Autumn Leaves (1956): Robert Aldrich Melodrama Starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson

Robert Aldrich went to Hollywood in 1941 and worked his way up from production clerk at RKO to assistant to several directors (including Dmytryk, Milestone, Renoir, Wellman, Polonsky, Fleischer, Losey, and Chaplin), then production manager, and associate producer. At the same time, he started writing and directing episodes for the TV series “The Doctor, China Smith.” 

In 1953, he directed his first feature film, “The Big Leaguer.” In 1954 he established his own production company, Associates and Aldrich, and thereafter produced many of his own films. Aldrich gained much of his dynamic quality from his TV experience and from working as assistant on such films as “The Southerner,” “G.I. Joe,” “Force of Evil,” and “Limelight.” 
 
In the intense noir melodrama “Autumn Leaves,” Joan Crawford (in the last good decade of her career) plays Milly, a rich, older, career-oriented spinster.  Upon meeting the younger and charming Burt (Cliff Robertson), she falls in love with him, not realizing his problems as a schizoid paranoid.
 
Milly then discovers that Burt has been mentally unhinged by finding his first wife Virginia (Vera Miles) in the arms of his sleazy father (Lorne Greene). The reappearance of his father and former wife in Burt’s new life throws him into deep mental distress, and Milly must decide whether or not to commit him to a mental institution.
 
Aldrich’s individual style was characterized by frantic motion within shots and in the progression of a sequence, often underlined by violence, brutality, and grotesque chaos. A brutally harsh director, Aldrich helms in a ruthless style what was essentially a woman’s melodrama, giving the tale a grimmer look and feel than it must have had on paper. 
 
Both thematically and visually, the film gets darker and darker as it goes along. Some lines, like Crawford yelling at Miles, “you, ya slut,” have entered into movie lore.
 
Singer Nat King Cole scored a big success with the title song, co-written by Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prevert, and Johnny Mercer.
 
“Autumn Leaves” was made in what’s considered to be the first big peak in Aldrich’s career. Indeed, he won the Silver Award of the Venice Festival for “The Big Knife” in 1955, the Italian Critics Award for “Attack!” in 1956, and the best director award at the Berlin Festival for “Autumn Leaves,” also made in 1956. During that period, he also made the cult apocalyptic noir, “Kiss Me Deadly.”   
 
Aldrich directed several hit movies in the 1960s: “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (both starring Bette Davis), the WWII actioner “The Dirty Dozen,” starring Lee Marvin, and the lesbian drama, “The Killing of Sister George.” The financial success of “Dirty Dozen,” his biggest commercial hit, prompted him to acquire his won studio, but subsequent debacles forced him to sell it in 1973.
 
Cast
 
Milly (Joan Crawford)
Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson)
Virginia (Vera Miles)
Mr. Hanson (Lorne Greene)
Liz (Ruth Donnelly)
Dr. Cuzzens (Sheppard Strudwick
Mr. Wetherby (Selmer Jackson)
Nurse Evans (Maxine Cooper)
Mr. Ramsey (Frank Gerstle)
 
Credits
 
Produced by William Goetz
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Screenplay; Jean Rouveral, Hugo Butler, Lewis Meltzer, Robert Blees
Camera: Charles Lang
Editor: Michael Luciano
Music: H. J. Salter
 
Black-and-white
Running time: 107 Minutes