Autumn Leaves

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:

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

About a year ago I wrote a short series on the depiction of Jesse James in the movies. At the time, I skipped over The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) for the simple reason that I hadn’t seen the movie in years and didn’t have a copy to hand. Well I eventually got around to watching this a few days ago and thought I’d post my thoughts on it for the sake of completeness. I had recalled the film as being pretty good, but after my recent viewing I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it bad – it has too many interesting things going for it – but it did leave me feeling disappointed. The performances, and some of the ideas, save it but the direction is the weak point for me. I suppose I really should come clean here and say that Philip Kaufman isn’t one of my favorite directors, so that may have affected my opinion somewhat.

The whole film takes place within a fairly short space of time, concentrating on the lead up to, execution and aftermath of the bank robbery of the title. Mainly it’s a character study of Jesse James (Robert Duvall) and Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson), with the latter getting more screen time and coming across the more sympathetic of the two. With the possibility of an amnesty for their past crimes being granted by the Missouri state legislature, Cole Younger (recuperating after a run in with Pinkerton agents) rides for Northfield with the aim of heading off Jesse before he can raid the bank. Along the way, he learns that the amnesty he was hoping for won’t be forthcoming, so a change of plan is in order. The scenes in Northfield, which make up the central part of the story, represent both the best and worst aspects of the picture. It’s here that the yokel outlaws get their first glimpse of the new technology and customs that will soon change their world forever. Some of these scenes work very well, such as the shock of being confronted by an early motorized vehicle. On the other hand, the almost interminable baseball game, replete with Keystone Kops style pratfalls, comes across as needlessly self-indulgent and slows the whole film down. The idea of including it was sound enough but Kaufman drags it out to the point where it becomes distracting. It’s worth comparing this sequence to the camel race at the start of Ride the High Country as they’re essentially making the same point; the difference, however, is that Peckinpah knew where to draw the line.

Robertson is excellent as the thoughtful and charismatic Cole. He plays him as a man of the world and a realist, a guy who sees change coming and who is smart enough to see that dwelling on the past does no good. Duvall’s Jesse is the complete opposite – an unbalanced psychotic who cannot let go of the past and who treats all who stand in his way with a ruthless contempt. He talks in grandiose terms of having visions and excuses his excesses by referring to the guerrilla action he’s involved in. Both men give strong, believable performances that help ground the film. The supporting cast is also noteworthy with R G Armstrong playing the ill-fated Clell Miller, and old-timers Elisha Cook Jr and Royal Dano getting small but important roles. One other point I’d like to make relates to the way Frank James was portrayed; in every other movie I’ve seen, this character was shown to be a tough, smart but very human figure. In this movie, however, John Pearce plays him as a vaguely simple-minded soul who lives only to carry out his brother’s wishes. I’ve no idea if this closer to reality or not, but it’s a marked contrast to all other portrayals. I said earlier that I wasn’t all that impressed by Kaufman’s direction and, apart from the aforementioned baseball sequence, he also handles the actual robbery poorly. The scenes in the bank are fine, but as soon as the action takes to the streets it falls down. It’s difficult not to compare this to Walter Hill’s superlative filming of the same events in The Long Riders, where I found myself riveted. Kaufman has the camera swooping all over the place, yet there’s none of the intensity or power of Hill’s version. There are some nice shots of landscape and forest but the whole thing has a slightly cheap look, which is odd since he almost perversely manages to evoke an authentic sense of time and place. I don’t know, I think if he could just have changed the emphasis here and there we could have had one of the best cinema versions of these events. As it stands, the movie seems like it’s trying too hard to be an art house representation of what is really a fairly straightforward story.

The R1 DVD from Universal is barebones, save for the inclusion of the trailer, but the picture quality is excellent. I certainly didn’t notice any significant damage and the colours, while subdued, are true. There’s a nice, tight 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and the disc is available very cheaply. In general this movie has some good ideas and fine performances, but I feel it could have been so much better. Like all other versions it’s littered with inaccuracies (for example, Jim Younger’s facial wound was sustained in Northfield, and not earlier as the film states) but that’s no big deal for me. I’m still of the opinion that The Long Riders remains the best telling of the story of the James/Younger gang, and that Kaufman’s movie is an interesting but flawed addition to the mythology surrounding these men.