Autumn Leaves (1956): Robert Aldrich’s 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 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.

Detailed Plot

Spinsterish Millicent “Milly” Wetherby works at home as self-employed typist. One evening in a diner, she meets lonely U.S. Army veteran named Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson). They share romantic date at the beach, kissing amidst the crashing waves, but Milly tells Burt to date someone younger, of his own age.

A month later, Burt is waiting for the still-lonely Milly at her home and the two celebrate his new job at department store. He proposes to her in a movie theater, and while she initially rejects the proposal, she reconsiders when he walks away.

The next day, the couple gets married in Mexico. However, on the marriage license, he lists his birthplace as Chicago, though he had told her it was Racine, Wisconsin.

Once home, Burt’s ex-wife Virginia (Vera Miles) appears, shocking Milly because Burt told her he had never been married. Virginia gives her property settlement that she wants Burt to sign and tells her that Burt is habitual liar about his life and past. Milly also learns that Burt’s father (Lorne Greene) is in Los Angeles to find him.

It turns out Burt still is haunted by the day when he discovered his wife and father making love; he begins displaying signs of mental instability with their sudden, unwelcomed presence in his life.

When he becomes violent, Milly sends him to mental hospital. Burt’s condition improves with treatment (depicted as montage of intravenous drugs and electroconvulsive therapy), and he severs connections with his past.

In the unbelievable happy ending, Milly discovers that he still loves her, and they both look forward to a brighter future.

Song: Autumn Leaves

Popular Singer Nat King Cole scored a big success with the title song, co-written by Joseph Kosma and Johnny Mercer, which he recorded in 1951. The lyrics of the original 1945 song were written by French poet Jacques Prevert (in French),

Robert Aldrich

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.
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 thriller, “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.
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)
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
Running time: 107 Minutes