Unsung Auteurs: Robert Aldrich

February 9, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: tough-minded Robert Aldrich, who helmed The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard.

Though largely unheralded today, Robert Aldrich is one of the most individualistic, independent and bloody-minded filmmakers to work in the modern era. With his brusque manner, no-nonsense attitude and strength of commitment, Robert Aldrich only occasionally bowed to the powers that be, and even then it would be with a steely glint in his eye and a hearty sense of resistance.

Despite his blue-collar attitude to filmmaking, Aldrich was a child of privilege, born in 1917 to a Rhode Island banking family. He played football and studied economics at the University Of Virginia, but pulled away from his family’s influence, instead seeking a career in the movies. He chased it at exactly the right time: an old football injury had kept Aldrich out of the military, and at the time, there was a severe lack of man power due to WW2, meaning that Aldrich was quickly promoted out of his entry level job at RKO Studios, and bumped up to the position of assistant director and production manager, where he would spent the next decade working for esteemed directors like Lewis Milestone, Joseph Losey, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky and Charlie Chaplin.

Robert Aldrich

Aldrich moved into TV in the early ‘50s, before making his feature directorial debut in 1953 with the sports drama The Big Leaguer. The film failed to make any real impact, and Aldrich went back to TV, where he toiled diligently until top-shelf star Burt Lancaster recognised a kindred spirit. Lancaster tapped Aldrich to take the reins on the western Apache, which the actor had set up through his production company. A mix of spirited action, social comment and revisionist daring, the film would set the blueprint for Aldrich’s career, which would be built on a foundation of genre-based accessibility and probing intelligence.

Following Apache with the hit western Vera Cruz (with Lancaster and Gary Cooper) and the grimy film noir Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich was in a strong enough position to set up his own production company, which he amusingly called Associates And Aldrich. His first project, The Big Knife – an adaptation of the Clifford Odets play about a struggling Hollywood actor – was loved in France, but failed to ignite at the box office, sending Aldrich back to studio filmmaking, where he plugged away with varied success. His best film during this period was Attack, still one of the strongest US anti-war films.

Robert Aldrich on the set of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

Aldrich found true voice again with 1962’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, a female-heavy horror-melodrama seemingly at odds with his more masculine brand of filmmaking. Aldrich returned to similar territory with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and proved again that he was a fine director of women with the controversial drama The Killing Of Sister George, an uncompromising depiction of a lesbian relationship. The audacity of that film was largely afforded by the work that preceded it: the anti-authoritarian war film The Dirty Dozen. The film was such a massive hit that it gave Aldrich the kind of carte blanche he so desperately coveted, allowing him to work outside the studio system for a number of years. He directed a series of harsh, uncompromising films (the anti-war drama Too Late The Hero, the aforementioned The Killing Of Sister George, the scathing anti-Hollywood rant The Legend Of Lylah Clare) that failed to connect with audiences, which sent Aldrich back to the major companies.

Despite being shackled, he continued to make strong films (Ulzana’s Raid, Emperor Of The North Pole, The Longest Yard, The Frisco Kid, Twilight’s Last Gleaming), though a number of setbacks would combine to ultimately break the director’s formidable spirit. He was deposed as president of the Directors’ Guild Of America after he had successfully lobbied for more creative rights during his 1975 to 1979 tenure, and retired from the business in 1981. He passed away two years later from kidney failure, leaving behind a strong body of work and a reputation as one of American cinema’s great iconoclasts.

Robert Aldrich on the set of The Dirty Dozen.



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