Autumn Leaves (1956)

ROBERT ALDRICH

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1956. . Screenplay by , , , . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Joan Crawford is excellent as a lonely typist who decides to treat herself to a meal at a diner after a concert.  A handsome young man (Cliff Robertson) asks her if he can take the empty seat at her table and she, while not wanting his company, agrees out of a desire to not be rude.  He immediately reveals himself to be very chatty and she takes a liking to him, agreeing to spend more time with him and finding herself touched when he reveals that he is falling in love with her.  She doesn’t want a romantic relationship because she believes their noticeable age difference makes them ill-suited to each other, but then realizes that she does not want to be without him either, and they commit fully, even running off to Mexico to get married.  Their nuptial bliss doesn’t last long, though, as it’s during their honeymoon that Crawford starts to realize things are awry, details of Robertson’s past aren’t lining up and she suspects that he is lying about his job at a department store.   The other shoe drops when Vera Miles shows up at her home and tells her that she is his first wife, and needs her ex to sign some divorce papers.  Asking her husband about this heretofore unknown aspect of his past only gets rage out of him, his behaviour increasingly erratic until it’s dangerously violent and Crawford needs to decide about handing him over to proper medical care.   The film’s presentation of psychiatry is ahead of its time, emphasizing a treatment of mental illness along the lines of treating a physical ailment, though  it’s also well behind our time, indulging in the silly fifties habit of thinking that a character’s uncovering one troubled secret from their past will cure all that ails them.  Still, what you think is going to be a domestic violence thriller turns out to be a sweet and sensitive romance with a surprisingly deft touch at presenting the unusual (for the movies) combination of an older woman with a much younger man, and it’s a satisfying experience thanks to the sexy chemistry between them and the script’s wonderful dialogue.

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