FEROCIOUS FILMMAKER POKED THE BUBBLE IN WHICH WE DWELL
Warner Bros Home Video is releasing a 50th Anniversary Blu-ray disc of Robert Aldrich’s classic WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and the equally Grand Guignol follow-up HUSH … HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE.
In the wake of these releases, a lot of renewed attention has been focused on Aldrich (1918 – 1983), who was born into wealth but never the less raged against the system with cynical, anarchic and disturbing films that eviscerated pomposity, hypocrisy, politic and even Hollywood. The visceral power of his movies has not much dimmed, and, in some cases, is more relevant and immediate than when they were first released.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?
It doesn’t really matter if you look at it as pure camp or psychological horror, everyone agrees that mature stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford electrify in every scene they share. The legendary divas off-screen dislike for each other makes their acid chemistry on screen palpable and catalytic. Fifty years has not jaded the pleasure of the iconic performances in this perfect genre film one iota.
Baby Jane Hudson was a child star of vaudeville. But as an adult, she was over-shadowed by her more talented sister Blanche, who became a movie star.
In the 1930s, a crippling accident ends Blanche’s promising career. A drunken, jealous Jane is blamed. Jump ahead about 30 years and the two sisters share a decaying Los Angeles mansion. Jane, in chalky make-up plans her showbiz comeback and tortures Blanche, her invalid sister. Blanches knows her days and tries to escape, but the deranged Jane has cut off all exits.
Lukas Heller’s atmospheric screenplay is based on Henry Farrell’s novel.
Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar©, but it was only Joan Crawford who appeared on stage at the ceremonies. She had previously arranged to accept for the eventual winner, Ann Bancroft. 1962. Warner. Blu-ray.
HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE
A great follow-up to the success of Aldrich’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, this gothic horror again stars a demented Bette Davis as Charlotte, a long-faded Southern debutante who witnessed the murder and dismemberment of her fiancé and then the suicide of the killer – her own father! Years pass, a clearly unwell Charlotte is a recluse in her moldy mansion, cared for by slovenly housekeeper (Agnes Moorehead). But when her decayed mansion is set for demolition, Charlotte fears her fiancé’s body parts will be uncovered, thus confirming her father as a murderer. Desperate, she summons her apparently mild-mannered cousin Miriam (Olivia De Havilland) to help her save the house. Miriam brings a doctor (Joseph Cotten) to calm Charlotte’s nerves. Soon Charlotte is haunted by horrific visions of the old homicide and suicide. Has she gone totally bonkers? It’s not long before we learn what’s really going on.
Director Aldrich originally set Joan Crawford for the role of Miriam, hoping to reunite the two battling stars with their visceral on-screen chemistry, but Crawford’s unexpected illness forced a recasting. Davis suggested De Havilland, her best friend. 1964. Warner. Blu-ray.
THE GRISSOM GANG
A psychotic killer kidnaps a young heiress and they fall in love. This violent, over-the-top Robert Aldrich thriller is a remake of the 1948 British film NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH that was in turn adapted from the once banned-as-pornographic novel of the same name.
It’s the 1920s. Kim Darby plays young heiress Barbara Blandish who is kidnaped by the brutal Grissom gang. Their plan is simple and savage: keep the ransom and kill the hostage. Unfortunately for the gang, dimwit Slim Grissom (Scott Wilson) falls in love with Barbara. And the even more unfortunate Barbara is forced into a relationship — as the poster says — of “violence and desire.” Finally, when the police close in and the gang comes apart, the question becomes: Who will survive the final frenzy of love and bullets?
Tony Musante, Ralph Waite, Robert Lansing and Connie Stevens co-star in this still shocking and vicious gangster thriller. The unsettling screenplay is by Leon Griffiths and the very 70’s score is by Gerald Fried. Those who knew director Aldrich say his film was intended as a black comedy and is a reflection of his bizarre, almost sadistic, sense of humor. Commenting on the film, Aldrich once said: “If you laugh or cringe — or both – it’s much more about who you are than what’s on screen.” Many people assume THE GRISSOM GANG was somehow inspired by Patty Hearst’s infamous kidnapping by the SLA, but it was in fact made three years earlier. 1971. MGM. DVD
TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING
This socio-political thriller is way ahead of its time. I can’t imagine Aldrich’s taught military conspiracy cautionary tale being made today. Burt Lancaster is Lawrence Dell, an embittered, unhinged, but decorated Air Force Colonel who escapes a military prison and with help of three other convicts takes over a nuclear base and holds America hostage. Among the ransom demands is a full revelation of a document that reveals why we invaded Viet Nam! Just imagine a film that does the same with President Bush and questions about our invasion of Iraq and who profited! This fully restored director’s cut was re-mastered by the Bavaria Film Studios and will be available next month from Olive films. The fine cast includes Richard Widmark, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas and Charles Durning as the President. Loosely based on Walter Wager’s novel “Viper Three.” 1977. Olive Films. Blu-ray.
THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE
This lurid, sometimes heavy-handed, lesbian melodrama received an X rating upon its initial release. Based on the play of the same name by Frank Marcus, it’s about an alcoholic soap opera star (Beryl Reid) that dotes on her younger lover, Alice (Susannah York). But when TV exec Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) falls for Alice and plans the killing of June’s character from the soap, a frightened June, in a crazed alcoholic fog struggles to hold on to her lover, life, livelihood and sanity. I’ve witnessed a similar scenario played out in “Hollywood” on more than one occasion. I think Aldrich relished skewering what he saw as a rancid behavior in the TV and movie biz (not the lesbianism) where vultures feed on the vulnerable. If there are any lingering doubts about Aldrich’s feelings about “the industry,” check out his decidedly odd and acerbic THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE. 1968. Anchor Bay. DVD.
THE EMPEROR OF THE NORTH
This testosterone-fueled, hyper-violent, gritty, depression-era suspense film stars Lee Marvin as “A No. 1,” the King of the Hoboes. He’s famous for catching a ride on any train he wishes no matter the risk. Keith Carradine is Cigarette, a sort of self-made understudy of A No.1 who brags that one day he will surpass the fame of his mentor. The one huge obstacle that looms is the sadistic Shack (Ernest Borgnine), a guard who is known to beat to death any who dare take a free ride on his train. Naturally, A No. 1 and Cigarette hop aboard Shack’s train for an extended showdown that does not disappoint. An instant cult favorite for many who’ve seen it, this film really delivers for Aldrich, Borgnine and Marvin fans. Beautiful locations, a fine supporting cast (including Charles Tyner, Simon Oakland, Elisha Cook Jr., and Sid Haig), great moving train footage (cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc) adds immensely to the verisimilitude of the doings. 1973. 20th Century Fox. DVD
More eclectic Aldrich films worth finding: APACHE (1954), KISS ME DEADLY (1955), SODOM AND GOMORRAH (1962) and THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967.