In the '50s, Robert Aldrich was a favorite of the French Cahiers du Cinéma critics. In the '60s, though, Aldrich got sloppier as his budgets got bigger. Most of his later movies are at least a half hour too long, and formulaic action films like The Dirty Dozen and Too Late the Hero tarnished his once bright reputation. But movies like World for Ransom, Kiss Me Deadly, and Attack still hold up as harsh portraits of violence, paranoia, and a new kind of universal dread that began with the A-bomb and ended with the JFK assassination. All of Aldrich's early work is intriguing, but Autumn Leaves is his secret gem. It's been passed over as camp because of its star, Joan Crawford, but Aldrich brings all his hard edges to this woman's picture. The collision of his tough style with the soapy material makes for a film that never loses its queasy tension.
It begins with a decrescendo of violins. Nat King Cole sings the title song under the credits, which play over dark, blotchy leaves that look like clusters of Rorschach tests. The camera slowly zooms into a seedy group of bungalows, and the tentative pacing of the zoom strikes a note of pure desolation. After two exhausted dissolves, we see Millicent Wetherby (Crawford) at work, a middle-aged typist pounding on her typewriter with grim determination. We learn a lot about Millie in just a few moments of screen time. Her landlady, Liz (Ruth Donnelly), pops in through Millie's squeaking screen door. While the women chat, Aldrich frames Millie's empty bed behind them. As Millie tries to make jaunty small talk with Liz, Aldrich takes Crawford's rigid fakeness, apparent in all her later films, and makes it look like a cover for Millie's quiet desperation, her huge fears, and antic last hopes. Liz talks about her brother ("Tall and skinny and all muscle," she muses) as if talking to herself, her forbidden sexual attraction to a sibling foreshadowing Millie's future.
Perhaps it was a budgetary consideration, but the Los Angeles street sets of Autumn Leaves don't have many people on them, and this adds to the weight of Millie's despair. As she leaves a piano recital (where, in a strange flashback, she had remembered her attachment to her late father), Millie's aloneness is palpable. Determined to enjoy her evening out, she decides to stop at a diner, and young Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson) asks to sit down with her. After only a few words between them, Burt says, "You know something? You're lonely." (In the first scene, Crawford had a dark diagonal shadow running down her chest. When she opens up to Burt, the shadow is further down and much lighter. Such shadows are there to obscure Crawford's aging neck, of course, but Aldrich, like Douglas Sirk, makes creative use of such necessities.) Millie says he should find a girl his own age, but Burt keeps coming back to her. Eventually, she agrees to marry him.
This is the point when a rough-edged, somewhat uncomfortable May-December love story becomes a harrowing examination of primal, even infantile urges and conflicts—a kind of Oedipal nightmare. We learn, but Millie doesn't, that Burt's father (Lorne Greene) cuckolded his son with Burt's ex-wife Virginia (Vera Miles). Burt, whose mental problems start to become obvious, has blocked his father's betrayal out of his mind. Still unaware of what happened between all of them, Millie insists that Burt go to see his father. When he agrees, reluctantly, Aldrich pulls his camera far back from the couple as Burt walks slowly away from her; Millie is framed by an arch in the ceiling and lit from behind with electric light. It's a potent image of a mother pushing her child out of the nest.
Millie discovers the truth too late. In the film's most virtuoso sequence, she tries to stop Burt from going to his father's hotel room, running frantically up flights of stairs. At a high, way-beyond-the-top peak of emotion (aided by Hans Salter's expressive score), she discovers Burt slumped over by his father's bedroom door. As she leads him away, we can see that the bed in the middle of the frame is a mess (it's obviously been used for fucking, unlike Mother Millie's well-made bed in the first scene). The real theme of Autumn Leaves is not loneliness, but incest. Liz wants her brother, Millie wanted her father, and Burt wants a mother to protect him from his father.
Burt's delicate derangement turns to full-blown madness. Certain Millie has betrayed him, he slaps her around and even throws her typewriter at her (Aldrich shows the machine making a gash on Millie's hand, in close-up). Millie and Burt seem perversely turned on by this violence, and you get the feeling that hurting Mommy is a vital part of their torrid sex life. But Mommy punishes her Son eventually, packing him off to an insane asylum after one too many of his crying jags. Locked away, Burt is subjected to shock treatment repeatedly (in close-up, of course). The conclusion is "happy" on the surface, but, after what we've just witnessed, walking into the sunset with these two might someday involve matricide.
Aldrich is always doing unexpected things with the camera. He often zooms in almost imperceptibly to create a feeling of imbalance, and he juts his camera up close to Burt and Millie when they kiss for the first time, not caring that the lens is getting wet. Burt is pounding on the camera lens itself by the end, as if he wanted to bust out of the movie. Though Aldrich is having a field day with his camera, he is very attentive to his two outstanding lead actors. There are fleeting moments of camp in Crawford's performance. However, perhaps because she is reacting to someone else's pain for a change, her narcissism doesn't hold her back. Joan Crawford sometimes comes through, but mostly we're watching Millicent Wetherby. Crawford is sensitive, operatic, and quite touching, especially when Millie first lets her guard down. This is arguably her best performance. As far as Robertson goes, there can be no argument that this is his best work. If photographer Diane Arbus felt that all families are creepy, Autumn Leaves proves that such creepiness persists in the most unlikely places.