Autumn Leaves (1956)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Guide for the Film Fanatic title; click here to read more.]

“The present is made up of little bits of the past – you can’t just throw it out of your mind like something used up and worthless!”

Autumn Leaves Poster

Synopsis:
A lonely typist (Joan Crawford) takes a chance on marriage with a much younger veteran (Cliff Robertson) she meets at a cafe, but soon discovers that her new husband has been lying about his past…

Genres:

  • Cliff Robertson Films
  • Joan Crawford Films
  • Marital Problems
  • May-December Romance
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Robert Aldrich Films

Review:
Robert Aldrich’s first collaboration with Joan Crawford (six years before What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) received scathing reviews from Bosley Crowther of the New York Times upon its release (“The situation… couldn’t have been handled less considerately or convincingly”) but has recently been resurrected as an unfairly maligned sleeper, with Time Out of London noting that it cuts “a radical cinematic swathe through weepie material”, and Slant Magazine (referring to it as Aldrich’s “secret gem”) offering a veritable film school treatise on the screenplay’s Freudian underpinnings. In truth, Autumn Leaves is a surprisingly complex and thoughtful treatment of a cinematic topic (marital distrust) which has often been mined for sensationalist gold (as in Crawford’s earlier, differently enjoyable Sudden Fear), but rarely in just this way.

Crawford and Robertson (21 years apart in real-life age) make a surprisingly believable May-December couple, with plenty of chemistry between them; they and their co-stars — including a well-cast Lorne Green and Vera Miles — give fine, nuanced performances. The film as a whole is elevated by both Charles Lang’s atmospheric cinematography and Aldrich’s distinctive directorial touch, which turn many would-be “ordinary” scenes (Crawford hesitating before answering the phone; Robertson standing in a hotel hallway) into haunting meditations on the characters’ psyches. With plenty of unexpected twists, the plot never fails to keep us on our toes; and while the film’s ending may come across as unnecessarily melodramatic, it somehow serves as a fitting ending to this emotionally intense whirlwind of an unconventional love story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Millicent Wetherby
    Autumn Crawford
  • Cliff Robertson as Burt Hanson
    Autumn Robertson
  • Ruth Donnelly as Millie’s chatty landlady, Liz
    Autumn Landlady
  • Vera Miles as Burt’s ex-wife
    Autumn Miles
  • Charles Lang’s b&w cinematography
    Autumn Cinematography
  • Aldrich’s unique directorial style
    Autumn Directorial

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around “good show” by a renowned director.

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