When I was a kid, I had this fun idea that I thought of at the time as a nifty cinematic practical joke. Nifty albeit completely unpractical, that is. Essentially, you'd make a film that was kind of a respectable, well-cast, earnestly thought-out character drama, with conflicts and plot points and a mounting sense of urgency, and at a certain point just prior or so to what we'll call, for the sake of this particular argument, the "third act," you'd have the main characters embark on an ocean liner voyage. Something out of, you know, Dodsworth or Marnie. And then it'd be night on the ship itself, all the characters having retired for the evening, and then (and here it really was Marnie that I was envisioning, in the privacy of my warped little boy imagination) the camera would pan, say, from a closed cabin door to a porthole. The moon would shine on the ocean horizon. And then, slowly, out of the ocean, would arise...Godzilla. Who would then stride toward the liner, and once he was close enough, smack it in two, breathe fire on it, and consign all its passengers to oblivion. Followed by the end title card.
A self-negating film, in other words, although of course I didn't think of it as such. I didn't know at the time (I think I was around 10, which puts it at 1969 or so, and no, I wasn't yet aware of the existence of Bambi Vs. Godzilla either) that Robert Aldrich had in a very real sense actually made just such a film, a film whose final two minutes or so upend and critique and lay a kind of waste to everything that had gone before, a film called The Legend of Lylah Claire, starring Kim Novak and Peter Finch and Ernest Borgnine and Coral Browne and a very young Michael Murphy, all of whom are in a sense only important to the film inasmuch as their importance to it is annihilated in the finale.
As the above frame grab implies, the picture was Aldrich's followup to The Dirty Dozen, and only a filmmaker as purposefully perverse as Aldrich would choose such a project—a quasi-amour-fou story of a dead Hollywood sex-symbol's naive (or is she) physical doppelganger embodying said sex symbol in the passion project of the obsessed director who once loved her original—to come after the wildly popular and seminal WWII action classic. I don't know too much at all about the circumstances of its making or how Aldrich came to the material—given he's one of my favorite directors, I really ought to have read up more about him, biography-wise, but one can't do everything—but I do know that right of the bat Lylah has a somewhat chintzier, anachronistic air than many of Aldrich's other poison-pen letters to show business (which up to this point included The Big Knife, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, and, in the U.K.-Situated Division, The Killing of Sister George). Its 1.85 frame is more or less almost completely dominated by cramped medium shots, suggesting not so much claustrophobic atmosphere as limited production design budget. Even the office of the studio bigwig played by Borgnine feels tight, oppressive, but in a non-purposeful way. Every now and then, as in an overhead shot in which the sex-goddess doppelganger (played of course by Novak, in one of her most absorbing performances) is overwhelmed by a dizzying selection of publicity stills, the picture's visual scheme breaks out of this doldrum, but it's a rare occurence indeed. Within this matrix the film hobbles from one bit of nastiness to the next, saying that the rarefied glamour of Old Hollywood was a repressive crock on the one hand and not even bothering to point out that whatever's replaced it isn't so hot either. Few stones of deviance are unturned, and in case any of it's too subtle for you at around midpoint the picture introduces a vile steely gossip columnist named Molly Luther (a thoroughly frightening Browne), who you can look at as a throwback to Parsons or a prophecy of Finke. She has only one leg, and her prosthesis is hollow and ugly. Get it?
Things move right along, the guignol elements starting to evoke a cross between Sunset Boulevard and Aldrich's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and while Finch doesn't do much to sell us on the notion of his character as a cinema "genius" evoking Stroheim and/or Sternberg, Novak gamely swans around in all sorts of improbable ensembles, as see below, wherein Finch clearly struggles to establish something along the lines of eye-contact.
And then comes the ending, which is even more of a shocker than the other "twist" picture of '68, Planet of the Apes, in part because it's been less set up, or I should say less blatantly set up, for us than the Apes reveal. And also because, rather than explaining or illuminating what we've seen in any kind of conventional way, it shows us that the broken thing we have been watching was created for the sole purpose of being broken even further, that what we were taking for the work of a director who could be said to have been kind of out of touch or out of synch not just with what had been going on in Hollywood but the world over was not just in on but entirely ahead of the game, but that this was something a little more complex than his just playing possum. It's a capital-S Surrealist gesture/statement that just cannot, never mind should not, be encapsulated in a verbal description, and it's what makes this new release from the Warner Archive as must-own an item as there ever was. And yeah, I admit this is the first time I've seen the damn thing. I can't imagine how I've missed it all these years, and by the same token, I'm kind of glad I didn't experience it on late-night TV while fucked up, because it woulda messed with me even more.