[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
Robert Aldrich pumps enough gutty style into TheLongestYard that one needn’t feel too ashamed of himself for delighting in its formulaic progress. For one thing, despite a very unpromising opening five minutes during which former football pro, current kept man Burt Reynolds does some macho strutting before his enraged ladyfriend, Aldrich has become the first director (in my experience, at least) to tap some of the likably flamboyant personality the actor habitually displays in his personal appearances. After “stealing” the woman’s sports car, leading the police a merry chase (more satisfying than most these days), and dumping the prize in the bay, Reynolds finds himself on the way to a Georgia prison where both the warden and the captain of the guard have strong feelings about football. Trouble is, the captain (Ed Lauter) happens to coach the semi-pro prison team and strongly feels Reynolds should stay out of his way; the warden (Eddie Albert ) would very much like to win the league title Lauter hasn’t been able to get for him and strongly feels Reynolds should get involved. Then there are the cons who, as one fellow deadpans, take their football seriously and have never forgotten Reynolds’s exit-in-disgrace from the sport eight years earlier for shaving points.
First they made TheHurtLocker; then their blistering modern war film made them Academy Award winners. Even as they collected their Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal were already at work on something tentatively tagged “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.” Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, myriad arms of the U.S. military and intelligence services were overturning every stone, real and metaphorical, to find the al-Qaeda leader. Both hunts—the real-world one and the filmmakers’—were works-in-progress till May 1, 2011, when SEAL Team 6 terminated the perpetrator-in-chief with extreme prejudice. And Bigelow and Boal’s heretofore open-ended script took a new turn.
ZeroDarkThirty, as their movie was ultimately titled, focuses on the nearly decade-long pursuit of bin Laden from the perspective of a CIA analyst and her cohort. Yes, her: for the first time, the vibrant and versatile Jessica Chastain is tip of the spear of a major Hollywood production. Where the mission takes her, under arguably the best director she’s ever worked with, is mesmerizing to behold.
While waiting to follow along, let’s beguile the interlude considering some classic film quests by men on a mission. And by all means, the occasional woman on a mission, too. Embarkation is at zero dark thirty—you know, half an hour past midnight.
Missions don’t come much bleaker than TheLostPatrol (1934), a primal tale of struggle for survival against implacable forces. During World War I, a handful of British soldiers are trapped at an oasis in the Mesopotamian Desert (Iraq to us) and slowly decimated by an unseen enemy. The strong visuals—baking sun, the undulating vastness of the dunes, the drift of ghostly mirages—befit a crucible of character-testing, with an unnamed Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) striving to keep at least one man alive as desperation, madness, and implacable snipers take their toll. This stark drama, free of box-office compromise and glib heroics, marked director John Ford’s decisive step toward establishing himself as a personal, semi-independent artist within the Hollywood system. The story by Philip MacDonald proved to be a durable archetype for filmmakers. It had already served as the basis for a 1929 British film (with McLaglen’s brother Cyril in the lead!), and RKO, which released Ford’s movie, would appropriate it five years later as the model for a surprisingly strong B Western, BadLands (Lew Landers, 1939)—substituting sheriff’s posse for an army patrol, and Apaches for Arabs. MacDonald himself borrowed elements of his own tale when writing the screen story for Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943), among the best contemporaneous World War II films. Incidentally, Ford’s doomed patrol includes Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who reckons their beleaguered oasis is none other than the Garden of Eden.
Robert Aldrich’s 1977 Twilight’s Last Gleaming combines two distinct genres: the “men on a mission against long odds” adventure, a specialty of Aldrich is such films as Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen and even The Longest Yard (translated into underdog sports drama), and the conspiracy thriller that flourished in the wake of the Kennedy assassinations, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate. Aldrich wasn’t an overtly political filmmaker — his sensibility was more anti-authoritarian, his films innately suspicious of the motivations of those in power — but the Vietnam allegory of Ulzana’s Raid was hard to miss. Twilight’s Last Gleaming simply takes his commentary even further.
Burt Lancaster (who had starred in three previous films for Aldrich) leads this mission as General Lawrence Dell, a patriotic career soldier and army officer who breaks out of military prison (where he was railroaded by the military brass trying to silence him) with a volatile group of military misfits, men who follow him out of greed rather than conscience or conviction. Their mission: take command of a military silo in Montana and hold the nation hostage for a small fortune and the release of a secret government document. For the men it’s all about the money but Dell, who served in Vietnam and survived a North Korean POW camp, demands that the truth of America’s involvement be released to the public. But it’s not about hurting the country, it’s about trusting its citizens with the truth and letting them decide on the next step forward.
First term American President David T. Stevens (Charles Durning) is appalled when he reads this document, and even more appalled that men in his own cabinet, career government and military men all, were not only involved in the conspiracy but are steadfastly against releasing the document. Which, of course, leads to a game of chicken between the terrorist patriot, who threatens to unleash nuclear missiles targeted on Russia if his demands are not met, and the government, whose attempts to break into the sealed silo only push them closer to war.
Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir apocalypse Kiss Me Deadly is unlike any other noir ever made. From the opening scene, where Cloris Leachman (naked under a trenchcoat) runs barefoot down a coastal highway flagging down cars, to the Pandora’s Box scream of destruction unleashed in the finale, it pushes the conventions past the breaking point.
Ostensibly based on Mickey Spillane’s hugely successful pulp novel, Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides turned the story inside, transforming it into a white-hot blast of tawdry pulp and film noir cynicism for the atomic age. Aldrich had just come off of Vera Cruz, a mercenary western that looks forward to the cynical opportunism of the spaghetti westerns, and that tone carries over to Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer is turned into a blithely amoral opportunist, a corrupt private detective who specializes in divorce cases (a “bedroom dick,” in the parlance) and stumbles into a conspiracy that he thinks he can parlay into a payoff, and Ralph Meeker plays him with a perpetual sneer of a smile and an arrogance that is rarely justified. This is a guy who pimps out it secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) between smooches and makes a play for almost every beauty who crosses his path.
Kiss Me Deadly delivers a pulp punch while it savagely satirizes the entire hardboiled mythos with its bare-knuckle brutality, flights of purple prose dialogue and the sheer he-man chauvinism of its dogged hero of scar tissue and street smarts, who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to it in Pulp Fiction (and, before that, so did Alex Cox in Repo Man). Mickey Spillane hated the film. I love it. Va-va-voom! Pow!
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
If I didn’t already know Robert Aldrich was an intelligent filmmaker, I’d have a hard time guessing it from The Choirboys. From the leering flatulation of the opening titles–a stained-glass window announcing “The Choirboys” with a gloved fist smashing through in freeze frame, while a chanting chorus segues into a beer hall song–grossness of comic and satiric idea is the unpromising watchword of his new movie. The title is the chosen name of the scuzziest precinct’s worth of beat cops in class-A filmmaking, who–for the first half-hour or so of the movie, at least–seem content solely to carry on like a bunch of Special Ed. alumni, whether on duty or off. They deliver themselves of an unrelenting stream of bathroom jokes, sadistic intramural pranks, and gratuitous subversions of the department and force in which, theoretically, they serve, taking an occasional after-hours for “choir practice,” which mostly means boozing and brawling in MacArthur Park. Now, I wouldn’t normally take umbrage at any of this, and I was anticipatorily delighted to read, well in advance of the film’s release, that policeman-novelist Joseph Wambaugh was less than enchanted with the changes Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic liberal had made in his boys-in-blue tale; moreover, Aldrich’s crudity has often been inseparable from his vigor, and I’ve rarely minded that. But this movie came on so dumb,and pitched, apparently, at the tastes of the lowest uncommon denominator in the audience. Particularly noxious was an early bit of fag-baiting involving the reddest-necked of the Choirboys (Tim McIntire), handcuffed bareass to a park tree, and the flittiest night-prowler outside Castro Street, complete with pink-dyed poodle on a leash. Even allowing for the director’s disingenuous admission that “Mr. Aldrich, even in a moment of anger, has never been accused of understating anything,” what was this in aid of?
Well, as it turned out in the light of the finished film, it may have been in aid of a good deal. For subsequent sequences at least semi-systematically went on to turn many of the Choirboys’ more ignoble pastimes back upon them, so that, even as Aldrich was celebrating a band of nonconformists shoving it to the system with his customary sardonic amusement, he also seemed to be trying to get at how the desperate coarseness of their reactions against a killing establishment was taking its toll in dehumanization. Although the script leaves much to be desired and the continuity is rather ragged (there is copious evidence of both excessive uninspired improvisation and heavy last-minute cutting), scenes begin to echo one another and suggest a tentative dialectic. Early in the film two of the Choirboys use a friendly hooker to entrap a hard-ass lieutenant who wants to do them dirt; later, a junior member of the team, on loan to the vice squad, must put the hookers on the other end of the entrapment procedure, and ends up looking pretty ridiculous in the process; later still, he and his partner bust yet another working girl, whose specialty is highly paid bondage sessions, and discover that her present client is one of the original jolly pranksters who put the lieutenant on the spot–and his reaction to being caught in harness by his professional soulmates is to blow his brains out. The convolutions and crossreferences really proliferate in the second half of the film, and though the movie remains an irreparable shambles, at least we can discern the complex ironic structure through which Aldrich intended to express his anarchist’s rage.
THE CHOIRBOYS Direction: Robert Aldrich. Screenplay: Joseph Wambaugh (refused credit) and Christopher Knopf, after the novel by Wambaugh. Cinematography: Joseph Biroc. Music: Frank DeVol. The players: Charles Durning, Louis Gossett Jr., Perry King, Clyde Kusatsu, Stephen Macht, Tim McIntire, Randy Quaid, Chuck Sacci, Don Stroud, James Woods, Burt Young, Robert Webber, Vic Tayback, Barbara Rhoades, Michele Carey, David Spielberg.