RSS

Category Archives: Robert Aldrich

Ulzana’s Raid

Poster

By the 1970s revisionism had hit the western in a big way; it had started the previous decade of course, but the social upheval of the period brought it fully to the fore in those last painful days of the Vietnam War. Conflict and domestic unrest have a way of drawing a nation’s gaze inward and it’s hardly surprising that the most iconic cultural markers are the ones upon which attention is most strongly fixed. Such was the case with the western, that most readily identifiable symbol of America’s heritage, and the brutal campaigns against the Indians provided a rich background to use as a parallel for a contemporary war. Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is frequently cited as an allegory for US involvement in South East Asia, and it’s hard to argue with that – inexperienced soldiers battling a largely faceless foe in hostile and unforgiving territory, exposing strengths and weaknesses, prejudices and virtues in the process.

The tale concerns the breakout by a band of Apache led by Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) from the reservation, and their subsequent rampage across Arizona. In response, the army sends out a detachment under the command of a green officer, Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison), with orders to capture or kill the fugitives. DeBuin is to be aided in his task by two scouts, an Apache, Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), and a white veteran, McIntosh (Burt Lancaster). DeBuin’s initial approach, fuelled by the fact that his father is a clergyman, is an almost evangelical one, wherein he views the Apache as a misguided and misunderstood people who need to be coaxed back to the bosom of white civilisation. The scouts, McIntosh in particular, have no illusions on this score though – to them the runaway Apache are no aspiring white men who have strayed from the flock, they are a dangerous and cunning enemy worthy of both fear and respect. As DeBuin’s troop follow Ulzana’s blood-soaked trail, encountering one horrific atrocity after another, the young lieutenant sees his faith in the essential goodness of humanity challenged. His reactions range from shock, leading him to question a bemused Ke-Ni-Tay about the motivation for such cruelty, to a kind of outraged vindictiveness as he demands his Apache scout bury the mutilated remains of yet another butchered settler. Throughout all this McIntosh remains dryly philosophical, guiding his young charge as best he can and providing the voice of reason when hate and revenge threaten to displace logical action. What we end up with is an examination of white America’s attempts to come to terms with an adversary whose psychology and beliefs are so alien and incomprehensible that they defy conventional means of tackling them. In the end, it’s only by worming his way into Ulzana’s thought processes that McIntosh is able map out a way to defeat him, although the ultimate irony is that it’s another Apache, and not all the might and firepower of the army, that finally brings closure.

Boxed in - Burt Lancaster in Ulzana's Raid.

I think Ulzana’s Raid might just be Robert Aldrich’s best movie, blending action and harsh visuals perfectly. The cruel and pitiless Arizona and Nevada landscapes are a fitting backdrop for the brutal events that play out on the screen. There’s barely an interior shot in the whole picture, the bulk of it taking place amid the dust, rocks and canyons. Where he was a little coy about trumpeting his politics in earlier works here he indulges in a kind of liberal realism that never patronises or descends into sentiment. There’s clearly sympathy for the deprivation that has driven Ulzana and his band off the reservation in search of the spiritual power they crave, but at no point does Aldrich allow the Apache to be seen as the kind of dippy mystics that is the stuff of caricature. He never shies away from depicting the merciless nature of Ulzana and his men, but nor does he seek to cover it up in politically correct excuses – to paraphrase both McIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay, the Apache are what they are and that’s how it’s always been. The main focus though is on how the young lieutenant and his men cope with the reality of fighting an enemy that they can neither seem to catch nor even understand. Bruce Davison had suitably innocent and freshly-scrubbed features to portray a man about to have all his high-minded illusions shattered. He matures nicely as the story progresses and McIntosh’s wisdom gradually sinks in. As the grizzled old scout, Lancaster dominates the movie with his wry observations helping to ground it all. He displays a sense of fatalism that befits a man whose years of living on the frontier have exposed him to the brutal nature of men in general. Richard Jaeckel also deserves a mention for his sergeant who’s been through the wars and learnt that while officers need to be obeyed and respected their judgement is not always to be trusted.

Universal’s UK DVD of Ulzana’s Raid presents the film at about 1.78:1 anamorphic. The disc contains no extra features at all, but the movie itself looks very handsome with good detail, sharpness and colour. I should mention that the UK version has a number of mandatory BBFC cuts for horsefalls – these don’t amount to much in terms of time but they do result in slightly jarring editing when they occur. As far as I know, the continental European versions do not have any of those cuts present. As I said, this is probably Aldrich’s best work and it makes for a western that’s both intelligent and engrossing. It casts a cool eye on the old west that refreshingly avoids being either judgemental or romantic – the viewer is expected to be enough of an adult to make up his or her own mind without being led by the nose. Highly recommended.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1970s, Burt Lancaster, Robert Aldrich, Westerns

 

Vera Cruz

Poster

Reputations are a strange thing. They tend to wax and wane as the allegiances of critics shift over time and fashions change. Some directors have seen their stock rise dramatically while others have toppled from once lofty positions. There are those though who never seem to be celebrated excessively nor wholly forgotten, they simply exist in that shadowy periphery where both praise and criticism are always heavily qualified. One such man is Robert Aldrich, a director who made some memorable and stylish films yet continues to be granted only a kind of grudging respect. Vera Cruz (1954) was one of his early efforts and has traditionally been viewed as a good action picture, but that’s about it. It’s also been cited as the inspiration for the following decade’s spaghetti westerns, and I fully agree with that assertion. I see it as occupying an odd place among the westerns of the 50s; it doesn’t probe dark psychology like an Anthony Mann film, and it has none of the sparse leanness of Boetticher’s work. Instead it leaps over all of this and presents, or maybe even glorifies, the kind of amoral characters who would come to populate the western from the mid-60s onwards.

The story takes place in 1866, during the Franco-Mexican war, when the followers of Juarez were struggling to wrest control of their country back from those forces loyal to the puppet Emperor Maximilian. The focus is on two Americans who, as the prologue informs us, are among those who have drifted across the border after the Civil War to sell their services to the highest bidder. These men are Ben Trane (Gary Cooper), a southern gentleman ruined by the war and Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), a reckless adventurer and a stranger to the notion of ethics. The early scenes where Erin sells Trane another man’s stolen horse set the tone for the rest of the picture, where double-crosses, lies, betrayals and greed come thick and fast from every side and no one seems to spare a thought for anybody but himself. When it looks as though Maximilian’s people offer the better chance for profit, both men throw in their lot with them. This sets up a nice sequence at the Imperial palace as Erin’s men show themselves up for the uncouth, rag-tag bunch they are. Of course, the aristocrats that they casually offend and outrage are seen to be no better, displaying no qualms whatsoever as they calmly scheme to dispose of their new employees as soon as their purpose is served. The purpose in question is to escort, and ensure the safe passage of, a French Countess (Denise Darcel) and her coach from Mexico City to the port of Vera Cruz. Finally, it would seem that there’s some honour to be seen. After all, risking one’s neck to ensure a woman is able to travel unmolested through treacherous country infested with Juarista rebels on the rampage is not an unworthy enterprise. However, at no point in this story is anything really as it appears on the surface. The whole mission is nothing but a blind on the part of the monarchists to smuggle a shipment of $3 million in gold out of Mexico to buy military aid and , by extension, some time for the crumbling regime. Naturally, everyone wants the money for themselves – Erin, the Countess, Trane and even the Juaristas in order to further their political aims. The fact is that of all those eyeing the fortune, the only one (barring the Juarista general) who has even a shred of decency motivating them is Trane. He sees the money – or at least as much of it as he can bargain for – as a means of restoring his devastated plantation and those who have grown dependent on it. After a succession of ambushes, broken promises and a desperate assault on the Emperor’s forces, everything comes down to a simple duel between two very different men in a dusty Mexican courtyard.

Who can you trust? Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz.

As I said earlier, I’d have to agree with those who claim that Vera Cruz is a major influence on the spaghetti western. In fact, it’s a virtual template for the flood of Euro westerns that hit cinemas within ten years. The south of the border setting is the first thing that comes to mind, and when you factor in the strife torn political background the parallels become more apparent. The difference of course is that in Aldrich’s movie the politics really only forms a backdrop to facilitate the narrative without impacting directly on it. The film isn’t making any particular ideological point, except perhaps that greed overrides everything and corrupts everyone, but concentrates on entertainment albeit with a cynical twist. The main characters, Erin and Trane, profess to have no interest in anything beyond money when they start out. However, as the story progresses, Trane does exhibit something approaching a conscience. Both Cooper and Lancaster’s roles can be viewed as a blueprint for the upcoming anti-heroes from Europe. In a way, the Italians ended up presenting a kind of hybrid of these two men; a mercenary figure who hasn’t abandoned himself totally to amorality, a taciturn man with a personal code of honour (Cooper) who retains a sort of capricious flamboyance (Lancaster). It’s Lancaster’s grinning, black-clad rogue who has the greatest impact, but Cooper’s steadiness plays a significant part in keeping the film balanced. For all Lancaster’s scene stealing bravado, Cooper still holds the attention – his little grimaces at key points have a great understated quality to them. As for Aldrich’s direction, his handling of the action scenes is exemplary. The climactic assault is a well executed sequence that’s perfectly paced with just enough establishing shots to ensure the geography remains clear throughout. Aside from the big set pieces, he uses the wide screen well and mixes up the long, medium and close shots to good effect. He also throws in a variety of angles, and the final duel between Trane and Erin is yet another example of the film’s influence on the likes of Leone. While the lingering, operatic quality is missing, the basic iconography that would become so familiar is certainly present in the angles and the cutting.

Vera Cruz was shot in 2:1 Superscope and the UK DVD from MGM retains that ratio. The anamorphic transfer is a reasonable one, colours are strong and there’s no serious damage to the print. The only extra provided is the theatrical trailer. The film is due out on BD this coming June and it’s the kind of production that ought to benefit from the upgraded picture quality. As a movie, it’s not exactly a typical 50s western; in tone, it almost bears comparison to a 60s WWII extravaganza – big, brash, colourful and noisy. While it may not have the depth of the best from its decade, it is still an influential piece of work. Moreover, it offers an hour and a half of first class entertainment. I like it a lot and think both the film and its director deserve some renewed attention.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1950s, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Robert Aldrich, Westerns

 

The Last Sunset

Poster

The Last Sunset (1961) is a film that seems to have all the credentials, all the ingredients that go towards making a top flight production: a highly talented director, a fine cast, and a script by a top writer. In spite of all this the final result is a movie that doesn’t quite gel and one that delivers a lot less than it initially promises. As is usually the case when a film proves disappointing, the fault lies with the script. There are some interesting elements which are introduced and then disposed of before they’ve had a chance to play out fully. Generally, this leads to both clutter and a lack of focus. In the end, we’re left with a film that’s not exactly bad but one that could and should have been a whole lot better.  

The opening credits play over a dogged pursuit across a southwestern landscape, down into Mexico where the bulk of the action will unfold. O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is the black clad fugitive, a killer who carries a derringer instead of a six-shooter. Hot on his trail is Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), a lawman with a personal interest in seeing his quarry brought back to Texas to hang. O’Malley is heading for a ranch run by a faded Virginia gentleman with a fondness for the bottle. The rancher, Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten), happens to be married to O’Malley’s old sweetheart Belle (Dorothy Malone) and it’s soon evident that he’s continued carrying a torch for her for years. The two men strike a deal whereby O’Malley will help Breckenridge drive his herd up to Texas, but he also claims he’s going to take his new partner’s wife off him. That in itself could have provided an interesting scenario, but the script has no intention of remaining so simple. Stribling’s arrival leads to an uneasy truce with hunter and hunted agreeing to pool their talents in order to ensure the success of the cattle drive before settling their own scores. With both newcomers being clearly interested in the charms of Belle the scene looks set for a juicy three-way contest for her affections. However, that’s not to be for Breckenridge soon departs the scene after being gunned down in a cheap cantina. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that moments before his death the audience is treated to revelations about Breckenridge’s shameful past. So, two potentially rich plot veins are left unmined. Instead we’re treated to the seemingly interminable drive to Texas with too much talk and too few sparks. It seems that the producers were aware that they were in danger of bogging the plot down, so three shifty and unscrupulous cowboys, who plan to get in on the white slavery racket, are introduced (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and James Westmoreland) to try to spice up proceedings. Again the opportunity is lost as these characters are killed off before they have the chance to make an impression. The script still has one hole card in reserve though, and it’s a real stinger. Nevertheless, in keeping with the rest of the picture, this gets handled poorly too. The problem is not with the nature of this final reveal, it’s suitably shocking, but the fact that we learn about it too soon. I won’t go into details here lest I spoil things for anybody, but the timing really draws all the tension and drama out of the climactic duel and leaves us with a flat and predictable ending.

Kirk Douglas

With a combination of Robert Aldrich directing and Dalton Trumbo writing, I don’t think it’s unfair to have high expectations. For whatever reason, neither man was at the top of his game on The Last Sunset. Trumbo’s script meanders all over the place and flatters to deceive, with too many plot turns and too many undeveloped ideas. Aldrich allowed the momentum to flag after the first half hour or so and he never really recovered it after that. There are some nice shots, a well filmed sequence during a dust storm, and an attempt to claw back some tension in the climax through quick cutting but none of it adds up to enough to save the film. On top of all this the performances of the two leads are nothing to write home about either. Douglas seemed to be trying for the kind of deadly rascal that Burt Lancaster pulled off in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz but it doesn’t really work for him. Hudson just didn’t convince at all as the driven lawman and he comes across as merely bland. Dorothy Malone and Joseph Cotten were altogether more successful as the Breckenridges; the former exuding a worldly sexuality that made the attention of her various suiters highly credible, while the latter provided a fine portrait of a broken and guilty man. Maybe if Hudson’s character had been the one to snuff it in the cantina we would have got a more compelling film. It’s also a shame that Jack Elam and Neville Brand had to disappear so soon since such character actors were capable of raising the quality of any production.

The Last Sunset was given a release a few years back by Universal in R1 in the Rock Hudson – Screen Legend set. The transfer is a fine anamorphic one and, apart from the odd speckle, there’s not much wrong with it. Colour and sharpness are both strong with good detail. There’s a trailer for the film provided but that’s it as far as extras go. This movie couldn’t be classed as anyone’s finest hour but it’s not a complete dud. There are a handful of worthy performances and the adult theme that becomes apparent as it draws to a close mean that it deserves a look. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t be an ideal introduction to the work of any of the principals

 

Hustle

Poster

I’m unsure how to categorise a film like Hustle (1975). Should I refer to it as neo-noir, post-noir, or use some other unwieldy title? Let’s just put it this way, if the movie had been made twenty years earlier it would have been classed as film noir. It has all the ingredients of classic era noir but it’s just not of the right vintage. As a result we’re left with a stylish 70s critique of a corrupt system and a world that’s lost its way. Incidentally, it’s also a damned fine film. 

Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds) is a homicide cop with a long list of things wrong in his life. At first glance everything might seem just dandy since we first see him reclining in bed and being pampered by his beautiful French girlfriend. However, his situation is far from ideal. The girlfriend, Nicole (Catherine Deneuve), works as an upmarket call girl and Gaines is just about dealing with this. The two of them plan and dream of hopping a jet and seeing out their days in Rome but neither one really has the ability to break away from their lifestyles. Nicole’s excuse is the need to earn a living and Gaines keeps putting it on the long finger, preferring to gaze at the fading photographic calender tacked on his office wall whilst indulging in idle fantasy. In addition, his job is increasingly getting on top of him and shows no signs of improving as his next case looms. The body of a young girl is found washed up on the beach and triggers an investigation that will eventually expose corruption in high places and drive Gaines to finally become more than a mere spectator. The girl in question was a hooker/dancer, a runaway whose life descended into seediness instead of the glamour she sought. Everyone appears inclined to write the whole thing off as another pathetic suicide, everyone except the girl’s father that is. Marty Hollinger (Ben Johnson) is a Korean War vet with an axe to grind and an obsessive streak. It’s his unwillingness to let the matter lie that pushes Gaines to dig ever deeper until the truth is exposed. By the end of the movie that truth is laid bare but, as in life, it doesn’t necessarily help anyone. The ending itself is a real choker and unapologetically noir in tone.  

Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve - looking for a way out.

Robert Aldrich generally invested his films with a brutal honesty and cynicism, and Hustle isn’t any exception in that regard. He never shies away from the unsavoury and paints a bleak picture of 1970s America, a place where average people are simply nobodies and the wealthy are hopelessly corrupt – in Phil Gaines words, “Guatemala with colour TV.” That rank degeneracy is best exemplified by the villain of the piece, a marvellously sleazy turn by Eddie Albert. In the lead, Burt Reynolds does very well and shows that, when the director and material were right, he was more than capable as an actor. He’s made an excessive number of fairly ropey films but, here and there, the odd gem turns up. He has some excellent moments in this movie, especially when his simmering jealously is dangerously near the surface as he tortures himself listening to Nicole take dirty phone calls from her faceless clients. Catherine Deneuve displayed the right kind of cool detachment that was necessary for her part, and she’s certainly very easy on the eyes. There’s plenty of great support from Paul Winfield, Eileen Brennan and Ernest Borgnine but Ben Johnson rises above them all. He turns in an absolute blinder as the emotionally scarred veteran who feels his country owes him something, and has allowed that massive chip on his shoulder to tear his family apart. The way he forces himself to confront the lifestyle his daughter adopted is as painful for the viewer to watch as it is for him to experience. A real class act was Mr Johnson.

Paramount’s R2 DVD of Hustle offers an excellent image, as was usually the case with that company. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and sharp throughout, and I can see no reason to criticise it. However, there’s absolutely nothing in the way of extra content and that is a little disappointing. Overall, I’d rate Hustle as a very fine example of modern noir from a highly accomplished director and a cast that’s uniformly good.

 
 

Attack

Robert Aldrich made one of most people’s favorite war movies in The Dirty Dozen. In fact he made all kinds of great movies encompassing almost every genre. By 1956 he had turned out a handful of fine pictures, including Kiss Me Deadly and Vera Cruz. That year he turned his hand to the war movie and came up with the superior and intense Attack. This came at a time when the war film was transitioning from the flag-waving efforts of the forties to more bitter and realistic portrayals of combat.

The story focuses on the strains within a WWII company of US soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. The company is under the command of Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert), a privileged man who joined the army to satisfy the wishes of his father. However, Cooney is an undisguised coward whose position only remains tenable due to his friendship with Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin), the battalion commander. The situation in the company has reached crisis point after Cooney’s inaction has caused the death of a squad of Lt. Costa’s (Jack Palance) men. When orders come through that a small town must be taken and held, Costa delivers an ultimatum to his superior – if he fouls up again then Costa will kill him.

Jack Palance reaches the breaking point

The film was adapted from a stage play and, as is often the case, is a real actor’s movie. Both Palance and Albert hold centre stage and the focus is on the duel between these two. Palance’s performance is raw and painful to watch as his endurance is fully tested. The latter part of the movie, when betrayal and the pointless slaughter drive him to the edge of reason, is something to behold. Eddie Albert gives him a good run for his money, forcing the viewer to both pity and despise Capt. Cooney. Lee Marvin’s colonel is at once cunning, ambitious, cynical, and the absolute epitome of cool machismo. Of the support cast, Buddy Ebson, Robert Strauss and Richard Jaeckel all give entertaining turns.

This is one of the finest war movies of the fifties and bears comparison to the best of Sam Fuller. It is probably one of Aldrich’s least known films but deserves a much wider recognition. It is on DVD in R1 and R2 from MGM and the full screen image looks very good. Being an MGM release the only supplement is a trailer. However, a movie as good as this should have a place in any self-respecting war collection.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 14, 2008 in 1950s, Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Robert Aldrich, War

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 506 other followers