An artistic maverick whose reputation in the United States did not match his prestige in Europe, Robert Aldrich directed some of Hollywood's more intense examinations of violence, morality, and survival during the 1950s and '60s.
Scion of a prominent New England family, Aldrich played football and studied economics at the University of Virginia. Rather than enter the family businesses, however, Aldrich preferred movies. Securing a job at RKO through connections, Aldrich headed to Hollywood in 1941. Benefiting from the shortage of manpower (and an old injury) with the advent of WWII, Aldrich was quickly promoted to assistant director and production manager. At RKO and independent Enterprise Studios, and as a free agent, Aldrich spent the next decade working for a number of esteemed directors, including Lewis Milestone, Joseph Losey, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, and Charlie Chaplin, learning about moviemaking on such films as Force of Evil (1948), Body and Soul (1947), and Limelight (1952).
Branching out into TV directing in the early '50s, including the China Smith series starring Dan Duryea, Aldrich got his chance at feature directing with sports programmer The Big Leaguer (1953), starring Edward G. Robinson. Following this inauspicious debut with more TV work, Aldrich shot the low-budget spy thriller World for Ransom (1954) with much of the China Smith crew and star Duryea during the series' break. Aldrich finally broke out of TV and B-movies when Burt Lancaster's company, Hecht-Lancaster, hired the promising director (and erstwhile employee) to helm the Technicolor A-Western Apache (1954). Apache became Aldrich's first hit, and Lancaster and Aldrich re-teamed for the more expansive SuperScope Western Vera Cruz (1954). Despite American critical disdain, Vera Cruz was an even bigger hit, giving Aldrich carte blanche to make his next film as he wished.
Asked by producer Victor Saville to adapt one of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels, Aldrich transformed Kiss Me Deadly (1955) into a film noir masterpiece of moral relativism and anarchic style. Starring Ralph Meeker as an unabashedly thuggish Hammer, Kiss Me Deadly evoked Cold War paranoia in its story about chasing down the Great Whatsit, while Aldrich's extreme lighting, high- and low-angle shots, moving camera, and creative soundtrack enhanced the chaotic, apocalyptic atmosphere. Though not as popular as Vera Cruz, Kiss Me Deadly was successful enough to enable Aldrich to form his own production company, Associates and Aldrich. Turning to headier source material, Aldrich then adapted Clifford Odets' scathing play The Big Knife. Shot in noir-esque black-and-white, The Big Knife (1955) unstintingly portrayed the Hollywood venality that breaks Jack Palance's reluctant movie star. A critical hit, The Big Knife won the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion, a then-rare accolade for a filmmaker with less than three years' experience of directing films.
Regardless of his exalted status, The Big Knife's financial failure compelled Aldrich to sign a contract with Columbia. Moving away from his controversial screen brutality, Aldrich made the "classy soap opera" Autumn Leaves (1956). Centering on Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson's troubled May-December romance, Autumn Leaves garnered Aldrich the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Returning to the troubled realm of masculine violence, Aldrich turned out the taut antiwar war film Attack (1956), featuring Palance and Lee Marvin; Attack collected the critics' award at Venice. Aldrich's deal with Columbia fell apart, however, when he was fired during production of The Garment Jungle (1957).
Aldrich later summed up the period 1958 to 1962 as "four bad films and the dissolution of a marriage." While not blameless for the films' weaknesses, Aldrich was upset when The Angry Hills (1959) and Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) were reedited by the studio; oddball Western The Last Sunset (1961), starring Kirk Douglas as a disturbed gunfighter, proved to be a less felicitous match than Aldrich's work with frequent Douglas co-star Lancaster. Despite the young director's admiration for Aldrich's work, little love was lost between Aldrich and second unit director Sergio Leone on the Italian "sex and sand epic" Sodom and Gomorrah (1963).
Aldrich managed to rejuvenate his career when he secured the rights to adapt What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). A neo-Gothic tragicomedy starring famous diva nemeses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis as sisters, Baby Jane was a campy and chilling indictment of the old Hollywood star system, made all the more creepy by Davis' outrageous performance (and appearance) as the decrepit eponymous star. Aldrich's first major hit since Vera Cruz, Baby Jane earned several Oscar nominations, including Davis for Best Actress. Aldrich paired Davis and Crawford again for the Southern Gothic thriller Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), but the strain overwhelmed Crawford and she was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. Though not as big as Baby Jane, Sweet Charlotte was another success. Flight of the Phoenix (1965) was subsequently a financially disappointing return to Aldrich's concern with how men grapple with apparent doom. The Dirty Dozen (1967), however, was the opposite. With the titular group of WWII misfits led by antihero incarnate Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen reveled in kinetic action, male bonding, and anti-authority energy, becoming the model for contemporary action-buddy movies. Embraced by disaffected late-'60s audiences, The Dirty Dozen became 1967's highest-grossing release, making Aldrich rich enough to buy a studio in 1968.
Though his flamboyant anti-Hollywood yarn The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) left viewers nonplussed, Aldrich continued to experiment with the new latitude afforded by changes in the ratings system and audience expectations. A drama about a lesbian actress' downfall, The Killing of Sister George (1968) courted controversy and an X-rating for its sapphic love scene; Too Late the Hero (1970) was Aldrich's most overtly antiwar war film to date. One of several gangster movies that appeared after Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Grissom Gang (1971) was a comical, ultra-violent take on the outlaw family. All three films, however, flopped, forcing Aldrich to put his studio up for sale in 1972 and take a job directing the Burt Lancaster Western Ulzana's Raid (1972). Depicting a rigorously bloody conflict between the clueless white cavalry and desperate, guerilla-esque Indians, with Lancaster as the scout who respects the West's harshness, Ulzana's Raid was a powerful Vietnam allegory but a box-office dud.
Aldrich, however, recovered one more time from professional crisis with The Longest Yard (1974). A prison-football comedy pitting convict hero Burt Reynolds against evil warden Eddie Albert, culminating in a ruthless, split-screen game, The Longest Yard was a crowd pleaser that solidified Reynolds'd stardom. Aldrich and Reynolds then partnered to produce the less appealing Hustle (1975). Pairing up with Lancaster one last time, Aldrich and his star threw themselves into Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977), one of the first post-Vietnam films that directly critiqued the war. Twilight's Last Gleaming proved to be an unpopular labor of love. Aldrich became further disillusioned when he was deposed as president of the Directors' Guild of America after he successfully lobbied for more creative rights during his 1975 to 1979 term -- a disappointment compounded by the successive failures of The Choirboys (1977), The Frisco Kid (1979), and ...All the Marbles (1981). Fed up for good, Aldrich retired in 1981 and passed away two years later from kidney failure.