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Bangs & Whimpers - Robert Aldrich's ...ALL THE MARBLES (1981)

all the marbles review
Did Robert Aldrich go out with a whimper or a bang?







Review by Eric Hillis

Bangs & Whimpers is a series in which we take a look at the final movies of acclaimed and significant filmmakers. In this instalment we examine the final work of Robert Aldrich.


Directed by: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Peter Falk, Vicki Frederick, Laurene Landon, Burt Young, Claudette Nevins, Richard Jaeckel

all the marbles poster


Robert Aldrich enjoyed a career that took in a variety of genres, but he's arguably best known for kicking off the crudely nicknamed 'Hagsploitation' or 'Psycho-Biddy' sub-genre with 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Hagsploitation movies revolved around older actresses, often those whose mainstream Hollywood careers had dried up, torturing one another with vindictive, psychological cruelty. Along with Baby Jane, Aldrich explored this idea further in 1964's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte and 1968's UK set The Killing of Sister George. Having made his name from depictions of women behaving awfully towards one another, it's fitting that Aldrich went out with a movie in which women literally beat seven bells out of each other, 1981's female wrestling drama ...All the Marbles, also known in some parts as 'The California Dolls'.

Belonging to the same sort of 'loveable loser' buddy genre as Robert Altman's California Split and Hal Ashby's Lookin' to Get Out, ...All the Marbles gives us a unique trio of protagonists - wrestlers Iris (Vicki Frederick) and Molly (Laurene Landon), a tag team known as 'The California Dolls', and their huckster manager Harry (Peter Falk) - and follows their exploits as they travel the rust belt of middle America in an attempt to rack up enough wins in the ring to take part in a coveted championship match at the MGM Grand in Reno.


all the marbles

Initially, this seems a pipedream, as Harry books the girls into a series of sleazy smalltown smackdowns, exploiting their Playboy centrefold looks to win bookings. Iris, the older of the pair, has grown cynical with Harry, but the wily manager uses his old world charm to keep the girls on his side, lecturing them on Italian opera and American literature on the long drives through an autumnal and smokestack stained MidWestern landscape.

The girls' relationship with Harry reaches a tipping point when he books them into a mud wrestling match at a county fair, an event which ends in all four wrestlers involved revealing more than just their athleticism. Taking her destiny in her own hands, Iris sleeps with seedy promoter Eddie Cisco (Burt Young, an actor who seemed to turn up in every movie of this period), who repays her generosity by booking the Dolls into the Reno match. Harry, whose fractious relationship with Iris has been developing from paternal to perverted, is outraged at the thought of Cisco, his long-time enemy, sleeping with Iris, and his jealousy threatens the Dolls' big chance at landing the title they so badly crave.


all the marbles

The last time I watched ...All the Marbles I was far too young to pick up on its messed up gender politics and the confused tone it has in this regard, but viewing it as an adult there are some decidedly uncomfortable scenes. Not once, but twice do we witness Harry deploying physical violence against Iris. Though the latter is clearly physically superior to Harry, and barely acknowledges the backhanded smacks she receives, it doesn't make these moments any easier to watch, and sours the viewer on the otherwise loveable Harry. Curiously, though Aldrich shoots both scenes in somewhat innocuous fashion, composer Frank De Vol accompanies each hit with a Psycho-esque string stab, as though he takes this violence far more seriously than his director does.

Remove these disagreeable moments and you have a minor gem of the road movie genre, raucous in its ring bouts and sensitive and humourous elsewhere. Mel Frohman and Rich Eustis's script gives Falk plenty of great lines to wrap his distinctive hang-dog jowls around, with zingers like "Don't move; I want to forget you just as you are," and "What can you expect from a day that begins with getting out of bed," while a monologue about how Harry's immigrant father learned English from reading the New York Times and Clifford Odets is a Falk showreel moment. Falk is at his breezy best here, making it all look terribly easy, as was his way, while the Amazonian Frederick does a fine job of conveying the frustration of being a woman whose talent is overlooked in favour of her appearance.


all the marbles

Frederick and Landon were put through extensive training prior to filming, and their athletic prowess pays off in the film's splendidly staged wrestling scenes; particularly the climactic bout, an extended set-piece which reminds the viewer that this was likely greenlit as a cash-in on the success of the then nascent Rocky franchise.

I have to confess that personally I can't think of anything less enticing than watching wrestling, so it helps to have Falk at ringside interjecting with rapid fire quips, but if you are a devotee of the 'sport', you'll no doubt be impressed by the skills of the Dolls and their opponents. Prior to 2008's The Wrestler, Aldrich's final film held the undisputed title of wrestling's greatest cinematic treatment, and the director was developing a sequel at the time of his death from kidney failure. in 1983.


The verdict: Did Robert Aldrich go out with a whimper or a bang?
While ...All the Marbles is unlikely to feature in too many highlight reels of Aldrich's career, it's a fun ride, a film anchored by one of Peter Falk's finest performances. Not quite a bang as loud as a California Doll hitting the mat, but a bang nonetheless.




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