July 13, 2010
The Warner Archive continues to empty out WB’s library onto their premium-priced burned-on-demand DVDs, and it’s impossible to keep up. I currently have my wavering cursor over the buy button on Sam Fuller’s Verboten (reviewed in this Sunday’s NY Times by Dave Kehr), and the double-feature disc of Hell’s Heroes (1930) and Three Godfathers (1936, Boleslawski, not Ford). But one of the releases I have nabbed is of Robert Aldrich’s final film, …All the Marbles (1981). Released in a strong transfer, which faithfully reproduces Joseph Biroc’s elegiac grey-blue photography of industrial decline, it is, without hyperbole, the greatest women’s wrestling movie of all time. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
Peter Falk plays Harry Sears, the manager and crusty philosopher king of the California Dolls tag team (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon) who are slowly punching their way up the ranks. Driving their beat up sedan through decaying Midwestern factory towns, and hustling their way around shyster promoters and county fair pervs, it’s a genial tour of the areas hardest hit by the early 80s recession. The early scenes were shot in Youngstown and Akron, Ohio, and Aldrich films their travels in long shot, images of a car rolling past idling factories and roadside dives, as the team’s conversations are piped in on the soundtrack. At one point Iris (Frederick), after her partner Molly (Landon) complains about the rigors of the road, looks at a passing steel foundry and says, “how’d you like to work in there?”
While on the surface the film follows the normal sports film trajectory (defeat, recovery, victory), visually the film presents a panorama of working class types blowing off steam and struggling to survive. It’s a bracingly bittersweet combination, embodied in Falk’s folksy and violent performance. His Harry Sears is an engaging huckster, raised, as he tells the Dolls, on a combination of Will Rogers and Clifford Odets. Constantly on the phone trolling for gigs, he uses his quote repository to keep his marks off-balance, and as a shield against revealing his own tattered emotions. He’s always spouting lines like how their journey will last “longer than a breath, shorter than a life”, trying to keep his team focused on the present moment, ignoring the failed past and fragile future. When asked who Rogers and Odets are, he deadpans, “a dance team,” before popping in the cassette tape of Pagliacci’s aria “Vesti la giubba.” Then he’ll pivot from his aesthete mode by playing craps with fixed dice and flashing intense spasms of rage, destroying a promoter’s Benz with a baseball bat and even coming to blows with Iris. An autodidact, father figure and inveterate con man, he’s the perfect character for Falk’s gravelly bravado.
Molly and Iris are less well-defined, more women of action than drama. Molly is a benumbed blonde, addicted to painkillers but still emitting a heartbreaking type of child-like innocence. She’s using the Dolls, more than the others, as a family unit. In the ring she has a more mat-based game, whereas Iris takes more technical risks. Iris is world-weary and hard-working, resigned to working with Harry but desirous of a life above his penny ante tricks. Frederick does fine work summoning up Iris’ patchwork dignity, grasping on to the wispy strands of integrity in her sport to prop up her fading hopes (the film only hints at how fixed pro wrestling is).
It’s Harry who again drags her back down to reality, pulling off a variety of semi-dirty tricks and mounting some old Hollywood razzle dazzle to swing the crowd and nab the Tag Team title. The final fight takes place at the MGM Grand, and the rhinestone-encrusted, child-choir scored entrance seems a tongue-in-cheek homage to MGM Musicals of yore. He even gets former Pittsburgh Steeler Mean Joe Greene and Laker announcer Chick Hearn to narrate the bout, escalating the event to a level of legitimacy heretofore unknown to female fisticuffs. Iris has to accept that image sells and accommodation is integral to that sale.
Both actresses are tall and athletic, and clearly game enough to hold their own in the ring, so the high-angle shots Aldrich uses to spot in the stunt doubles flow seamlessly into the rest of the fights. The matches themselves are crisply edited and shot at a distance. In addition to the geometric overhead shots, Aldrich cuts in to POV shots for impact and medium shots for the majority of the slaps and falls. The action is fast-paced and as passable as the women’s division in the WWE these days. Iris even whips out some impressive aerial maneuvers in the final bout, landing a hurricanrana to gain an early advantage. The convincing nature of the fights was thanks to the help of advisor Mildred Burke, the World Women’s Champion from 1937 – 1957.
The Pagliacci aria plays throughout in what seems like another of Sears’ pretentious affectations of knowledge, until he explains to the gals the story of the opera. Pagliacci was a traveling performer like themselves, and, in his interpretation, the lesson of the character is to “hang in there, even if your heart is breaking.” This sentiment could be ascribed to some of Aldrich’s other conflicted heroes, including the idealistic Lt. Debuin (Bruce Davison) in Ulzana’s Raid, or even Charles Castle in The Big Knife (which Aldrich adapted from Odets). In any case, …All the Marbles is an eccentric, moving, and profoundly appropriate close to Aldrich’s career.