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Robert Aldrich's versatility comes back into focus

A Second Look: 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' and 'Twilight's Last Gleaming' showcase the director's skill at female melodramas and testosterone-driven tales.

October 14, 2012|By Dennis Lim
  • Joan Crawford, left, and Bette Davis in 1962's "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
Joan Crawford, left, and Bette Davis in 1962's "What Ever Happened… (Warner Bros. )

In many ways, Robert Aldrich was an independent filmmaker before the notion existed. Born into New England old money, he spent much of his life and career chafing against the system. From early on he insisted on being his own producer, and the success of "The Dirty Dozen" (1967) allowed him to set up his own Aldrich Studios, where he made some of his most adventurous work, up until the commercially disastrous "The Grissom Gang" (1971), his eccentric Depression-era tale of a kidnapping-turned-Stockholm syndrome romance.

Aldrich, who died in 1983 at age 65, had a fondness for histrionics, but the crudeness and cynicism of his films could be exhilarating. He was an expert conductor of chaos, fully attuned to the productive uses of anarchy. Fittingly, the most iconic image in all his films is the radioactive white light spilling out of the mystery Pandora's Box at the end of the atomic-age noir "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955).

It is one measure of his versatility that he excelled at both women's melodramas and macho testosterone-fests. The two Aldrich films coming to DVD are prime examples of each category.

Just out in a 50th-anniversary edition from Warner Home Video, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962) remains a classic of camp cinema, a key entry in the once-popular genre of grande-dame Grand Guignol. Less heralded — and perhaps one of the most underappreciated works of Aldrich's career — "Twilight's Last Gleaming" (1977), which Olive Films is releasing next month, is a nail-biting conspiracy thriller with an excoriating take on American foreign policy and the reason wars are waged.

"What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" — released two years before Susan Sontag included Bette Davis among her avatars of camp in her famous essay on the subject — reprises the aging-diva theatrics of "Sunset Boulevard" while cranking up the black-comic ghoulishness.

A showbiz cautionary tale in the form of full-blown gothic horror, it is at the very least consistent with Aldrich's long-held view of the industry as corrupt and soul-destroying, one that goes to his 1955 film "The Big Knife," adapted from a Clifford Odets play and starring Jack Palance as an alcoholic actor dealing with mafioso-like studio bosses.

The morbid fascination of "Baby Jane," which Walter Hill is set to remake, is tied to its documentary aspect, the way it offers a glimpse of its aging actors' egos and insecurities. The on-screen battle of wills between Davis' Jane, a onetime child star, and her sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford), who eclipsed Jane's acting career only to end up in a wheelchair, was reportedly matched by the off-screen drama between the stars.

Gossip columnists breathlessly chronicled the epic catfight, which culminated in an Oscar-night showdown. (Only Davis was nominated, but Crawford, who had arranged to accept on behalf of the eventual winner, Anne Bancroft, was the one who walked up to the stage.)

"Twilight's Last Gleaming" picks up the theme of nuclear paranoia more than 20 years after "Kiss Me Deadly." Back from Vietnam, an Air Force general (Burt Lancaster) goes rogue and takes over a nuclear missile silo in Montana, threatening to start a third world war if the new president (Charles Durning) does not reveal, on national television, the truth behind the Vietnam War.

The project had been circulating for a while by the time Aldrich got to it. He had the script rewritten, transforming it from a routine potboiler into a semi-crazed, conspiratorial rant. The result is far from subtle, and the politics are more than a bit simplistic, but the film's anger and sense of purpose are unmistakable and thrilling.

It's hard to imagine anyone in Hollywood today with the nerve or inclination to make such a bluntly political film on a still sensitive subject.

Another under-seen gem and one of Aldrich's oddest films, "The Legend of Lylah Clare" (1968), also made its DVD debut this year — it's available on demand through the Warner Archive Collection. Peter Finch plays a Hollywood director who casts a young ingenue (an amazing Kim Novak), a look-alike of his late wife and muse, in a film about the dead woman.

The presence of Novak in a dual role summons the specter of Hitchcock's "Vertigo," but the real point here is Aldrich's contempt for a ruthless, grotesque industry. The movie ends with a borderline-surreal punch line that about sums it up: a dog food commercial and the image of a pack of ravenous canines chowing down.

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