Sunday, May 19, 2013

Autumn Leaves (1956)

WHO: Robert Aldrich won the Silver Bear at the 1956 Berlin Film Festival for having directed this.

WHAT: Six years before teaming (along with Bette Davis, of course) for What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? director Aldrich (coming off a pair of noir now-classics Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife) and actor Joan Crawford (who had just completed Queen Bee) made this film together. It casts Crawford as a woman approaching spinsterhood, who develops a romance with a young man with a past played by Cliff Robertson.

It's been a while since I first (and last) saw this, as part of a Pacific Film Archive Aldrich retrospective, so let me grab some words from a review by the always insightful Fernando F. Croce:
The brilliance of it, irresistible and perverse, lies in Robert Aldrich's plowing of melodrama for all the disturbances and neuroses within a "classy soap opera." The heroine (Joan Crawford) is a lonely writer, her bungalow exudes the fatality of Palance's house in The Big Knife, arenas of mounting hysteria both. A flashback during a concert lends the Electra complex, Oedipus later enters the equation via Cliff Robertson, the younger man who courts Crawford at the diner booth
WHERE/WHEN: Today only at the Roxie at 3:15 and 7:30.

WHY: Autumn Leaves is, as I remember it, a great film. Probably my favorite of Aldrich's films and quite possibly of Crawford's too (though I still have plenty to explore in both filmographies). Certainly it's a more thoughtful film than the grotesquely enjoyable guignol of Baby Jane, bur it will surely never surpass that film in popularity with a wider public. Simply, Autumn Leaves takes the American family seriously as an institution to critique while the later Crawford-Aldrich pairing perversely, pleasurably smashes it. 

But although suspense is employed as an efficient narrative motor in Autumn Leaves, it is ultimately a romantic melodrama, a fatally unfashionable genre these days. It's a perfect cousin to noir, and placing it in a series like the Roxie's current I Wake Up Dreaming is a good reminder of the melodramatic underpinnings of the noir cycle- although crime pictures and so-called "womens' weepies" may have found the core of their appeal in gendered audiences, they were also meant to be able to function as fodder for opposite-sex date nights as well.

If you're not a genre purist, I can enthusiastically recommend Autumn Leaves, but noir fans who prefer their films to include gangsters and other underworld figures may get more enjoyment out of the rest of this week's noir series titles, screening lots of rarities involving criminals, and at least one mean little masterpiece of the 1940s crime movie cycle: Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross. They can also look forward to July and August, when the PFA brings a series devoted to films inspired by the work of Belgian mystery novelist Georges Simenon. It's a welcomely diverse set of noir and noir-esque films made not only in Hollywood and France but also Japan and Hungary, and representing almost every decade since his most famous character, Inspector Maigret, was first invented and adapted to screen in the 1930s. 

HOW: 35mm double-bill with another Crawford picture, Female on the Beach.

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