The great midcentury director's final film follows a female wrestling duo trying to eke out a victory on the road.
he California Dolls—two female wrestlers on the precarious, almost-more-than-amateur circuit—and their trainer/manager/driver/publicist/agent are driving along some truss bridge deep in the crevices of the Rust Belt, casually arguing over the health detriments of cigarette smoking. As they pass a daunting iron foundry, its giant maw glowing with embers (but otherwise darkened by smoke and soot), one says, “You think we’ve got it tough? How’d you like to work in there?”
This line of dialogue, spoken by Iris (Vicki Frederick) about an hour into Robert Aldrich’s final film, …All the Marbles (1982), precedes one of the Dolls’ more demeaning obligations. Just because they’re women wrestlers, doesn’t mean they’re comfortable jumping into the oft-objectifying mud pit. Alas, they need the money to get to the next match, not to mention the Chicago bigtime they’re chasing. …All the Marbles begins and remains in that grayish waiting room between amateurism and professionalism, where the talent deserves the latter but the money and other resources beget the former. Iris, her partner Molly (Laurene London), and their sage Harry (Peter Falk) all have to do a little time in the mud, in more ways than one.
Aldrich’s swan song, coming after a career of staunch independence and badly behaved films, follows a group of pro-amateurs, which would almost be too obvious were it not set within the world of women’s tag-team competitions, with the added bonus of playing as a guided midwinter tour of every shitty gas station and Wendy’s in the Midwest. (Iris and Molly will frequently ask to eat somewhere “that has tablecloths.”) There’s an undervalued warmth running through Aldrich’s filmography: his willingness to bring his camera down to the level of characters otherwise stuck in the muck can be traced back to the moral dilemma of The Big Knife (1955), to the quite-literally tortured romance of Autumn Leaves (1956), through the sweat-drenched, Depression-era grotesquerie of The Grissom Gang (1971). Even those that have been somewhat cordoned off from the rest of his career for their intoxicating “camp”—What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)—have their pockets of unadulterated sympathy. It’s completely fair to weep at the end of The Dirty Dozen (1967).
Still, …All the Marbles sets a new benchmark for its relative geniality; this being Aldrich, however, there’s no lack of roughhousing, shouting matches, and crookedness. He telegraphs that the Dolls deserve the success that’s so out of their reach with the opening match—a mixture of dirty playing and genuine skill, complete with all the principle characters yelling themselves hoarse from the ringside. (“Hair!” and “Choke!” are the typical monosyllabic messages to alert the referee to breaches of conduct.) Aldrich surveys the paltry audience before plunging back into the match itself, registering unspeakable pain with every bounce off the ropes or thud against the mat. The physical toll to make it in this racket is nowhere near proportional to what’s immediately gained (usually a couple hundred dollars or less), but there’s really no other choice. You want—you need—them to win.
Does Aldrich himself need the win? Not in the slightest. His talents are crystallized, his virtues purified. The tracking shots––courtesy of cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc––are lazy, almost haphazard, because there’s nothing left to prove. It’s impressive to see how much control Aldrich can relinquish without the whole structure coming undone, more so than watching some blemish-free feat of empty calorie indulgences. Falk, Frederick, and London are hewn from the shadows of the dressing rooms, the snow of the highways, the ubiquitous brown façades of the towns they drive through. The colors are verdant and earthy, save for the blinding white lights of the wrestling rings.
The prolonged wrestling sequences are disorienting enough that the pain and labor truly registers. Many Aldrich protagonists embrace the rough-and-tumble as means of escape, and it’s not much different in …All the Marbles aside from the added spectacle inherent to the sport. The culminating grudge match with the Toledo Tigers sees Harry pulling out all the stops in one-upmanship: a march to the ring replete with glittering costumes, throne-bearers and children's choirs. Because they’ve been taken advantage of throughout the film––most notably by Burt Young’s perfectly schlubby, lascivious promoter and his meathead bodyguard (Lenny Montana, former wrestler of Luca Brasi fame)––it’s quite moving to see them elevate themselves to their deserved echelon, no matter their cheap or underhanded methods. Of course, Falk has the perfect conversational timbre to facilitate this triumph.
Though the final match is crooked (Young has greased the palms of the referee so he only calls fouls against the Dolls), it’s still freighted with all the drama of a life-or-death struggle. Once the Dolls realize it’s a dirty game, the fight avalanches into anarchy, drawing in more participants and moving outside the boundaries of the ring. Aldrich, always attuned to the variances of victory––a pyrrhic win, a compromised achievement, a devastating near-loss––nevertheless surrenders himself to the pleasures of a bighearted win. There’ll never be another like him.
...All the Marbles is available to rent or purchase from Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV, and Google Play.
Patrick Preziosi is a Brooklyn, NY born-and-based writer, who has written about film and literature for MUBI Notebook, Reverse Shot, Screen Slate, photogénie, Slant, and more.