There are two films by Robert Aldrich coming out in two-DVD special editions, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen. This would be a good opportunity, then, for me to say what I think of his work... except I've never been entirely sure what to think. Aldrich was an auteur, there's no doubt about that; he picked his own projects, produced his own movies, had a team of people he worked with frequently (especially cinematographer Joe Biroc and composer Frank DeVol). He had a distinctive style, which I might describe an odd combination of the mundane and the crazy: his movies have a lot of static, TV-style shots and flat lighting, but with heightened or lowered camera angles and the over-the-top performances he gets from his actors, there's always crazy stuff happening within that sensible, budget-conscious framework of his.
And he certainly had a distinctive worldview: an Aldrich movie, in whatever genre, is cynical, nasty, and grotesque, and not terribly forgiving toward the people who have come to see the movie. The Dirty Dozen is about the way we, the audience, will root for a bunch of vicious thugs and murderers if they're doing what we like to think of as "good guy" stuff (fighting Nazis). And that's one of his more upbeat movies.
He was also a bit like that other self-promoting producer-director, Otto Preminger, in that he tried to push the boundaries of what kind of content was acceptable in American movies; but whereas Preminger basically made high-toned prestige pictures that happened to deal with touchy subjects, Aldrich was out to push the envelope when it came to how lurid or gruesome or amoral a big-star, mainstream movie could be. In many ways no one, not even the '70s film brats, ever went as far as Aldrich in re-defining what the bounds of good taste were for a mainstream film.
Some of this was probably just opportunism; Mad Magazine did a parody of Aldrich's Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte where they pointed out that movies like Charlotte and Baby Jane were just big-star versions of the kind of bad "B" movies kids were seeing in drive-ins. (At the end of the parody, the stars are hacked to pieces by the stars of the "Beach Party" movies, jealous that the aging stars are getting Oscar nominations for their schlock while the critics ignore teenage drive-in schlock.) But I think he genuinely wanted to shake audiences up and bring some of the liberating tastelessness of exploitation movies to "A" pictures. And remember that the '50s and '60s were a time when American "A" pictures were sinking into a rut of tasteful, prestigious boredom; in a time when movies like The Robe or Marty were the big successes, a film like Kiss Me Deadly -- a movie seething with angry contempt for its audience, its source material, and basically all of humanity -- was like a slap in the face to a somnolent film industry and filmgoing audience.
Aldrich could occasionally show compassion to his characters, especially supporting characters on the periphery of the story, and even occasionally to the leads (Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George is weirdly sympathetic at times). But when you come right down to it, I don't think he liked people very much and he wasn't afraid of showing it. How many directors, before Aldrich or after, could make a successful commercial moviemaking career out of an openly-expressed conviction that humans are vile creatures? Not many, I think. And that's what makes Aldrich's movies both fascinating and off-putting: fascinating because of what they say about people, and off-putting because he definitely thinks we're as creepy and violence-loving as some of the people he shows us on the screen.
Of course Aldrich also introduced hot girl-on-girl action to your local cinema, so if my generation knew about him, they'd probably consider him a god.