World for Ransom

The H-bomb might go either way for a price, the war is vivid in many a memory, thus the United States position, which undoubtedly is naïve in many a mind.

Singapore from Shanghai before the war, it comes out rather badly, rather coldly.

The lottery gag from Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre opens and closes the thing, Sternberg also figures in the main event, Reed’s The Third Man has been noticed.

“Nothing gives it distinction” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times).

“A tiny wonder” (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader).

“We’re in Cold War country here” (Time Out Film Guide).



It seems typical of Robert Aldrich’s sense of style that the work is couched in terms of the severest Surrealism, and of his supreme artifice that the whole thing should be presented ultimately in terms of a joke.

This revolt or turning away from civilization and its trappings for a simpler mode of living finds itself thrust into an even greater wilderness, where a man of the new world apprises it of cultivation. Eventually the pilgrim and his puritan way of life must come to grips with the dilemma of culture, and the joke here is on domestic tranquility and the burdens of parenting.

Burt Lancaster studied Douglas Fairbanks the way Laurence Olivier studied Valentino. This is his film as much as anyone’s, and the middle sequence of Massai’s raids on the pony soldiers exactly mirrors Labiche’s Maquis operations in The Train.

Massai escapes from a prison train and hitches a ride on another. Walking through a cornfield, he snatches a scarecrow’s hat (his own scarecrow later on will have two feathers). In a great sequence, he’s on Main Street after dark, a fire wagon belching flames roars by him, a trolley lumbers past, newspapers are hawked at him, a man holds out a hat but isn’t offering him the money in it, another man is eating an opulent dinner behind glass, yet another is sitting outdoors in a wooden chair as blacking is applied to his shoes, through a door a Chinese man and woman are seen pressing clothes, richly attired folks are entering a fashionable shop with a man in a uniform at the door, ladies wear bustles, a player piano is demonstrated to the crowd on the sidewalk (and behind Massai in the reverse shot is a sign for an Iron Works), a small dog attacks his foot while men jape, he flees down a long hotel corridor, through a room and out a window into the dark night lit by streetlamps, accompanied by screams.

In a barn, he eats corn from a cattle trough (cp. the dream of the Prodigal Son in Buñuel’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe).

The influences may be perceived on The Outsider, Lonely Are the Brave, and later with his bride, Bonnie and Clyde, to cite but a few examples.

Aldrich’s viewpoint is stark and realistic. These whites are brutal, but he moves from an instance of this into a comfortable interior with a pipe-smoking officer, each detail on his desk an integral labor like the skins pieced together on the wooden armature of a tepee.

A remark of Aldrich’s has been cruelly misunderstood (like the film itself) to mean the ending is a violation of the auteur’s intent, but this is exactly the situation of Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

The technique of filming is in sharp, accurate cuts, the way a flint arrowhead is made. Lighting is miraculously used here and there as an expressive element.



Vera Cruz

The dazzling opening sequence shows the divisions and forces in play, and culminates in the gag from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the two American adventurers (Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster) in the town plaza are ringed by hundreds of Juaristas on the rooftops.

This is one of the masterpieces reflecting Vera Cruz more or less closely. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Guillermin’s El Condor, Leone’s Giù la testa, Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara, all directly respond to it, and there are remote relations to Lester’s Cuba and Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. If you follow a line of thought from What Price Glory, you arrive at Bertolucci’s 1900, with Burt Lancaster.

Peckinpah, above all, has absorbed it completely. From the barest suggestion of the first shot (Gary Cooper in the middle of nowhere with an exhausted horse) he arrived at length at The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The relation of the two characters figures in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and the conclusion of that film is derived from Aldrich.

But even more than that, Peckinpah’s editing originated here, in the Juarista assault on the fortress. It starts with the rapid-fire cutting of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and builds to the intercutting of The Wild Bunch without the slow motion, but with Ernest Borgnine.

A key scene, which might have been an influence on Sir David Lean, is a long shot of French cavalry escorting a fabulous carriage past the great pyramids of Mexico, followed by a POV halfway up one pyramid with a campesino (from Eisenstein, perhaps).


Kiss Me Deadly

Hammer’s function is to split marriages in this atomic allegory (he takes the wives, his ballerina-sexetary the husbands, in divorce cases).

The “whatsit” will institutionalize a naked girl or incinerate a greedy one, Hammer and his sexetary cling to each other in the surf.

Some say the Legion of Decency brought about cuts that enforced a nihilistic perspective against its presumable wishes. Variety was perplexed, Truffaut saw it unaltered on the Champs-Elysées, where “the public took to it”.


The Big Knife

Rouault’s clown, MacArthur’s pen, “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”, Macbeth, there you have the makings of an objective correlative, if you care to have one, or something tending that way.

Nicholas Ray solves the very same problem in a very logical way for In a Lonely Place, the banker done it.

Odets plays fast and loose with the Shavian categories for quite another purpose, his hero is an Idealist opposed by a Philistine, who in turn is abetted by a Realist.

This is the Hollywood dilemma, one wrong turn and you’re working for a putz, your wife’s leaving you and you’re facing oblivion, it happens all the time.

Variety gave its imprimatur, “an inside Hollywood story”. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called the hero “a dunce”. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker said it was “garish and overdone”. Halliwell’s Film Guide speaks of “Art and Mammon”, Time Out Film Guide of “a rather precious liberal conscience”.

The rather merciless quality of the play is maintained as a vital attribute derived from Rope, to increase the sense of fatality in continuous playing. The spacious designs give clear lines (a development from Kiss Me Deadly) forming a picture of the business.


Autumn Leaves

This has been badly misunderstood as some form of weepie, its firm basis is Litvak’s The Snake Pit.

The psychological shocks that lead to madness are derived from that film in the two principals as a mirror image, the lonely spinster and the cuckolded son, a delay has been introduced in their lives, each sees to it that the other is healed.

Crowther was so convinced it was rubbish he disprized the performances as well, for consistency’s sake.

Neurosis, schizophrenia tending toward psychosis, are the same as a life withering on the vine. The treatment is successful, as in Litvak’s film.



The judge’s son is a pathological coward, he joined the National Guard and became a company commander under the ægis of a childhood friend with political ambitions. At the Siegfried Line, a platoon goes out on the coward’s promise of support and doesn’t come back. One platoon leader vows revenge.

Aldrich opens on a beautiful day, grassy slopes, a German pillbox uphill. The downhill “track meet” into La Nelle ends at a bombarded city crawling with SS. He anticipates the fine technique of Furie’s trilogy in superbly complex interiors.


The Angry Hills

An extraordinarily fruitful film, coming as it does from Cloak and Dagger (dir. Fritz Lang) and Hitler’s Madman (dir. Douglas Sirk) and Ill Met by Moonlight (dirs. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) to prepare J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone and CaboBlanco, Melville’s L’Armée des ombres, even Pasolini’s Medea.

The Nazi Occupation of Greece. “They actually propose to destroy a whole people, and you think he’s not going to kill your kids?!?”

Even Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, from Henry King’s A Bell for Adano to Schepisi’s The Russia House, a host of inventions on the theme, and Sebastian Cabot’s impression of Sydney Greenstreet.

Howard Thompson of the New York Times, “might have really meant something.” Variety, “a rather confused yarn”. Time Out finds “interest around the edges,” TV Guide “this wobbly script,” Halliwell’s Film Guide “little characterization.”


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

The so-called “Camp Grand Guignol” is actually a set of themes identical to Bergman’s trilogy (Aldrich caps the eventual resemblance with a trio from Griffith, Those Awful Hats, Orphans of the Storm, Broken Blossoms).

The major theme is Through a Glass Darkly (“I’ve written a letter to Daddy”), the minor is also akin to Wild Strawberries (a doctor’s forgiveness).

Crowther thought it had no significance at all, Variety was bored by the “draggy” opening and missed the weeping jack-in-the-box that so frightens Baby Jane.

The emperor of ice cream is announced as the Alpha and Omega. A parody of Sunset Blvd. and the last scene of Kiss Me Deadly have been observed.


the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah

The exodus of the Hebrews from “these places” is the keynote of a structure closely related to DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, a fact noted by Bosley Crowther in an incomprehensibly deranged New York Times review (“no more truth or drama in it than a burlesque show dressed in union suits”).

Geoff Andrew of Time Out Film Guide is contemptuously blasé  (“a low point in Aldrich’s erratic career”), Variety was of two minds like Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader (“not exactly a masterpiece”).

The special tragedy of Lot is not unique but akin to that of Col. Nicholson in Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, he thinks to convert the heathen from their perverse judgment of all things by the weight of their own witlessness, he does business in the city, undercutting the salt monopoly.

The special government of Sodom and Gomorrah partially mirrors that of Egypt at the start of Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra, and is partially mirrored in J. Lee Thompson’s The Evil That Men Do.

The screenplay by Hugo Butler is in the mold of Philip Dunne (The Robe, dir. Henry Koster), profoundly analytical.

A masterpiece, exactly.


4 for Texas

The structure is a formal elaboration of the classic comedy 1-2-3, or setup-setup-punchline. This is explicitly stated in the long scene after the beginning, in which Sinatra and Martin trade upper hands.

Each of these three numbers is divided into two parts, preparation and delivery.

1a. Martin, searching a bandit at gunpoint, briefly inspects the man’s hat.
1b. Martin gets the drop on Sinatra by pulling a derringer from his own hat.

2a. During the restoration of the steamboat, there’s a Three Stooges gag (painting the door, door opens, man gets painted).
2b. The Three Stooges themselves appear.

3a. The entire film is a preparation for,
3b. The revelation that the “East Coast Disaster” is a fraud.

The opening sketches Olivier’s Henry V and Ford’s Stagecoach, while the last scene echoes the finale of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The staircase descent, with Anita Ekberg, deliberately recalls .

The glimmer and sparkle of this is a bit too grand for many tastes, it’s a bit too savored, too juicy and just too much fun. Which is why Las Vegas ain’t what it used to be.


Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte


A whirlwind of parodistic material liquidating much if not all of Southern accretions from Big Daddy on, which endows this transposition of Les Diaboliques with a beautiful acidity setting off Bette Davis’ limpid performance.


The Flight of the Phoenix


The film is based on Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. No critic has noticed this, it appears.

There is an eerie resemblance of the location set to Kulik’s “King Nine Will Not Return” for The Twilight Zone.

Lawrence of Arabia is echoed in DeVol’s score, and to effect.

Lumet’s Fail-Safe is brought into play. “The little men with the slide rules and computers are going to inherit the earth.”

Borges’ “Deutsches Requiem”.

Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, Frend’s Scott of the Antarctic.


The Dirty Dozen

The immediate precedent (after John Ford’s Judge Priest) is a fierce and little-known masterpiece by Gordon Douglas, Only the Valiant. The prodigious amount of talent put to service in very small roles is a ground for the groundlings, against which Aldrich swings first a very accurately fine-pointed, almost insufferable analysis of military expediency as a form of blockheaded disaster in the making, and then the Apocalypse.

Essentially Aldrich deploys his forces in a steady stream of geometric shots to catch his screenplay’s best moments with the sparkle of a jewel. In this kind of attentiveness, the actors are picked up going their rounds, making deliveries as it were. Never has Ernest Borgnine appeared to more telling effect in this commanding position. The cruel bitterness of Robert Ryan’s dumbshow, and the refined articulation of Lee Marvin’s thinking reed, set each other off like a bivouac fire on a winter night.

This is a vision of judgment. It opens with a hanging, and ends with an homage to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Between the seriousness of war, and the formal absurdity of mid-rank military organization, it finds a way to express a lot of abstract material in a tangible way, as when Charles Bronson, given a word association test by Ralph Meeker, keeps answering in terms of baseball, because “that’s what I’m thinking about,” or when George Kennedy, as one of those intellectuals not dispirited by Army discipline, gives a laughing demonstration of the Heisenberg Principle in action.

Best of all in its way is a tiny scene with Borgnine, a major general embodying the might and majesty of military law, brought to a pass of simple exasperation on maneuvers by a captain who is unable to read a road map.


The Legend of Lylah Clare

Aldrich’s master class in directing is a complete exposition of the entire art in such a way as could not be understood by film critics for obvious reasons nor by the general public. It is therefore esoteric, although the advanced models of presentation are Citizen Kane and Sunset Blvd., the latter even named in the film.

While he is letting in the breeze on his studio, Aldrich gives the explicit sign that his source for The Dirty Dozen is indeed Ford’s Judge Priest, the peculiar flashback effect in that film is reproduced.

The device is a recapitulation of a dead actress’s life in a film biography directed by her husband and featuring a young starlet with an astonishing resemblance down to her measurements. Likeness, inspiration, technique and style are briefly considered, with the larger effort of depicting what it is to wrest the work from all its contingencies.


The Killing of Sister George

No. 10 is where she lives, a village do-gooder in a BBC soap opera by day, a bulldyke in tweeds by night.

Just across the street is her friend, an American whore.

The dramatic influence on Simon Gray’s Butley (and Pinter’s film) is considerable.


Too Late the Hero

This is The Dirty Dozen in the Pacific. Low discipline (PT 109), worse morale, the northern Japanese base.

A depravity of minor forces (The Bridge on the River Kwai). And the insight of one who speaks the lingo.

The Japanese loudspeaker in the trees and a Japanese air base, against the American fleet steaming through the strait, with British forces serving as liaison (“ye poxed-up Glaswegian queer,” as a Scotsman says to his rascally kinsman).

The southern “funnel”, as the Japanese officer describes it, is from Frank Lloyd’s Blood on the Sun.

Neither Variety nor the New York Times had an inkling.


The Grissom Gang

One gang of crooks replaces another, more on the ball, deadlier.

A million-dollar kidnapping, Ma’s boy Slim is in love so they can’t kill her.

Tender feelings between the two on the run, at the last. Her father turns away when she’s freed.

A complete satire of a whole arena of thought. Canby found it rich enough to puzzle over, the style is a wonderment.


Ulzana’s Raid

This is for the edification of the minister’s son, a lieutenant six months out of West Point, who does not know his Apaches.

It considerably develops a signally important theme in George Stevens’ Gunga Din, and is altogether (as some writers have observed) an Aldrich film.

Variety’s absurd dismissal is mere poppycock. Canby’s review is of the same order, and he has the gall to say “film reviews in newspapers are essentially news stories—that is, reports about what happened yesterday, to whom and where”.


Emperor of the North

A picture of the Depression. Sitting on top of the world means riding the freights to Portland, even.

The technique has been much commented upon from the beginning as comprehensive virtuosic ease, but the poetic nature of the script defeated critics. An empty boast and ratlike cunning simply do not carry the day.


The Longest Yard

The same football widow has the same conversation with Banacek in “Let’s Hear It for a Living Legend”, and is Anitra Ford both times. Aldrich’s opening scene is also that of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, out of this sort of veiled joke he makes his dreamlike structure that looks like carelessness but isn’t, it’s the reel of game film between the handcuffed prison quarterback’s knees until he’s embraced by the warden’s secretary and it drops to the floor.

Not that there isn’t plenty of usable material en route to the yard that is the longest because it leads to victory and damnation, but that’s the only thing on Aldrich’s mind, the rest falls into his lap.

Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie is among the precedents, and Huston’s Victory can be described as a significant remake.

Nora Sayre’s review in the New York Times expressed a certain longing to know “what it means to be a captive.”



Moby Dick without the fish, it says, Huston’s film is on the late show all week (Barry Crane’s “Ultimatum” for Mission: Impossible is on at the bar ahead of Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and there is Maté’s Branded).

The white whale is a well-heeled shyster whoremonger, bête noire of an L.A. police detective whose mistress is a Paris professional also seeing Moby.

“Guatemala with color television.”

The case is a voluptuous teenager gone from stripper to sex films to hooker, dead on the beach.

Side issues include a homicidal maniac and an Arab terrorist.

A film so extraordinarily magnificent it charmed the critics out of their tailored pants.


Twilight’s Last Gleaming

The enemy are escaped Death Row inmates (cf. Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train) with ICBMs, they want money and public acknowledgement from the President that “limited wars” such as Vietnam are a sham of U.S. policy. They want the President as hostage and a ride on Air Force One to another country.

The postwar situation, deriving mainly from Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill for the fight over nothing in view of strategic considerations.

The paradox is the loss of the President. As hostage to the enemy he is killed with them by sharpshooters, and this actually indicates a limited war compared with the small nuclear weapon deployed and recalled (“Operation Gold”).

This peculiarly difficult formulation, which does not figure in the reviews, ends with the dying President imparting his last political will and testament to the Secretary of Defense, a man from Princeton.


The Choirboys

Flaming faggots, the lash of pleasure, bureaucratic pettifogging, the whole schmeer faced by cops on the beat.

They earn the title by enduring all this.


The Frisco Kid

This can be compared to The Big Country, and there are doubtless many other parallels, but what you have is a definitive joke: The Rabbi Goes West. The specific gravity of the casting gives you Gene Wilder as the rabbinical Westerner and Harrison Ford as the cowboy who befriends him on the way, in a combination of irresolute determination and buck-naked wisdom that makes the whole thing original and lively.


...All the Marbles

Like McLaglen’s Something Big (and Aldrich’s Attack), the title appears in quotation marks onscreen. The structure is not elusive, but failure to take notice of it led Variety to say, “it never works for a minute.” Two bouts open the film, both won by the California Dolls. After the second, against two Japanese, a Japanese promoter offers to finance a championship run. Eddie Cisco puts pressure on the Dolls’ manager, Harry Sears, who smashes his Mercedes with a baseball bat.

The Dolls now head for Reno against their rivals, the Toledo Tigers, whom they beat en route and are beaten by, before the Championship Match. The essence of the dramatic situation is that Aldrich plays it dramatically.

The point of departure would appear to be Nora’s delightful response to the wrestling match in Shadow of the Thin Man.

Aldrich’s overhead camera is handy in the wrestling scenes, which are filmed with great skill and attention and watched in her dressing room by the World Champion, Big Mama, capable of crushing an empty can of Budweiser in one hand.

Harry’s financing comes from a crap game where he has to use his baseball bat on two hoods out of The Big Sleep. The tag team travels West from match to match through the industrial heartland, allowing Aldrich to record the landscape with a purely expressive eye. Their dusty Cadillac (with a California personalized license plate, “TAG TEAM”) saunters along the lakeshore and into Chicago, the inhabitable city. The thirty-minute Championship at the MGM Grand lasts 29:29 on the arena clock (Chick Hearn concludes it on a note of sublimity). The referee is greased by Cisco, the Dolls are getting pounded, only the most expert of moves can win the day.

...All the Marbles is akin more or less to Slap Shot, Harry and Tonto, Diggstown, Hal Needham’s Body Slam, and (finally) John Huston’s Victory. The Toledo Tigers enter the Grand wearing stylized cat costumes with long tails they throw to the crowd as souvenirs. After a suspenseful delay, the California Dolls are carried in wearing great silver-winged ensembles on the shoulders of bronzed he-men to the sound of an ad hoc children’s chorus singing, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll”.

Afterward, at a signal from Harry, the Bear Flag is unfurled to the tune of “California, Here I Come”.