Judging by the thirty feature films he left us with (and certainly he has been judged by them), Hollywood director Robert Aldrich's enduring legacy will be the fact of having endured his legacy.
Probably best known for The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich made his name in the 1950s and '60s, piling up variously pulp-inclined genre films -- and all manner of backhanded compliments, faint-praise damnings and even flat-out insults from critics to go with them.
So the Pacific Film Archive's month-long survey of his lesser known work, A Dirty Dozen: The Films of Robert Aldrich should be as fun and worthy and illuminating as it is to imagine how challenging it would be for today's marketeers to extract selling-point slogans from those movies' reviews.
Oh sure, the critics have admired and commended Aldrich too. But the compliments always seemed so intriguingly conditional, as when Time Out New York called 1961's The Last Sunset "more lyrical than Aldrich's usual macho posturings," or Pauline Kael observed of 1955's The Big Knife that "Robert Aldrich directed, overdoing everything in sight; he just about turns hysteria into a style."
It was also Kael who noted, of 1965's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, that "a lot of people seemed to enjoy the spectacle of [Bette] Davis crawling and howling and looking wildly repulsive." And, even less forgivingly, of 1977's Twilight's Last Gleaming, that "...it falls apart, and drags on and on...it suggests an overextended episode of a TV series, and the attempts at wit are pathetically gross."
Even local critic David Thomson, whose definitive New Biographical Dictionary of Film includes a perceptive entry on Aldrich and who will be on hand at the PFA on December 6th to introduce 1955's Kiss Me Deadly and 1956's Attack!, called 1968's The Killing of Sister George one of Aldrich's several "horribly calculated, smirking exploitations of sub-gothic emotional horror."
Never mind those Aldrich movies the PFA deliberately didn't choose for this retrospective, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Don't ask.
Other films in this series will be introduced by Aldrich's daughter Adell, who may even have at least a few unequivocally nice things to say about him.
Not that nice gets you anywhere in this world, as Aldrich seemed quite clearly to understand. In fact, being so appalling can be sort of appealing; you might say that Aldrich's habit of confounding all the critics -- of cranking up the heat and hysteria and always seeming to go just too far, and then farther still -- was part of his charm. And still is.
A Dirty Dozen: The Films of Robert Aldrich runs from November 21 through December 20, 2008 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.