"This film thoroughly immoderate. Everything in it is garish and overdone: It's paced, too fast and pitched too high immorality is attacked with almost obscene relish, the knife turns into a buzz saw. But with all these fauls of taste, perhaps because of them, who can take his eyes off the screen?"-Pauline Kael on Robert Aldrich's "The Big Knife"
I have some kind of innate sense of survival," Robert Aldrich says, his feet up on a coffee table very much the grizzled Lone Wolf. "It doesn't have much to do with talent, it's balance, trapeze work, I've always been very fortunate to have political awareness, a sense of who's going to knife you, where the vulnerability is, how to exploit it. Survival is tough, and those aren't the nicest people in the world."
Robert Aldrich, both personally and professional, is not one to tiptoe around a subject on little cats' feet. An amiably cynical man, a fountain of gruff charm, he has made his over 20-plus years mark with a directing style critics have called "powerful, persuasive and even a little hysterical," a style Andrew Sarris labeled "notable for violence even in genres which subsist on violence."
Fifty-eight years old, with striking eyebrows and the bluff yet elegant look of a patrician cabdriver, he sits in his Watergate Hotel room with his tie, as always, not tied but crossed and pinned to his shirt. "I put on and take off about 100 pounds a year, and I don't have the inclination, concern or money to do the Jackie Gleason bit, buy 10 sets of clothes," he explains. "My shirts are always too tight or too loose, and instead of buying fat, medium-fat and fat-fat clothes, I find the shirts always fit if I don't button them."
A director to the manner born-"Unless you're really retarded, you determine that the seat of power is in the hands of the director, then, now, next year, always"-his career is an odd one for Hollywood. A cult hero who regularly inspires articles on the order of "Hysteria and Authoritarianism in the Films of Robert Aldrich," he also continues to be entrusted with big-budget, box-office conscious epics like the current "Twilight's Last Gleaming."
But things for Robert Aldrich are a bit more complicated. For, on the one hand, the film buffs who idolized his mid-1950s work like "The Big Knife," "Kiss Me Deadly" and "Attack!" seem to feel, in the words one critic, that he's "declined from gritty realism to inflated melodrama." "That's the general consensus, particularly in Europe" Aldrich says with a kind of bemusement. "People say. "Whatever happened to you?" and you turn around and hope they're talking to someone else."
"Yet on the other hand, these very same box-office films, even successes like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Longest Yard" have not given to Aldrich an appreciable amount of name recognition. "You can't legislate fame," he says, resigned. Is he bitter? "I would be I though it would do any good. I can't explain why I'm not more quote 'popular, famous, important,' but I'm not going to worry about it." The worst that happens is "you jump in a bottle of scotch for a few days."
By rights, Robert Aldrich is hardly the person you'd pick to be making what he himself characterizes as "patrol pictures," where cynical, anti-establishment types have to decide whether to fall on the grenade to save their buddies, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller's first cousin, this Aldrich, with a father in banking and publishing, would probably have ended up in a bank himself if show business hadn't attracted him during his student days at the University of Virginia.
Aldrich worked first as an assistant director to many revered names, names he remembers with characteristic frankness. He calls himself "one of the few non-fans" of Jean Renoir, who he assisted on "The Southerner." Of Charlie Chaplin, his mentor on "Limelight," he sys, "In my opinion he was a terrible director. But what difference did it make? Look what he was directing."
More nitty-gritty was the time he was the assistant on "Abott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd," starring Charles Laughton as the good captain. "Abbott was drunk all the time, and Costello was a monster," he remembers good-humoredly. "The only time you could work with Abbott was on Saturdays, when Costello went to the track. Laughton would come in and watch like they were two zanies in a show."
Aldrich is of two minds about those old Hollywood days, when nasty studio heads would roar and rage or "weep at the drop of an option." Yet all that notwithstanding, "you'd go to Harry Cohn or Jack Warner and if you'd convince him you made the picture. Today you don't know who to convince. You might convince a guy and he might turn out not to be important. These guys need 20 people to tell them if they're right or wrong. In the old days, they didn't operate out of a sense of fear."
Yet neither in the old days nor the new has Aldrich had the opportunity to do one of the things closes to his heart: "I'd like to make a couple of pictures with some young pretty ladies. It's not an outrageous desire. How many more years do I have to make movies. In the couple I've got before Forest Lawn, I'd like to have some pretty ladies walk on a set." So what's his next movie? "The Choirboys," from Joseph Wambaugh's crime tale. "It's a comedy," Aldrich manages to say without laughing, "with a lot of girls."