It’s cold-blooded murder, I tell ya! Feisty Ruth Gordon goes undercover to find the evidence of homicide at Geraldine Page’s desert home, where companion-housekeepers keep disappearing. Robert Aldrich produced this marvelous, E-Ticket battle between celebrated actresses, and the result is a creative new solution for retirement finance problems!
What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?
KL Studio Classics
1969 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 101 min. / Street Date January 8, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Geraldine Page, Ruth Gordon, Rosemary Forsyth, Robert Fuller, Mildred Dunnock, Joan Huntington, Peter Brandon, Michael Barbera, Peter Bonerz, Richard Angarola, Claire Kelly, Valerie Allen, Martin Garralaga.
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Film Editors: Frank J. Urioste, Michael Luciano
Original Music: Gerald Fried
Written by Theodore Apstein from a novel by Ursula Curtiss
Produced by Robert Aldrich
Directed by Lee H. Katzin (and Bernard Girard)
Few fans of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen realize that he used the windfall profits from that enormously successful show to open his own film studio, in facilities formerly called The Sutherland Studio. His ‘Associates and Aldrich’ company made a deal with ABC Pictures, and over the next three years he directed three pictures: the X-rated The Killing of Sister George, the war drama Too Late the Hero and the gangster tale The Grissom Gang. Aldrich took a credit as producer but did not direct What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, a low-budget Grand Guignol thriller that succeeds in ways that more outrageous horror thrillers do not. The only other picture Aldrich produced without also directing is The Ride Back with Anthony Quinn, back in 1957.
Some reviewers didn’t consider this a horror thriller, but only the lack of a psychological ‘curse from the past’ distinguishes it from Aldrich’s earlier successes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. ABC Pictures likely green-lit Aunt Alice on the basis of its sound-alike title. It doesn’t exactly fit into the mainstream of ‘hag horror,’ as its leading star was only 44 years of age during filming. Or does that simply tell the truth about images of women in film?
Robert Aldrich’s picked director Bernard Girard (Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round) shot the first half of Aunt Alice but was replaced with TV’s Lee H. Katzin. It’s interesting that the tough-minded Aldrich, after 25 years navigating the tough end of the movie business, found himself in a position where he had to hire and fire. Only twelve years before, Columbia’s Harry Cohn fired Aldrich from The Garment Jungle and tried to make him unemployable in Hollywood.
With his new studio in hand, Aldrich took advantage of the new rating system and was specializing in alarming movies about shocking content. Aunt Alice may have been uncontroversial, but the acting has a different quality than Aldrich’s personal style of direct conflict. His The Legend of Lylah Clare is simply badly directed for performances; much of it is gratingly over the top. The peerless Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon didn’t need a director to tune their performances, but Girard and Katzin should be congratulated anyway. The subtle cat & mouse games between these two is what grabbed the audience, earning applause at the screening I caught.
The basic story is a distaff version of Chaplin’s business-as-usual murder tale Monsieur Verdoux, minus the anti-capitalist philosophy. Spoiled Los Angeles housewife Clare Marrable (Geraldine Page) is shocked to discover that her late husband was broke; he’s bequeathed her a box of useless items but she’s going to lose everything. Perhaps two years later Clare is in a secluded house in the Arizona desert, being waited on by the latest in a series of elderly housekeeper-companions. Clare makes ends meet through murder: she chooses widowed companion-servants with few relatives, and keeps them on their toes by making them feel as if they’re totally inadequate. After taking each housekeeper’s savings for investment by her ‘brilliant’ money manager, Clare kills her and plants a new pine tree over her shallowly-buried body. Clare is on her fourth tree when Alice Dimmock (Ruth Gordon) shows up as the latest replacement. Dimmock is not like her timid predecessor, Miss Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock). She challenges some of Clare’s imperious behaviors and puts up with others… and sets to searching for evidence that Clare is a murderess. Complicating things are Mike Darrah (Robert Fuller), a handsome local who snoops around the house, and strikes up a friendship with Clare’s unwelcome new neighbor Harriet Vaughn (Rosemary Fosyth) and her mischievous son Jim (Michael Barbera). Clare is rudely suspicious of all of them, especially when Harriet’s dog develops an interest in those aforementioned pine trees. Alice’s investigation is a risky one, for Clare is as perceptive as she is manipulative.
Saying any more about the varied secrets and motives of the characters in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? would do this superior thriller an injustice. The supremely talented and flexible Page and Gordon add greatly to every scene with their complex character interpretations. The actresses focused their talents on flamboyant eccentricities in their movies Sweet Bird of Youth and Rosemary’s Baby, but they give the same attention to this modest murder mystery. Is Alice a lamb in a lion’s den, or will her sense of justice be strong enough to counter the intimidating, entitled Clare? In a key dialogue exchange, Clare declares that a murderer must show real courage, while Alice responds that murder only requires nerve and cruelty.
We’re told that, roughly speaking, Bernard Girard directed the exteriors and other scenes filmed near Tucson, Arizona. Lee Katzin’s scenes were those shot back in Los Angeles, at the Aldrich Studio. The film seems all of a piece, more evidence that the ladies likely needed little direction. Ace cameraman Joe Biroc likely helped with the film’s flexible camera direction — the angles chosen always favor the two actresses. Ruth Gordon bites her lip while carefully planning her next move; Geraldine Page smiles at her own cleverness, frequently laughing like the cat that swallowed the canary.
Neither star was primarily a film actress. We’re used to seeing them play schemers or slightly addled, selfish females; Ruth Gordon was endearing in Harold and Maude but that part was a comic character, a fantasy eccentric. Aunt Alice may be the only movie in which Gordon is a sympathetic heroine in serious trouble. Every ‘clue’ put before the camera leads us to worry about the expected, inevitable thriller twists to come: a Bible, various notes, letters, a postcard; a wheelchair, a pink scarf, even a book of postage stamps.
Screenwriter Theodore Apstein hasn’t a stellar career, but his dialogue plays well. The sneaky activities of Clare and Alice are easy to follow. It’s a movie of strong character identification, not fancy director’s tricks. Geraldine Page’s nasty murderess puts up such a beautiful front that its impossible not to admire her.
Of the supporting cast Robert Fuller holds up his end just fine as a concerned … no details, please. Rosemary Forsyth is even better as the neighbor Clare foolishly misjudges. The other face of note is that of Joan Huntington, an attractive but promiscuous member of the social set who serves as sort of a moral alternative to Forsyth’s straight arrow. Without overstating the case, Aunt Alice presents most of its ‘upstanding’ characters as socially duplicitous, hiding their true personalities and desires. In this sort of situation, Clare Marrable’s finicky eccentricities don’t attract suspicion.
Audiences in 1969 knew better than to expect a happy ending, not after a decade of ‘psycho-‘ type horror pix with sometimes appalling finales. In fact, the late ’60s and early ’70s were rife with grim, bad-news conclusions… from Rosemary’s Baby and The Mephisto Waltz to The Other.
I was surprised to learn that Aunt Alice was deemed a flop when new — as I say, the audience I saw it with loved it. Possible reasons might be that the public had tired of the ‘hag horror’ genre, with name actresses committing bloody murder — even though Alice has only a few seconds of gore-free violence and a solid 100 minutes of good suspense. I can point to two likely reasons. The Guignol title and the grim ad campaign showing a half-buried female face would have led audiences to expect a horror movie with graphic gore. That, and (spoiler) the movie’s downbeat ending was totally unnecessary. The film’s real appeal is seeing ‘that witch’ from Rosemary’s Baby as a wonderfully feisty, positive heroine, and the chosen finale is not the kind to generate feel-good word of mouth.
How many murder thrillers are there that concern older adults (or non-teenagers, for that matter)? That thought reminds me of a very effective semi-comic murder-horror film from 1974 called Homebodies, directed by Larry Yust. When a brownstone apartment building is posted for demolition, the ‘powerless’ elderly tenants take matters into their own hands and start killing developers and even construction workers. The sense of empowerment, fighting back, is surprisingly liberating. Clare Marrable may a greedy murderer, but she shares the plight of many older people that find themselves alone and poor. We Baby Boomers are about to unbalance every social program on the books… and most of us aren’t as secure as the happy people in the pernicious TV commercials about retirement investment planning.
Confirmed gorehounds and giallo dogs might be advised to look elsewhere, but others interested in a battle of wits between two really smart old dames will get a kick out of the superior What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? gives us this modest but impressive picture in a clean and bright presentation, in its proper aspect ratio. We’re pulled in by the two star performances; the editing is so good in their scenes, that the movie is an excellent model for study.
The soundtrack features rather barnstorming music score from composer Gerald Fried. As the movie unspools in slow suspense as opposed to violent set-pieces, Fried may have been tasked with providing a sense of menace during transitions — especially when the camera cuts away to that row of very healthy pine trees growing to the side of Clare Marrable’s desert house. A sting of deja-vu kicks in when Fried’s cues revive the blaring emphatic quality of his 1950s horror music: The Return of Dracula, I Bury the Living.
Some trailers are attached, but the extra of note is a lively audio commentary by the accomplished Richard Harland Smith. He applies his usual good judgment and general film knowledge to the track, but he’s also done enough research to uncover the story behind Robert Aldrich and his short-lived independent Hollywood studio. Courtesy of some serialized coverage in a Tucson newspaper, we hear plenty of information about the actual film shoot, too. Richard’s opinions and viewpoint are always thoughtful and well reasoned, and his actor profiles are never just a list of credits.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?
Movie: Very Good ++
Supplements: Commentary by Richard Harland Smith, Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 17, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson