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Aldrich, Robert (1918-1983)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Aldrich, Robert (1918-1983)

Robert Aldrich emerged as one of the most distinctive and forceful filmmakers among the new generation who helped transform American cinema in the 1950s with their defiantly individual vision. His work was marked by a pessimistic iconoclasm, increased in intensity by an often-elaborate cinematic style which sometimes verged on the melodramatic.

Born on 9 August 1918 in Cranston, Rhode Island, USA, Aldrich entered the industry in 1941 as a production clerk with RKO. Over the next ten years he undertook various roles including production manager, associate producer and as assistant director to such major figures as Joseph Losey and Jean Renoir. He also worked as a writer and director in television in the early '50s before making his feature film debut with Big Leaguer in 1953. Over a subsequent career spanning thirty years and virtually the same number of films, Aldrich maintained a fiercely independent approach, often working with his own production company, acting as his own producer and taking a hand in the writing of scripts.

Aldrich's films frequently centre on isolated, estranged figures whose rebellion against "the system" leads them into violent confrontation. The belligerent, aggressive tone of the narrative is frequently matched by visual stylisation, typified by his classic film noir Kiss Me Deadly (US, 1955). The film has sometimes been read as an allegory of McCarthyism, and Aldrich frequently used genre subjects to construct social metaphors; the Vietnam War undercurrents in his Western Ulzana's Raid (US, 1972) being quite characteristic.

Aldrich came to Europe in 1958 to make two Second World War films: Ten Seconds to Hell (US/UK, 1958), a co-production between Hammer and Seven Arts starring Jack Palance and Jeff Chandler; and The Angry Hills (1959) for the British producer Raymond Stross, an unusual film about an American journalist (Robert Mitchum) caught between the Greek Resistance and the Nazis. He returned to Britain - and the War - in 1967 for The Dirty Dozen, a violent action film displaying the concern with male groups and masculinity apparent in many of his films, from Attack (US, 1956) to Emperor of the North Pole (US, 1973). Though technically British - one of the last major films to come out of MGM's Borehamwood Studios - it has an all American cast and is less relevant to British film culture than Too Late the Hero (US, 1970), a fascinatingly grim study of divergent British and American values during WW2 starring Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson.

Aldrich's only entirely British production is The Killing of Sister George (1968). Adapted from the successful stage play by Frank Marcus, the film deals with the then taboo subject of lesbianism, centring on an actress (Beryl Reid) who is axed from her role, as a lovable District Nurse in a television soap opera and consequently loses her much younger lover (Susan George). The film was sufficiently groundbreaking in its representation of lesbian lovemaking to run into censorship difficulties, but it is probably better read as a cousin to Aldrich's gothic melodramas Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (US, 1962) and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (US, 1964) or as an example of his ongoing concern for the individual at odds with an intolerant society, than as an intervention into sexual politics.

Combs, Richard, Robert Aldrich (London: BFI, 1978)
Silver, Alain, Robert Aldrich: A Guide to References and Resources (Boston: G.K.Hall, 1979)
Silver, Alain and Ursini, James, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and Films (New York: Limelight Editions, 1995)

Robert Shail, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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