‘… All the Marbles’ on TCM

The final film by Robert Aldrich, the hard-edged American director of such tough-guy classics as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), drops the underdog sports drama into the barnstorming world of women’s tag team wrestling on the rural circuit for a meandering, comic look at the intersection of sports, show business, and big dreams.

Iris and Molly (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon), who fight professionally as the California Dolls, and manager / promoter Harry Sears (Peter Falk) hustle their way through small-time matches, hostile crowds, crummy motel rooms and lousy burger joints in the American Midwest with an eye on the big time: the championship match in Reno. While they struggle to maintain their dignity (which comes under assault when they’re booked into a county fair mud wrestling match), Harry plays the crusty but paternal veteran manager keeping them going with a mix of tough love and inspirational speeches, all delivered with Falk’s gravelly voice, street-smart attitude, and wry humor.

Think Kansas City Bomber (1972) meets Rocky (1976) by way of a buddy road movie.This culture is as much show business fakery and ballyhoo as it is working class sports spectacle, a mix of big, broad wrestling theater (right down to scripted turnarounds and manufactured rivalries) and cheesecake fashion show with tough, sexy women in wrestling tights that could pass for bathing suits. In between, Harry and the girls banter while driving along the highways of America’s rust belt in a broken-down car. Robert Aldrich was no stranger to sports stories in unusual cultures — his The Longest Yard (1974) turns on a football game between semi-pro prison guards and a team of convicts put together for an exhibition match and is as much about dignity and self-respect as it is about victory — but for all the drama of rigged matches and corrupt bookers, he applies a lighter touch to this story.

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Plays on Friday, December 7 on Turner Classic Movies

Classic: ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’ with missiles poised to launch

Robert Aldrich’s “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (Olive) combines the “men on a mission against long odds” adventure with the conspiracy thriller that thrived in the seventies to create a politically-minded heist film. Burt Lancaster leads this mission as a patriotic career soldier and army officer who leads a volatile group of military misfits to take command of a military silo in Montana and hold the nation hostage. More than money, Lancaster wants to reveal the buried truth behind the Vietnam war, a secret that America’s military gatekeepers will do anything to keep buried.

Aldrich isn’t as sharp a filmmaker as he was even in the early seventies and there’s some sloppiness to the action and the storytelling, but Lancaster and Charles Durning (as the President) keep the film grounded and the political stakes carry a punch that seems more prescient than ever. It was a critical and financial flop in 1977 but seen in context of seventies political conspiracy thrillers, it remains one of the more interesting (and plausible) proposals.

Blu-ray and DVD, mastered from a new restoration (it looks superb), with the feature-length documentary “Aldrich Over Munich” on the making of the film.

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“Kiss Me Deadly” – Film Noir Apocalypse, Then and Now

Un-True Detective

Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion)

Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir apocalypse Kiss Me Deadly is unlike any other noir ever made. From the opening scene, where Cloris Leachman (naked under a trenchcoat) runs barefoot down a coastal highway flagging down cars, to the Pandora’s Box scream of destruction unleashed in the finale, it pushes the conventions past the breaking point.

Ostensibly based on Mickey Spillane’s hugely successful pulp novel, Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides turned the story inside, transforming it into a white-hot blast of tawdry pulp and film noir cynicism for the atomic age. Aldrich had just come off of Vera Cruz, a mercenary western that looks forward to the cynical opportunism of the spaghetti westerns, and that tone carries over to Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer is turned into a blithely amoral opportunist, a corrupt private detective who specializes in divorce cases (a “bedroom dick,” in the parlance) and stumbles into a conspiracy that he thinks he can parlay into a payoff, and Ralph Meeker plays him with a perpetual sneer of a smile and an arrogance that is rarely justified. This is a guy who pimps out it secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) between smooches and makes a play for almost every beauty who crosses his path.

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