Autumn Leaves (1956)

Directed by Robert Aldrich
Cinematography Charles Lang

Autumn Leaves is a 1956 American drama film by Columbia Pictures starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in an older woman/younger man tale of mental illness. The screenplay was written by Jean Rouverol and Hugo Butler, though it was credited to Jack Jevne, Rouverol and Butler being blacklisted at the time of the film’s release.

The film was directed by Robert Aldrich and produced by William Goetz. Aldrich won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 1956 Berlin International Film Festival.

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I must be more sensitive than I thought.

3 October 2003 | by sadie_thompson (United States) – See all my reviews

I thought this movie was fabulous. It is a woman’s picture, but the tag line made it seem like some William Castle horror flick. By no stretch of the imagination is this a silly little weepy. Parts of it seem to be designed to disturb (the typewriter scene), and even the tender moments are edgy to me. (I just used the word “tender” in a sentence. Kill me now.)

Joan Crawford (one of my favorites) plays Millicent Weatherby, a 40ish spinster who spent most of her life taking care of her invalid father and bemoaning her ridiculous name. Score one for Joan already, as she was not 40ish, but 50ish. Cliff Robertson (I tell everyone “Uncle Ben” from “Spiderman”) is the 20ish fella she meets in a restaurant. I think he was 20ish, but score one for him too; he’s adorable. Cliff hides some horrible secret, and he’s a major liar, but Joan falls for him anyway. He takes her to the beach, where they make out in the sand. (I love it when the surf comes crashing up against Joan and boy! does she flinch. Must have been chilly out that day.) They trot off to Mexico and get hitched. Then Joan starts to realize that maybe she doesn’t know Cliff as well as she thought she did. He lies and then tells the truth, and who’s to know the difference? Even he doesn’t. Eventually Cliff’s relatives get involved and then things get really sticky. Is Joan out to get Cliff? Tune in to the next episode to find out!!! Seriously, I felt for Joan.

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Vera Miles

She had a rough time. First the invalid father that caused her to lose all contact with the outside world, and then this guy who can’t get his lies straight. Oh, but she manages beautifully. At this point in her career, Joan believed that acting and hand gestures didn’t have to go together. You sometimes begin to wonder if her arms even function. (I suspect this was a jab at the arm-flailing Bette Davis, but that’s just a hunch.) Just watching her stand there, all broad-shouldered and strong, makes you realize that of course she is going to get through. Former chorus girls always do, because they’ve got guts and know how. Best moment–after Joan decides she’s no good for Cliff, she goes back to that aforementioned beach and just sits there. It’s a lovely shot, and Joan looks less ironclad than usual.

By the by, a note to the other reviewer whose name I can’t remember. Joan Crawford would not DARE say “And you, YA slut.” She says, very precisely, “And you, YOU slut.” Enunciation was very important to the Texas-born Lucille LeSueur/Joan Crawford. Bette Davis might say “ya slut,” but never Joan Crawford.

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Superb Aldrich melodrama.

9/10
Author: benjulia from Kilmarnock, Scotland
4 July 2003

Fine performances from Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson give this taught drama more emotional resonance than might be expected from the plot summary. Crawford is superb – all huge eyes and trembling lips, she makes the relationship with Robertson’s character believable and moving. The tentative start to the relationship is especially effective.

Burt Hanson’s mental deterioration is quite graphically portrayed and at one point, I have to admit, I was peering through my fingers at the screen. It was purely by chance that I stumbled across this movie on late night television. Despite being a fan of classic movies all my life, I had never heard of this one and I have to say that I’m surprised. It deserves to be better known.

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Autumn leaves, but Joan refuses to!

Author: Poseidon-3 from Cincinnati, OH
8 August 2007
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

And they thought Tammy Wynette stood by HER man! Crawford plays a lonesome, single typist who works from home, her peak years behind her after devoting herself to the care-giving of her ill father. One day, she attends the symphony and goes out to dinner afterwards, attracting the attention of Robertson, a friendly, and noticeably younger, ex G.I. His dating habits include giving her flowers he picked out of her own yard and swimming past her in the ocean, leaving her to nearly drown or get knocked under by the surf! Eventually worn down by his affections, she agrees to wed him, but the honeymoon is barely over before the cracks in his facade begin to show. It turns out that he has a variety of psychological issues and is a pathological liar, to boot! Crawford, who’s already been in a state of angst over their age difference and her fear of commitment really gives the tear ducts a workout as Robertson becomes more and more unhinged.

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Ruth Donnelly as Millie’s chatty landlady, Liz

She must decide how best to handle the situation and weigh whether or not it’s possible for them to remain together. Crawford has a very severe look in this film. An unflattering mannish haircut, thick eyebrows and her trademark huge eyes and lips help make her very intimidating in this film despite her sometimes-wimpy character. Some truly awful Jean Louis costumes don’t help (he dressed her for several films and rarely did her any favors) with incongruous Peter Pan collars, puff sleeves and tailoring that accentuates her very broad back. She imbues the role with plenty of emotion and passion, but occasionally crosses over into unintentional hilarity. One great moment, though, occurs when she gives Greene and Miles a royal tongue-lashing on the pathway to her apartment. This has to be one of the first instances of the use of the word “Slut!” in a major motion picture and Joan delivers it wondrously. Robertson has dark circles under his eyes, perhaps due to the fact that virtually every light bulb was aimed in one spot for Crawford to walk into, thus assuring that her face would be rid of any lines while the rest of her is shrouded in darkness or otherwise shaded! He has a few unconvincing moments in the film, but generally gives a good performance, aptly displaying the necessary charm mixed with imbalance and threat that the part calls for. Donnelly steals a few scenes as Crawford’s landlady and friend. Greene plays Robertson’s father, with no particular authenticity. If ever there should have been a star autobiography (yet there wasn’t!) it should have been Greene’s. He worked alongside Crawford, Turner, Gardner, Newman, McQueen and all those many, many guest stars on “Bonanza” and surely could have provided a juicy nugget or two (or twenty!) of gossip.

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Lorne Greene

Miles, looking very slim and chic, plays a former love of Robertson’s. Surprisingly, Crawford filmed her longest scene opposite Miles while looking like a haggard, unkempt pile of laundry while Miles was in a flattering white sun-dress. The film is entertaining to a point (when it isn’t mired down in just a few too many fretful scenes from Crawford or ruminating on a bunch of psychobabble) and director Aldrich uses some very creative and unusual camera angles. The title song was a huge, memorable hit. Crawford, who had dropped out of “From Here to Eternity” in a dispute over the costumes, is here permitted to have her own big, love-among-the-crashing-waves scene.

Solid Treat for Crawford, Melodrama, 1950’s Film Fans

8/10
Author: Christopher jones (fla_thunder@live.com) from South Florida
23 March 2009
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Today’s demand for ‘realistic’ dialog and ‘sensible’ plot lines would reduce “Autumn Leaves” to a campy B-film in the eyes of younger viewers. And that’s as sad as any aspect of the heartbreak experienced by Millicent, the love-starved heroine so ably played by a mature Joan Crawford. There’s much to be enjoyed in this often overlooked milestone of her career.

Throughout her lengthy screen experience, Joan Crawford could deliver one character better than almost any other; the patient, suffering, noble woman desiring true and everlasting love- but seemingly forever denied it. I can think of younger actresses who might have played the role (Polly Bergen comes to mind), but I can’t imagine any actress better suited to the demands of the role.

Physically, this is the Crawford of Mommie Dearest. Her mature face now showing her age, and those trademark oversize eyebrows emphasizing every emotion. It’s interesting to note that this may have been a deliberate choice, as Joan looks significantly more youthful in 1963’s ‘The Caretakers’. I have to think that the director wanted to emphasize Millie’s ‘spinster’ characterization, and this was one way it was accomplished.

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Other IMDb reviewers have discounted the likelihood that Burt, the emotionally-troubled man who brings a chance for love to Millie, would be so attracted to her. I think that’s a bit unfair. Burt was looking for certain rewards of a romantic relationship that a younger woman could not possibly provide. Also, With little previous romantic experience, Millie was enjoying love for the first time, much as a young girl would, thus she responded in ways that were satisfying to both of them.

Today’s liberated, self-confident female would not likely make the choices Millie does. Yet, there are countless modern, self-respecting, educated women who would. All for the sake of keeping a romance, or marriage, alive.

Millie is no fool. I think it’s clear that she recognizes the likely pitfalls of a union with Burt. She isn’t blind to early clues of instability. Rather, she chooses consciously to ignore them; partly to enjoy the fruits of love so long denied her, and partly because she sees in Burt a partner who can be ‘fixed,’; made whole. They say love is blind, but Millie is not. She barges headlong, against her better judgment, into unknown dangers, all for the hope of love (and let’s remember this is a handsome, virile young man) and lust.

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When, early on, just as expected by the audience, her fragile world of marital bliss begins to unravel, Millie is not surprised. Likewise, the viewer is not justifiably angry with her character for being blind. She knew, really, what she was getting into. She just didn’t know the specific details. She learns them quickly.

Millie is the proverbial ‘stand by your man’ type of gal. Long after she is made aware of Burt’s mountain of lies and deception, her strongest instinct is not to flee, but to uncover the reasons that he lives in a fantasy world and change them. She is particularly noble in this regard when, at a certain point, she’s done all she can to get Burt help, and doesn’t expect to receive the lifetime of love and romance to which she once believed he held the key. It is enough that Burt may be ‘whole’ and happy.

But will Burt escape his torment and delusions and result in a man ready and willing to be a husband to Millie? Did he ever really love her? That is a question that seems to be answered in the final, emotionally satisfying scene

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“You can’t breathe and swim at the same time”

8/10
Author: Steffi_P from Ruritania
21 May 2010

Sometimes in Hollywood, motion picture style seemed to come about just through force of habit. Film noir was never recognised as a genre in its own era, but there was a time in the 1950s when it seemed every low budget drama was automatically shot in that stark, eerie, chiaroscuro fashion – regardless of how “noir”-ish it really was.

Autumn Leaves, in some ways, IS quite a grim little melodrama. Many of the most pessimistic pictures of the 40s and 50s dealt with the romance-gone-wrong scenario, where one partner turns out to be not what they claimed they were – check out the excellent Scarlet Street (1945) for the cruellest example thereof. But Autumn Leaves is different. This isn’t a nightmarish “what if?” thriller – it has too much respect for its characters to be that. It is more a bittersweet and, at times, very mature look at how insanity and mental trauma can impact upon human relationships. Above all it is a romantic picture from its first frame to its last.

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And yet, director Robert Aldrich insists upon giving it the noir makeover with his usual penchant for slanting shadows, odd camera angles and foreground clutter, all of which is hardly necessary and just a little tiresome. Still, to his credit, this hard-boiled action director does find room for a more tender, person-centred approach, with some long takes and clarity of image in key scenes. There are also some truly wonderful subtleties to watch out for. For example when Joan Crawford fails to answer Cliff Robertson’s proposal, we cut from close-up to mid-shot, where in the background a receptionist puts down a phone – a little note of rejection that we will subconsciously pick up on.

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Crawford and Robertson at least seem to understand what this picture is about. You can see how good an actress Crawford was by reading up on the kind of abusive and maladjusted person she was in real life. She gives a totally believable presentation of someone with absolute loving purity and patience, and her character’s devotion to Robertson’s gives the picture its emotional weight. Robertson, in his earliest lead role, demonstrates that combination of warmth and endearing frailty which characterises his most memorable roles, without ever quite descending into a corny caricature.

Speaking of corniness, Autumn Leaves is not without its slightly cringeworthy moments. There is the overly extravagant musical score, including a fuzzy blur as we segue into a flashback. There is the somewhat trite peachiness with which Crawford and Robertson’s romance unfolds. There is even a barefaced rip-off of the beach scene out of From Here to Eternity. But to be honest, all of this adds to its charm. Autumn Leaves is, in many ways, the opposite of film noir cynicism. It shows people struggling to make romance work in spite of the desperation of their circumstances.

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In an interview for a much later documentary on Joan Crawford, Cliff Robertson recounts his first meeting with her, at her home. Already somewhat intimidated by working with the legendary Crawford, he is let in, then hears her call from poolside, where she’s sunning, “Come on out, dear boy. We’ve been waiting for you.” Robertson has nothing but admiration for Crawford’s talent and incredible technical disciple. At one point, director Bob Aldrich wanted Crawford to cry, but only slightly. A tear or two. “Which eye?” Robertson recalls Crawford asking. Then repeats the anecdote, amazed, “‘Which EYE?'”

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