#99. Robert Aldrich: High Living, Low Art

Robert Aldrich made cinema his life’s ambition. He turned his back on untold wealth for a menial $25 dollars a week job as a production assistant for RKO Studios. Sure, he gave up potential careers in banking or publishing – his father being newspaper publisher Edward Burgess Aldrich, grandfather Nelson Aldrich and the cousin of future New York governor Nelson Rockfeller) – but this was for a movie studio. Little did he know that decision would both separate him from his inheritance but it also from his family. Robert Aldrich was no longer a young man from a distinguished East coast family. He was Robert Aldrich, menial PA gofer and soon to be director of motion pictures.


Robert Aldrich’s directorial style was best summed up by film critic John Patterson

“He was a punchy, caustic, macho and pessimistic director, who depicted corruption and evil unflinchingly, and pushed limits on violence throughout his career. His aggressive and pugnacious film-making style, often crass and crude, but never less than utterly vital and alive, warrants — and will richly reward — your immediate attention.”

Given Aldrich’s upbringing, his subject matter choices may seem out of left field but Aldrich was his own man. His directorial style and film content are very much a part of the times that they were made in. For Aldrich that was the mid-50s until the latter part of the 1960s, one of the greatest times of social unrest in US history.


The reasons for the unrest were numerous and varied, depending on your age and color, sometimes religious affliations as well. Figuring prominently among this was the worry about nuclear proliferation by both superpowers – as well as the House of Un-American Activities war on the American people.  Essentially entertwined the two would play off each other and terrify the US population.

Both would also help darken the American screen and Hollywood of would try to cast aside the glitz and fluff of 1930’s escapist cinema.  In 1955, Aldrich stepped up and created a signifcant film in the film noir genre.


Based on a Mickey Spillane novel of the same title, Kiss Me Deadly would send the gritty, tough hardboiled world of film noir reeling with a swift upper cut to the jaw. In his essay for the remastered DVD version of the film, J. Hoberman labeled the film as “science fiction becomes pop sociology.” That was due in  large part to Aldrich who was approached by filmmaker Victor Saville – who owned film rights to all Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels.

Aldrich only agreed to do the film if he could make the kind of film he wanted to make. To that point, he had directed a few features and had done some work in television. As we have seen, though he might be still green as a director, Aldrich was no Johnny-Come-Lately to the motion picture industry.


Saville relented and Aldrich went to work with screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. Between the two they would discard Spillane’s novel and take from it only what they needed. Says Aldrich in an interview from The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak written by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg:

The original book, Kiss Me Deadly. We just took the title and threw the book away

Together with his writer, Aldrich captured a film that manic frenzy of a film, where the familiar sign posts of noir become illusions that can no longer be adhered to as the viewer delves deeper into Aldrich’s reinterpretation. Kiss Me Deadly would serve as the template for the look of the director’s future films. As well, the wickedly black tone of the  film would serve Aldrich well in his most famous two films What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Robert Aldrich was born into money and privilege . He threw it away for a much bigger passion. He made his mark in the world of films in the dark, black humored nihilistic noir film Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich took the simmering discontent boiled underneath the surface of 1950s America – worried about Russia, the Cold War and whether or not hey could trust their government- and tapped into them as only he could.

Robert Aldrich’s importance cannot be underappreciated. The quality and vision he had propelled the material even further.