Anarchic InstinctsBoth on screen and off, Robert Aldrich battled against a corrupt and broken system
Written by Walter Hill
Originally published in Filmmakers & Aldrich (Italy), by Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan.
Kiss Me Deadly
As I began to write about Robert Aldrich I’d just received word that his son Bill had died. Bill was a friend and a good soul who gracefully bore the difficult task of being the child of a prominent film director—a director who possessed a personality that was as legendary as the work.
William Aldrich, R.I.P.
I first met Robert Aldrich some 35 years ago. Not that they ever changed much, but I have total recall of my initial impressions of Bob: physically vital, brusque, massive, seething, darkly funny, explosive, direct, and very smart. I loved the permanent offices he kept over on Larchmont near his home in Hancock Park. Bob had a penthouse suite with a sunken floor-sofa configuration set off by a massive desk at one end that looked down on the conversational area. The lights were kept very dim, the windows blacked out—the whole effect being straight out of some film noir classic. I’m told the offices were modeled on those of Columbia’s Harry Cohn, a man Bob Aldrich both respected and despised.
Lukas Heller, my good and much-missed friend, was the favored writer for the latter period of Aldrich’s career. Although Aldrich was enormously loyal to his co-workers, this was a tricky job. Bob liked a lot of rewriting and didn’t appreciate a lot of debate. But when he got the script where he wanted it to be, that was it. Peter Falk told me that when he suggested a series of dialogue changes to Bob, he got an icy smile and then: “Let’s stop. Because if we continue this conversation I’m going to fucking throw you right out the window.”
Bob Aldrich and I met rarely, but through Lukas I got constant reports on the great man’s activities and attitudes as well as his greetings and good wishes. Wearing his producer hat, Bob proposed several projects to me but, sad to say, they never worked out. As to why I should direct the movie under consideration rather than him, the answer was always the same. The project needed X as the perfect casting to properly realize the film and Bob “couldn’t stand the son of a bitch and didn’t want to spend months talking to the bastard.” Nowadays, it is fashionable to valorize the idea that one is, or should be, “non-judgmental.” Robert Aldrich was judgmental and unapologetic about it.
As directors, we are obviously evaluated by the work, the results, not the excuses as to why things didn’t go better or weren’t more completely realized. But in years past, under the old studio system, many times the final results reflected the taste of others without the director being given a reasonable chance to demonstrate his/her point of view. No one resented this hard truth more than Bob—but he did something about it. I don’t think any director of the first rank has ever done more to improve the working conditions for those of us who do the job. As president and, earlier, as chairman of various committees for the Directors Guild, he was unsparing in his devotion of time, energy, and intellect to the task. It made him a lot of enemies. It hurt his career. And it should earn him our enduring gratitude.
After all these years, Kiss Me Deadly is still probably the masterpiece. At the very least, a director who goes out to a Malibu beach house and then blows up the whole world is someone to be reckoned with. At the boldly imaginative level I don’t believe this apocalyptic vision of the consequences of human avarice has ever been quite equaled.
The best of his movies have a great interior tension—torn by a wide separation between intellect and emotion. At the calculated level, Bob espouses left-liberal progressive politics. But at an instinctive level, he is anti-authoritarian to a near anarchical degree, seeing violence as a natural result of the misuse of power. Even more than that—violence as a natural result of the human condition.
He once said to me something to the effect that the system we work under was not only unjust and corrupt—on top of that, it simply didn’t work. He was talking about Hollywood and the studios, but I think it was the same way he saw the world. And, again, he did something about it. He made marvelous films that demonstrated his ideas, entertained lots of people, and, at least in the stories, momentarily defeated his enemies.
This seems to me a life well spent.