Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich / U.S., 1956):

The brilliance of it, irresistible and perverse, lies in Robert Aldrich's plowing of melodrama for all the disturbances and neuroses within a "classy soap opera." The heroine (Joan Crawford) is a lonely writer, her bungalow exudes the fatality of Palance's house in The Big Knife, arenas of mounting hysteria both. A flashback during a concert lends the Electra complex, Oedipus later enters the equation via Cliff Robertson, the younger man who courts Crawford at the diner booth; his brash ardor breaks down her resistance and the two are married, the torment then begins. Robertson's tales soon grow scrambled, he compulsively buys presents he can't afford and cries another woman's name in his sleep -- "little things." He turns out to be an all-round messed-up lad, a genuine Aldrich misfit whose psychosis is traced back to having caught his father (Lorne Greene) in flagrante delicto with his wife (Vera Miles), a trauma relived when the couple (a mocking reflection of the main characters' own May-December romance) drops by to have Robertson committed. Crawford's love throbs in the face of her husband's mania: "You're my life," she tells him a minute before he crushes her hand with a typewriter, after which she consoles him as he weeps full of remorse. Aldrich's sublime truculence unsettles Ross Hunter's territory richly, the camera is laid low on the kitchen floor (slightly askew) and then, breathtakingly, inside the bedroom wardrobe's imaginary glass door so that an anguished Robertson pushes against the lens. Medical information is registered a la Psycho, the path to recovery is a montage of shock treatment and distorted angles, nursed by Hammer's gal Friday from Kiss Me Deadly. The happy ending is serenaded by Nat "King" Cole, and is as disturbing as a Grand Guignol weepie requires. With Ruth Donnelly, Selmer Jackson, and Shepperd Strudwick. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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