Autumn Leaves

ve7ezib

The present is made up of little bits of the past.

Recently, I spoke a little about filmmakers venturing outside of their perceived comfort zone and the how the ability to do so successfully can be taken as an indication of their artistic skill. The classic era of Hollywood moviemaking could be seen as a factory environment which encouraged specialization among performers, writers and directors. I say could because it’s not really the case at all and once one looks beyond a handful of headline titles it’s an assertion that rarely stands up to any scrutiny. Even the unsung journeymen were afforded the opportunity to try their hand at a range of genre pictures. I think the better or more interesting directors understood the challenge presented by these opportunities, that the form and conventions of genre (that frequently maligned term) could be adopted, applied or discarded as appropriate in the pursuit of their art. It’s easy to look at the films of Robert Aldrich and decide he was simply a classy purveyor of tough cynicism, and indeed I’ve been guilty of doing so myself in the past. However, I’d like to think that the years bring us if not exactly wisdom then at least a broader critical perspective. So in that spirit, let’s look at Autumn Leaves (1956), a superficially atypical offering from one of cinema’s great talents.

The story opens with Millie Wetherby (Joan Crawford) hard at work. She spends her days in her neat bungalow typing up manuscripts for writers, putting the finishing touches to the experiences and adventures of others, a vicarious existence if ever there was one. Her life is a mundane one, and a lonely one at that. When a satisfied customer passes on a couple of concert tickets he doesn’t need she accepts them and decides to treat herself to a rare evening out. A brief flashback sequence triggered by the familiar music makes it plain that Millie’s solitary life is the result of sacrifices she made to care for an ailing parent, that time and opportunity just passed her by. And yet her walk home takes her past a small eatery, a place that catches her eye for no special reason other than a reluctance to let the evening end. Still, taking those tickets and yielding to that impulse to stop off for a bite to eat before returning to the empty home prove to be pivotal moments in this humdrum and inconsequential life. As she sits alone in her booth, prim and composed, listening to the movie’s title song on the jukebox the shadow of a wistful smile plays across her features. Another shadow enters the frame at this point, another customer hoping to share some table space in the crowded restaurant. This is Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson), a fresh-faced and talkative young man, one more soul adrift in the urban anonymity. Here we have the beginnings of a tentative and rather sweet romance, a predictable setup in many ways. Yet the tone and direction alter radically in the second half as a far from attractive past barrels its way into the fragile present, and the threat to that fragility is what forms the basis of the drama which subsequently unfolds.

The cinema of the 1950s is an endlessly fascinating subject for this viewer. There are of course the technical advances which were ongoing and literally changing the shape of the movies, but it’s the thematic probing that seems to characterize this decade of filmmaking which intrigues me most. The promise and potential, the surface gloss of this brave new post-war world seemed to offer so much food for artistic contemplation. Time and again we encounter the notion of rebirth and renewal in 50s cinema, and indeed the characters played by Crawford and Sheppard Strudwick openly discuss the concept of being reborn in what is otherwise one of the more prosaic scenes in this picture. However, I’m of the opinion that reinvention is perhaps a more appropriate word to describe the central theme of Autumn Leaves. Millie certainly reinvents herself in the role of carer which she appears to have occupied all her life, although one might argue the ending does look to a future beyond that. Burt is without doubt the most obvious source of reinvention; he adopts and discards aspects of his past and present at the drop of a hat, unconsciously creating whatever reality feels expedient on any given occasion. Of course the consequent psychological meltdown and the road back from the mental abyss into which he descends is another part of that process.

So what can one say about Aldrich, and is there cynicism on view here? Well yes and no. If one takes the view that peering beyond the veils of society to get nearer the truth is cynicism, then perhaps Aldrich can be said to be a cynic. I’m not sure that is the case though; for one thing cynicism suggests a sourness, particularly on a personal level. As I see it, Aldrich wasn’t going down that route. On the contrary, I see a man casting a sidelong glance at society on an institutional level, almost like a more abrasive version of Douglas Sirk. Unlike Sirk’s more sumptuous, glossy presentation of a flawed idyll, Aldrich’s visual approach is starker and more direct with Charles Lang’s noir-shaded cinematography and the canted angles and mise-en-scène emphasizing the narrow range of options open to his trapped and tormented characters.

Joan Crawford’s career on screen could be separated into distinct eras, with Autumn Leaves coming close to the end of a very successful run starting with Mildred Pierce. Her role as Millie Wetherby is a strong one and a good fit for her at this stage in her life and career. There’s an open acknowledgement of all the little (and not so little) insecurities that come with ageing. There are, as expected, a number of “big” moments but it’s actually some of the smaller, more intimate instances that stick in my mind, that early scene in the restaurant for example, or some of the exchanges with Ruth Donnelly. Cliff Robertson landed a plum part as the deeply disturbed Burt and his handling of the character’s slow disintegration is well done, with vague hints dropped from early on and casual lies imparted before their enormity is finally revealed.

Both Vera Miles and Lorne Greene are fine too as the calculating ex-wife and the frankly sinister father respectively. I mentioned before Aldrich’s less than reverent view of institutions and his take on an appallingly dysfunctional family is deeply shocking. Miles’ glacial turn as the entitled and contemptuous ex is marvelously mean – leaving that cigarette smouldering in the ashtray in Crawford’s bungalow is a nice touch. And Greene is on top form as the bullying, creepy patriarch. If family is seen as representing the bedrock of society, the horrors implicit in Burt’s domestic background offers as withering a criticism of the post-war American Dream as one could imagine. In support, the aforementioned Ruth Donnelly is a joy every time she appears and there are small parts for Maxine Cooper (Velda from Kiss Me Deadly) and, as a gloriously jaded and world weary waitress, Marjorie Bennett.

Autumn Leaves is one of Robert Aldrich’s early films that seems to get much less attention than his other work from around that time. Frankly, it deserves better as all those involved give a good account of themselves, not to mention the fact the movie tackles a tricky subject with confidence. Rather than resort to dry cynicism, Aldrich takes an unflinching look at the process of decay in certain institutional pillars but reserves a cautious optimism for the individuals at the heart of his drama and for their simple hopes. And, last but by no means least, there’s Nat “King” Cole’s superb theme song:

41 thoughts on “Autumn Leaves

  1. Colin
    This is something I have never seen, I must admit that the title alone, has sent me off looking for something else to watch. Needless to say it would not be the first time a title fooled me. Your write-up though now has me adding it to my “take a look at it” list. I also missed the fact it is an Aldrich film, so shame on me in that department.

    Thanks for the heads up on this!
    Gord

    Like

    • I’d term it a melodrama with some dark undercurrents, lapping around the shores of film noir, but no more than that. I like it and I think Aldrich enjoyed taking his movies to interesting places thematically, even if they don’t all succeed entirely. This movie has a lot going for it, in my opinion, but much will depend on how one responds to melodrama.

      Like

  2. (So pleased, Colin, my Like button is working for your blog)
    So nice to have you reviewing this melodrama. Perfect role for Joan and the rest of the cast very good. Ruth Donnelly just right to give the dark film a lighter moment.
    Joan eating alone in the cafe reminds me of Judith Evelyn in Rear Window.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I see the “like” registered this time.
      Obviously, Crawford and Robertson are the focus of most attention but there’s excellent work done by the whole cast, and everyone adds something of value to the production.
      Good and interesting point too re Rear Window – that hadn’t occurred to me.

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  3. I was enthralled with your thoughts on Autumn Leaves in the context of its era and Aldrich’s career. I was equally enthralled with the movie upon my first viewing. I came to an acceptance of Joan Crawford as an actress beyond star and began re-evaluating and enjoying all aspects of her career. It is, as you mentioned, the little moments here (especially with Miss Donnelly) that impress. I hesitate as well to use the word “cynicism” as I find the probing beneath the surface here to be more of observation with the rose-coloured glasses removed; you may blink in the sunlight but eventually things are cleaner.

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    • I think that we sometimes get into the habit of overusing, and indeed misusing, certain words and terms, and there is a tendency and temptation to apply the label of cynicism to much of Robert Aldrich’s work – it’s something we see quite often and, as I said, I know I’ve done so myself. I agree that taking a frank, penetrating look at issues is not the same and the distinction ought to be made as the intention and results are quite different.

      By the way, sorry for the delayed appearance of your comment – it ended up in among the spam for some odd reason and I only just noticed it.

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  4. A good and entertaining film from Crawford. Cliff had a somewhat similar role years later in an Academy Award ‘Charly’. As always, a very interesting review! Best regards.

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  5. Crawford. A truly interesting Actress. We didn’t really like her, but couldn’t stop watching. She RULED the Screen. Other thespians would really have to do something sensational if they were in the same frame. Ah, but this was the Studio Era and there was no shortage of Charisma.

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    • Yes, good points. Crawford had that elusive something that demanded your attention whenever she was on screen. It’s star quality, isn’t it? Something that’s virtually impossible to define or quantify but which remains unmistakable whenever you come across it.

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      • For some reason over the years I had never seen AUTUMN LEAVES until today. I think it’s very good. I’m fascinated at the artful lighting always given to Crawford. In this movie and in many others, her neck is almost always in shadow. Lucky her.

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  6. Patrick
    This was another of the films that Crawford’s fav cinematographer, Charles Lang, was at the controls for, . The 18 time Oscar nominated Lang (tied with Leon Shamroy) was always Crawford’s number one choice for a d of p. They worked together on 4 films and a half dozen television episodes. He knew how to feature her just right. They worked on SUDDEN FEAR, QUEEN BEE, FEMALE ON THE BEACH, and this film. Hopefully I did not miss another one.

    Gord.

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    • The number of Oscar nominations is hugely impressive, but he did some superb work over the years. Just a quick scan through his credits – I sometimes find cinematographers’ credits slip my mind unless I’m actually watching one of their movies at the time – reveals a very long list of beautifully shot films.

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  7. Colin, hope this is ok , a query not post related. I have suddenly today been transferred onto the new WordPress Block Editor and I am struggling to find the Classic Block . I can’t post at present.
    How are you doing?

    Like

    • Yes, of course it’s OK. I just had a look and the setup seems the same to me. When I’m posting I noticed two ways of accessing the old classic editor.
      1 Click on the create post button. Then add a title and simply save. Go to the old dashboard, by clicking the WP Admin button at the bottom of the left hand sidebar and then click posts in the new window. Hovering over your list of posts should bring up the option of using the classic editor.

      OR
      2 Click create post. Add a title and then click the add block button and the option of using the classic editor should still be available.

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      • Thanks, Colin. Can’t believe how much time ai have spent on this already and am far from being ready to use the new format.
        I did as you said but when I added title and saved it, there is no sign of the old dashboard. No sign of WPAdmin button at bottom of left sidebar. Any suggestions? ( I work on my iPad).
        I can see how to choose the Classic Block but even that is so different from the old one.

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        • OK, a tablet may be a little different. On your sites home screen there should be a black bar at or near the top with the WP logo (circle with a W inside) at the top left. Hitting that should drop down a menu. At the bottom there ought to be the WP Admin option. Click that and it will open a new window entitled Dashboard, listing activity and, hopefully in the first “at a glance” section there is the number of posts you have written. Click that and it should show all your posts, with the option below each one to use the classic editor.

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          • I’m wondering Colin if we are at the same stage. I have until yesterday been able to use the Classic editor but today that option has been taken away. If you remember WordPress did say that everyone would be transferred to the new Block editor ( with the option of using the ‘Classic Block’ which has similarities to the Classic editor.) Could it be that you have not been transferred yet? I was hoping they would just leave me with the Classic editor option, but no.
            My Dashboard still shows Stats, Posts, Media etc, ending with Settings. No sign of ‘WP.Admin’.

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  8. R.I.P. George Segal – 1934 – 2021

    WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRIGINA WOOLF
    SHIP OF FOOLS
    KING RAT
    THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM
    and many, many more has left us.
    R.I.P.

    Like

    • Segal did a lot of TV work in later years, with considerable success too. It’s mainly for his film work in the 60s that I remember him though: The Quiller Memorandum, Lost Command, Invitation to a Gunfighter, No Way to Treat a Lady, The Bridge at Remagen, and so on.
      RIP

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  9. Robert Aldrich was a weird director. Sometimes he hit the target and sometimes he didn’t. I thought THE BIG KNIFE was an example of an Aldrich movie that missed the target (although a lot of people seem to like it).

    And then there’s THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE which everybody hates but I’m oddly fond of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like The Big Knife, or did when I last viewed it anyway. It’s actually due a rewatch as the Blu-ray has remained undisturbed since I bought it. I haven’t seen The Legend of Lylah Clare so I can’t comment on its qualities. Generally though, I find I prefer Aldrich’s earlier work. That’s not to be read as a blanket dislike of his later films, just my own acknowledgment that I don’t take as much from as many of them.

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      • If you liked The Killing of Sister George you might like The Legend of Lylah Clare. Very melodramatic, very camp, very overheated. They’re both examples of Aldrich’s willingness to take risks even if the risks didn’t always come off. And considering his slightly macho reputation they’re both examples of his interest in the world of women.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Colin, I hope you will forgive me for going totally off-topic but I wanted to return briefly to a film that was raised in comments recently.
    John Knight mentioned that Burt Kennedy’s “THE CANADIANS” (1961) was coming up for showing here on our Talking Pictures TV channel. I watched it yesterday after a gap of 20 or 30 years. Sadly, as predicted, it was a pan and scan print that lost so much of the magnificent Saskatchewan scenery. Enjoyed the film though – a film headlined by Robert Ryan and John Dehner would be hard to be pretty darn good!
    Earlier in the week I had watched the 1954 RCMP film “SASKATCHEWAN” from Raoul Walsh and starring Alan Ladd, the only ‘western’ of Ladd’s I had never seen(!). It was a striking and unexpected coincidence that these two films covered a similar background – the aftermath of the annihilation of Custer and his command at the Little Big Horn in 1876 which resulted in the entire Sioux nation crossing the border into Canada to escape ‘the long knives’. The stories of the two films diverged somewhat thereafter.
    “THE CANADIANS” really deserves to be restored and seen in its correct 2.35:1 ratio.

    Like

    • This is a movie I have never seen in any form. Watching films that were shot in ‘Scope broadcast in chopped down versions is almost intolerable. I’ve done it when there is no other option but it’s a deeply unsatisfying experience. I remember reading a discussion or back-and-forth on, I think, Facebook related to some broadcasts on Talking Pictures which used cut down ‘Scope prints. There were a huge number of comments, some expressed in remarkably blunt and rude terms, how this was irrelevant and what those who objected might like to do with their complaints. I guess the point to take away is that there is a significant, and vocal, number of viewers who simply don’t care about such matters.

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  11. An interesting topic for discussion but a shame about the rude comments on Facebook – totally uncalled-for. I watched the film because it is so rare now but was aware all the time of the print’s huge limitations.

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    • That’s more or the less same way I’ve approached compromised broadcasts or presentations too. As for the other matter, there is, sadly, a great deal of less than gracious behavior all over the web. Happily though, that’s not something we have to worry about in this place. 🙂

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  12. Tonight I took in what was a new one for me, 1950s ROCKY MOUNTAIN with Errol Flynn in the lead. Director William Keighley cranks out a nasty little duster set at the end of the American Civil War. Flynn is in charge of a small group of Southern cavalry trying to start a revolt in California. Everything goes sideways when they run into a group of less than friendly natives from the Shoshone tribe. Throw in the rescue of several stage passengers and a Union patrol and the pot is well stirred. An excellent looking black and white film from the dependable cinematographer, Ted (The Breaking Point) McCord. How on earth did I miss this one all these years?

    Gord

    Like

    • Quote Gord…..”How on earth did I miss this one all these years?” It is a head scratcher isn’t it? I had the same thoughts when I first viewed the film a few months ago. Surely, a film that is this good, in this genre, should never have got by me…..but it did. Probably, because my local TV stations did not have it in their library for what ever reason or they just bypassed it because it wasn’t in color like almost all Flynn’s colorful action/adventure films. Heck I don’t know…..it’s a mystery to me. Previous to seeing this film, I highly regarded Flynn a one of the best stars of the genre. After seeing “Rocky Mountain”, his final western, it only elevated my opinion of the man and sealed his legacy as one of the best ever of the genre. “Rocky Mountain” is the ribbon and bow that wraps up a neatly package of Flynn westerns. Glad the movie came your way Gord. If it hadn’t, it would have left a definitive void regarding Flynn and his westerns.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Agreed. An underrated movie with excellent performances. And you are so right about 1950s cinema — it’s a fascinating decade because of 1) technical changes, 2) the slow erosion of the studio system and 3) the moral code.

    Like

    • Many years ago, I would have said the 1940s was my favorite decade and I still rate it highly. The 1950s was an era I often heard people refer to somewhat disparagingly and I guess I didn’t give it a lot of thought at that time, However, at some point I started to notice how often I found myself drawn back to 1950s cinema, probably the western to begin with but I was gradually becoming aware of how much there was of interest in almost the full range of genres from that decade. When I started blogging, almost 14 years ago, I hadn’t planned to focus on any decade more than another but somehow that fascination with 50s cinema filtered through here as well and I soon realized I was featuring more more and more of the decade’s movies. So yes, I see it as an inexhaustible fount of cinematic delight that I can’t resist dipping into.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s not just 50s movies. The 50s was a fascinating decade. Far from being an era of stability and stifling conformity it was actually of time of rapid and dramatic social and cultural change.

        And pop culture changed out of all recognition over the course of that decade.

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      • Full disclosure: 1970s is my favorite decade. But love the 1950s because you can clearly see filmmakers breaking away from the rules established by the studio system. The decade is a sort of bridge between Classic Hollywood (1930s & 1940s) and the American New Wave (1960s & 1970s).

        Liked by 1 person

  14. I was very interested, Colin, in your comment that you had looked to the 1940s principally for the films you particularly enjoyed but later found the 1950s offered so many enticing films. These are certainly the two decades that I find the most satisfying for the quality and breadth of movies being made.

    Lately I have been returning to some wonderful examples from the 1930s and rediscovering some wonderful work there. It is amazing to remember that some powerful films like “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” & “20,000 YEARS IN SING-SING” were made 90 years ago.

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