set of suburban concerns that are unusual in the Hollywood-on-Hollywood film.

Human geography

Aldrich’s three “Hollywood” films are focused upon the mechanics of the star image. However, they are not as concerned with how this star image is or can be developed or uncovered in examples such as the rags-to-riches story, and its reverse, observable in films like A Star is Born (USA 1937; 1954; 1976) and What Price Hollywood? (USA 1932). It is typical for films of the Hollywood-on-Hollywood genre to focus upon or at least feature stars, but this normally serves as a portal through which the broader conditions and mechanisms of the film industry are examined. Such films explicitly focus upon the business aspect of the industry and the struggle between art and commerce.

Aldrich’s three films are much less fixated with the baroque grandeur and excessiveness of old Hollywood. (These elements are typical of the Hollywood-on-Hollywood genre, and are parodied in The Legend of Lylah Clare.) Nor do they concentrate on the battles between commerce and art. Rather, they are more concerned with grotesqueries created by this system. Each film deals with how stars are affected in their very being by the workings of commerce, reification and commodification. Aldrich’s “Hollywood” is predominantly an actor’s cinema. The films dissect how this community constructs, treats, fetishises and remembers its stars. This state of things is self-consciously evoked by Rod Steiger’s brutal studio boss as he tries to persuade Palance’s character to sign his contract in The Big Knife: “I need your body, not your good will.”

All three films try to penetrate and fragment the bodies, faces and multiple personas of their stars. This is achieved partly as a result of unusual editing and framing strategies in a film like The Big Knife. The films exemplify a disfigurement of star and space that is part of a broader disfiguring in Aldrich’s cinema of genre, narrative, and mise en scene. In the process, a genuinely fetishistic cinema is created that is populated by stars who do not quite seem to fulfil classical Hollywood (or even Method) acting models, either in terms of appearance or performance style. This fetishism is exemplified by the (apparently unlikely) casting of Jack Palance as the movie star in The Big Knife. Alain Silver and James Ursini describe Palance’s face as an “afflicted visage”.[8] Aldrich’s films are generally populated by characters and stars whose faces and bodies do not conform to the Hollywood regimen of appearances or who have seen better days. This is true of the hyper-expressive ensemble of Shelley Winters, Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey and Rod Steiger in The Big Knife. It can be discerned in the aging and grotesquely familiar-yet-strange Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (where the deformities of stardom are played-out upon the body of one and the face of the other). And it applies to the ghostly, hysterical and repetitive performance of Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare. This method lends

Aldrich’s cinema, in these examples at least, a bizarre, grotesque, almost inhuman, human geography. Thus, the star system displayed in these films is in turns arbitrary, redundant and/or reiterative. It is a far cry from the magically or tragically ethereal world that it is often represented as being within this genre. For example, the intangibility of what makes and breaks a star is one of the subjects of George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? The demonstration of the star quality of this film’s young ingenue is only comprehensible because we know, in fact, that the actor who plays this character is really a star, even if the bit part performance she gives in the sequence from her “first” film does not indicate her star appeal. By contrast, Aldrich’s films are often preoccupied with the inevitable failure and futility of the “individualism” that informs this star system:

What Aldrich offers as an alternative world-view is a vision of an unbalanced universe in which the obvious moral centers are subverted and where individual action is futile. [9]

In each case, these films appear to be infected with a case of “sibling rivalry” (literally the theme of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). Each operates, if obliquely, in relation to other, absent films. The Big Knife seems to refer to a film like In a lonely place(USA 1950), while What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? resonates with Sunset blvd. (a.k.a. Sunset Boulevard) and The Legend of Lylah Clare with Vertigo (USA 1958). The presence of key actors in these films either recalls one of their previous performances or foreshadows a future performance. Aspects of Palance’s performance and character in The Big Knife are hollowed-out, repeated and reversed in Godard’s Le méprisThe Big Knife‘s grandiloquent dialogue is riffed upon by Palance as producer, quoting maxims from little red books and yearning for an older Hollywood which can now only express itself in, through and on the ruins – geographic, metaphoric, and human – that surround him. One of the oddest qualities of Aldrich’s films are that they seem to encourage, or even necessitate, such a future intertextual dialogue or exchange. For example, Bette Davis consciously recreated and refined her Baby Jane persona for the “sequel”, Hush??? Hush, Sweet Charlotte (USA 1964) and clearly continued to do so in other films such as The Anniversary (GB 1968).

Films… films. What the hell ever happened to movies? What do you think you’re in, the art business?” [10]  

All of these explicitly self-conscious elements exist alongside what is still an extremely visceral, brutal and quite direct cinema. The Big Knife uses many techniques we might well associate with a more “authentic”, untheatrical and less illusory cinema. It is this tension between a kind of realism and a concomitant brittle artificiality that is central to the paradox of these films. This tension gives us a clue as to why these three films do not reflect upon their own conditions of production to any great extent. Although Aldrich’s films are often honest, raw, brutal, modern and decidedly non-classical, they seldom seem “real” or realist, nor in some way are they “felt”. The central performances in Aldrich’s films often seem like a put-on or an exaggeration. For example, both Crawford and Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? give performances that extrapolate upon and stylise aspects of their established, if fading, star personas. The narratives of these films frequently claim territory and express themselves in language too grand to fit diegetically into the tawdry and indifferent worlds they map-out. For example, much of the dialogue in The Big Knife sounds like a well-scripted, polyvocal tirade against the industry. However, these qualities also contribute much to the power and strangeness of these films. In The Legend of Lylah Clareand The Big Knife Aldrich uses stars who can be characterised, or even defined, as insecure or brittle. In some sense the actors used are not believable or convincing as stars, despite the fact that they are, indeed, stars. They are stars who are often beyond their prime (Davis and Crawford), or who do not fit a particular template of the studio starlet or leading man (Palance and Novak). To some extent these actors seem to encourage or accept Aldrich’s somewhat brutal treatment. It is as if the Hollywood these characters dream of and act within no longer exists. There is a grandness of gesture here that is inappropriate. This is exemplified by the final “curtain-calls” of the Novak and Palance characters. Their deaths bring a halt to proceedings, but fall a little flat as meaningful, or even usefully moral, gestures, even if this is the only gesture or stance that Palance’s Charlie has left. Characters in these films do not speak words or thoughts. Rather, they utter, or almost read, their dialogue. This is particularly true of Rod Steiger’s character Hoff in The Big Knife. His dialogue seems to be completely made up of epigrams and mottos. Furthermore, his actions, emotions and handling of objects (like the pen supposedly “used by Douglas MacArthur”) are all choreographed perfectly to achieve particular ends (and are accompanied by a dramatic drum roll).

In The Legend of Lylah Clare there is much on display that is prescient of contemporary film practice, such as its reliance upon pastiche, surface textures, and a mode of performance which seems to only partially belong to the character. However, the film as a whole lacks weight, substance and any kind of conviction. It is as if there is no longer any energy left to deal with this most labyrinthine of self-reflexive subjects. This is despite the film’s heightened self-consciousness and intertextuality signposted right from the film’s opening credit sequence: a cinema advertises The Dirty Dozen while Kim Novak strolls down Hollywood Boulevard and gazes revealingly at the star on the sidewalk dedicated to that epitome of Hollywood scandal, Fatty Arbuckle. A grotesque, deathly and exhausted quality settles over the film. Finally, what is most interesting about these three films is that they are not that interesting, or emblematic. Or perhaps they are not sufficiently interesting, revealing or emblematic in the ways one might expect in terms of the Hollywood-on-Hollywood genre. They do not appear to shed much light on Aldrich’s own filmmaking practice, position, or authorship.

Aldrich’s three “Hollywood” films are less developed, consistent, coherent, and obvious works than other generic examples produced by Minnelli, Wilder and Cukor. Their films, such as The Bad and the Beautiful, Sunset blvd. (a.k.a. Sunset Boulevard) and A Star is Born are much more understandable and conventionally paradoxical examinations of the industry in which such films are made. For example, the resurrection of Gloria Swanson performed in and by Sunset blvd. (a.k.a. Sunset Boulevard) follows a more conventional pattern than the “return” of Davis and Crawford in What ever happened to Baby Jane?, a film that is less concerned with celebrating a particular mode and history of performance than with providing a canvas on which its stars can deface and distort their own images and histories. Aldrich’s films within this mode are consistent in theme, yet jumbled in tone. They rely upon Hollywood’s raw materials , yet also reject them at the same time. They work within a star system that they also deface. This paradox, which runs much deeper than in the non-Aldrich works cited above, extends to the aesthetic quality of The Legend of Lylah Clare. This film is, in turn, fascinating and quite terrible. Its lack of quality is evident in its reliance upon clichés, somnambulistic performances, almost psychedelic textures, and its construction around colour-coded flashbacks that recall Rashomon (Japan 1950). Yet its awfulness often makes it wilful and fascinating. This shows in Kim Novak’s inability to live up to the star image of, well, Kim Novak, which is in itself a very interesting representational and institutional cul-de-sac. It is as if the film deliberately evokes other films, images, performances, including those found elsewhere in Aldrich’s cinema, for the purposes of emphasising that it can never live up to them. One might compare, for example, Steiger’s manipulative and menacing studio executive in The Big Knife with that of Ernest Borgnine in The Legend of Lylah Clare. Thus, what is demonstrated by these Aldrich films, The Legend of Lylah Clare in particular, is a self-consciousness about self-consciousness. This quality is neatly, if almost accidentally, described by Renata Adler in her New York Times review of The Legend of Lylah Clare:

The Legend of Lylah Clare  is a takeoff on some of the highly serious tragic movies Hollywood has made about itself – a takeoff so faithful in spirit that it is almost indistinguishable from its model. [11]

All I have suggested in this essay hints at a kind of teleological narrative of Hollywood that could be deciphered from these three films. This trajectory moves through three stages. First, the depiction of the end of the classical Hollywood studio system ? defined in terms of apocalyptic, almost biblical dialogue and classical theatrics ? glimpsed in The Big Knife . Although the studio system has lapsed in this stage, it still props up and/or destroys stars. Second, the ghostly, psychotic suburban afterglow of Hollywood apparent in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  is indicative of a Hollywood where careers and movies are resurrected on the diminished canvas of television, while Hollywood mansions are transformed into more manageable and decidedly less Gothic bungalows. Last, Hollywood is defined by the postmodern resurrection and pastiche of stars and systems. The Legend of Lylah Clare  exemplifies this version of Hollywood through its mimicry, endless repetition and mirroring of previous models. This mimicry and repetition is both a subject of the film and a condition of the film itself. Novak’s character is chosen to impersonate/play the character of a famous, but now dead, star (Lylah Clare), a performance she ostensibly fails to live up to (despite the fact that Novak plays both roles). Thus, the doppelgänger subject of Aldrich’s film has many similarities to Hitchcock’s Vertigo , a film that is also about Novak’s failure to live up to her previously constructed image. The Legend of Lylah Clare  almost seems aware of its own limitations and deficiencies, and resorts to a series of intertextual reflections which flaunt its less-than-lofty stature and (inevitable) reputation. Essentially, like Hitchcock, Aldrich appears to be a very self-conscious auteur. The nature and point of this self-consciousness is among the most bewildering and fascinating aspects of his films. These three films about Hollywood, though all different, are almost monotonal in their approach towards and disdain for the mechanics of Hollywood itself – where the main sites of “disturbance” are stars, actors and acting, for many the most visible and readily identifiable part of the system. All three films equally express the ambivalence of Aldrich’s cinema, and plot the ways in which his films both buck the system and trace its contours.

But, you know, you can have a certain fondness for the way Cohn and Mayer got things done. Cohn took a while to realize that I did The Big Knife . Halfway through the “honeymoon” period when I was signed with Columbia, he asked me, “Did you do The Big Knife ?” I said, “Yes.” “You son of a bitch. If I’d known that you never would have been here.” [12]


[1] For a discussion of the paradoxical nature of this genre see, Christopher Ames, Movies about Movies: Hollywood Reflected  (Lexington, The University Press of Kentucky: 1997), 4-5.
[2] See, Claude Chabrol, “B.A., or a dialectic of survival,”Projections 4 1/2 , ed. John Boorman and Walter Donahue (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995), 37.
[3] Alain Silver and James Ursini, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? His Life and his Films  (New York: Limelight Editions, 1995), 348.
[4] At times Aldrich returned to particular genres to produce works which were significant departures to his previous work in that field. His westerns Apache  (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), The Last Sunset  (1961), 4 for Texas  (1963), Ulzana’s Raid  (1972) and The Frisco Kid  (1979) represent, alongside his trio of Hollywood-on-Hollywood films, the most sustained dialogue with a single genre. And yet, like his three “Hollywood” films, it is not easy to track a teleological progression across these six films.
[5] Robert Aldrich quoted in Edward T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller, The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), 53.
[6] John Calendo, “Robert Aldrich says life is worth living,” Interview  no. 35, 30.
[7] Silver and Ursini, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? , 348.
[8] Silver and Ursini, 122.
[9] George Robinson, “Three by Aldrich,” The Velvet Light Trap  no. 11 (Winter 1974): 46.
[10] A line spoken by Barney Sheean (Ernest Borgnine), the studio head in The Legend of Lylah Clare .
[11] Renata Adler cited in Film Facts vol. 11, no. 21 (1 December, 1968): 346.
[12] Silver and Ursini, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? , 348.

About the Author

Adrian Danks

About the Author

Adrian Danks

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published widely in a range of books and journals including: Senses of Cinema, Metro, Screening the Past, Studies in Documentary Film, Studies in Australasian Cinema, Australian Book Review, Screen Education, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Traditions in World Cinema, Melbourne in the 60s, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, Contemporary Westerns, B is for Bad Cinema, Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave, Being Cultural, World Film Locations: Melbourne and Sydney, and Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films. He is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley, 2015), co-editor of American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave, 2018) and is currently writing several books including monographs devoted to 3-D Cinema (Rutgers) and "international" feature-film production in Australia during the postwar era (Australian International Pictures, with Con Verevis, to be published by Edinburgh University Press)."View all posts by Adrian Danks →