These notes accompany screenings of Robert Aldrich’s Attack! on November 21 and 23 in Theater 3.
Robert Aldrich (1918–1983) imbibed a certain quantity of leftist nourishment through his pre-directorial associations with Jean Renoir, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Joseph Losey, Charles Chaplin, and Jules Dassin, all of whom he served as an assistant. He also had experience with war films, working on William Wellman’s The Story of G. I. Joe, Lewis Milestone’s Arch of Triumph, and Fred Zinnemann’s Teresa. So it was not altogether surprising that he would wind up directing films like Attack!, The Dirty Dozen, Too Late the Hero, and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. After a period of HUAC-induced exile from Hollywood, unlike many of his left-wing associates he returned and thrived, eventually becoming president of the Directors Guild of America. Aldrich’s dedicated union activism contrasted with his privileged upbringing as a relative of the Rockefellers, and there was always a tendency to non-genteel grittiness or rawness in his work. Women are conspicuously missing from much of his world, and the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis characters in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis and Olivia De Havilland in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, or the “ladies” in The Killing of Sister George are hardly finishing-school role models. What Aldrich lacks in grace, he makes up for in the naked power of Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, or the chutzpah of Rod Steiger in The Big Knife.I recognize that the opportunity to post these weekly blog posts is a privilege, but it carries with it an unstated assumption that I possess omniscience in all subjects that might come before the camera. Obviously, that is not even remotely close to being true. I have never been a tightrope walker, but it is my job in writing about Chaplin’s performance in The Circus to describe his genius as a swarm of escaped monkeys climb all over him, bite his nose, and pull down his pants while he is balancing on the wire. I have never ridden a horse, but that doesn’t humble me enough to prevent my telling you why the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks are better than those of anyone else. My entire military career consisted of a single day in a Rutgers ROTC uniform saluting all the wrong people, before it was determined that a congenital hip problem made me unfit for service. The closest I ever came to a war zone was when I, and millions of my compatriots, were in the proximity of the World Trade Center when it was destroyed. Still, I felt unconstrained in discussing the Civil War and The Birth of a Nation, World War I and The Big Parade, or my favorite World War II films (Ford and Hawks again), They Were Expendable and Air Force. That’s why it was so refreshing when my blog post a few months ago on Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet prompted a correspondence with William Gruendler.
In some ways, William and I share a similar background. He studied film at Northwestern and, like me, at Chicago’s wonderful Clark Theater in the Loop (a shrine to cinema which brought the faithful a new double bill every day), and later in revival houses in Manhattan. He reads The New Yorker and loves the films of cinematographer Gregg Toland (The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home, Citizen Kane). However, William is also very different from me. He volunteered for the draft in 1970 and became a combat veteran in Vietnam. After an honorable discharge, he had nine children and is a born-again Christian. In 1989, he joined the Tennessee National Guard and wound up seeing combat again in Desert Storm. I tell you all this, with William’s approval, to demonstrate that he is obviously much more qualified than I to evaluate Robert Aldrich’s Attack! So, here goes:
The film “resonates…on a visceral level” for William, since “I have been in the shoes…of the hapless protagonist…portrayed to heart-wrenching perfection by (Jack) Palance…. I would PAY to watch Jack Palance tie his shoes.” He expresses his admiration for the Aldrich/Palance Ten Seconds to Hell and Aldrich’s Too Late the Hero, “and didn’t my buddies and I adore The Dirty Dozen while still in high school…sadism sanitized.” William adds “that, for sheer stark power in moviemaking, the final scene in Attack! simply cannot be equaled: two men on gurneys destined to graves registration. In reality, the men’s faces would be covered with a blanket, poncho, or the like…. Maybe I would have covered the faces in a brief, medium shot, tracking out to Aldrich’s…. But as in nature, where his battles play out like scenes from a Joe Kubert comic under a clear sky on a naked hill, so with Aldrich’s characters: he can spare us no accoutrements.”
I think Aldrich would be pleased by William’s authentication of his vision, to which I am happy to defer with gratitude and respect.