These notes accompany screenings of Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz on September 12, 13, and 14 in Theater 3.
Robert Aldrich (1918–1983) brought an extraordinary pedigree to his directorial career. He had assisted two of the greatest cineastes in making masterpieces—Jean Renoir on The Southerner and Charles Chaplin on Limelight. Of course, his own films were quite different from theirs. Actually, Aldrich’s films more closely resembled the frenetic and gritty work of others to whom he had apprenticed: Robert Rossen (Body and Soul), Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil), and Joseph Losey (The Prowler and M). Few directors have begun their careers with that kind of experience.
Vera Cruz was the second of the half-dozen Westerns Aldrich made, three of them in collaboration with Burt Lancaster. (They also worked together on the non-Western Twilight’s Last Gleaming.) The film was photographed by Ernest Laszlo, who made six Aldrich films before finally winning an Oscar, a decade later, for Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools. He, like Aldrich, was a master technician. (Aldrich had run afoul of Chaplin for too carefully composing his imagery, although the Oscar-winning cinematographer behind Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Nestor Almendros, told me that Chaplin was always perfect in his camera placement.) The location shooting in Mexico is quite spectacular and marked Aldrich as visually astute, a quality that would serve the director well in masterpieces like Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen, and Ulzana’s Raid. Although Aldrich often found Lancaster unmanageable, they retained mutual respect, and the experience prepared the director for subsequent problematic stars. Playwright and movie star Sam Shepard (Days of Heaven, The Right Stuff) attributed his acting success to practicing his Lancaster Vera Cruz sneer in front of a mirror as a teenager.
As Lancaster biographer Kate Buford points out, critics dismissed the film as a “violent, sordid mess.” It was defended by Sergio Leone and by Louis Malle, who modeled his Viva Maria! (1965), starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau, on it. So-called anti-Westerns were beginning to be made by the mid-1950s, but classical directors still dominated the genre. John Ford had yet to make his great summations (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and his semi-apologetic valedictories (Sergeant Rutledge, Cheyenne Autumn), and Howard Hawks would still direct Rio Bravo and El Dorado. However, Leone, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood were on the horizon. In this sense, Aldrich’s nihilism could be seen as both omen and catalyst. Buford quotes director and Ford scholar Lindsay Anderson (whom I found to be a good friend, although himself somewhat cynical) as viewing Lancaster as “an odd mixture of violence and decency.” I believe this combination could also be applied to Robert Aldrich. Over the next two years, the director made several films that could be seen as unique trailblazers of violence: Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Knife, and Attack! (which we will show here in a few weeks) among them. Yet there remained something fundamentally humane about his work, not perhaps in the same category as his first tutor, Jean Renoir, but a decency motivated by, as Ed Lowry has pointed out, a critically ironic sense of American hypocrisy, venting “his own personal anger at the compromises we all must make.”
Francois Truffaut said of another Aldrich film, “With his lyricism, his modernity, his contempt for the slightest vulgarity, his desire to universalize and stylize the subjects he treats, Aldrich’s effects remind us constantly of Jean Cocteau and Orson Welles.” Together with Blake Edwards, Robert Altman, and Stanley Kubrick, Robert Aldrich was among the most important American directors to arrive in the 1950s.