Best Movies by Farr: Robert Aldrich Revisited

November 4, 2011 | John Farr

John Farr selects three great pictures from the oft-overlooked Robert Aldrich.

Attack! (1956)

Ordering his men to attack a well-guarded German pillbox, Lieutenant Joe Costa (Jack Palance) expects backup from his senior commander, Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert). The captain balks out of fear, and a squadron of Costa’s men die as a result. Infuriated, Costa curtly informs Cooney that if it happens again, Cooney will pay for his cowardice with his life. Days later, Cooney dispatches Costa’s men to the Belgian front, where the fighting is even fiercer than before.

Offering a hard-as-nails depiction of war and the ugly flipside of frontline bravery, Aldrich’s “Attack!” revisits the decisive Battle of the Bulge with a realistic tale of mutinous revenge. The always intense Palance delivers a riveting performance as an aggrieved lieutenant at the end of his rope, but it’s Albert, in a superb turn as the scurrilous, yellow-bellied captain, who earns top honors. Great support from Marvin, as Cooney’s corrupt, high-ranking pal, Colonel Bartlett, and William Smithers, as a conscientious soldier, round out a fine cast. This gritty, searing war drama ranks with “Kiss Me Deadly” director Aldrich’s very best work.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was a highly successful child performer in vaudeville, but sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) overtook her in adulthood, becoming a huge movie star before a freak accident ended her career. Now years later, Jane takes care of her wheelchair-bound sister, but as Jane’s sanity drifts away, her long-simmering jealousy erupts into truly unhinged, sadistic behavior.

Aldrich’s campy cult classic still chills, thanks to a deliciously creepy premise which borrows from “Sunset Boulevard” in exposing the mental disintegration of a one-time star. Still, this is a more ghoulish affair, with Jane finding a variety of sinister ways to torture poor Blanche. Leads Davis and Crawford had parallel Hollywood careers, and their rivalry was famous, yet they’d never worked together before this (nor would they again!). Davis in particular is fearless as demented harridan Jane, and corpulent Victor Buono adds a revolting touch as Jane’s smarmy accompanist.

The Longest Yard (1974)

Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert) wants to put together a big football game pitting his prisoners against the thuggish, but well-seasoned guards’ team, so he cuts a secret deal with former-pro inmate Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds) to throw the game in exchange for parole. Crewe assembles his convict squad, dubbed the “Mean Machine,” and morale is high. But when game time arrives, he faces a choice between freedom and loyalty to his team-mates.

Robert Aldrich’s crowd-pleasing prison/football comedy makes us favor the irreverent convict-outsiders (played by a who’s who of 1970s NFL stars) while disdaining the opposing bulls, led by ruthless warden Hazen and the vicious Capt. Knauer (Ed Lauter). Real-life collegiate player Burt Reynolds scored his first post-“Deliverance” hit with his assured, charismatic portrayal of Paul Crewe. Aldrich and Oscar-winning editor Michael Luciano infuse energy and urgency into the climactic game itself, spanning a whopping 47 minutes on-screen, which helps make “Yard” a winner by any measure. Beware the recent re-make.

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