Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hollywood has been making harmless behind-the-scenes exposé movies for ages, but none
had the caustic appeal, or the career effect, of Clifford Odets' The Big Knife. A
delirious acknowledgement of what the scandal sheets all said was happening on a daily basis,
it was the talk of the town in 1955. This theatrically florid but solid
movie version put a big negative spin into Robert Aldrich's directing career, albeit three years
after the fact.
The Hollywood empire of Screen idol Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is in danger of
total collapse. Because of his constant philandering, his loving wife Marion (Ida Lupino) is
threatening to leave him for a quiet writer, Hank Teagle (Wesley Addey). She may return, but only
if Charlie shows enough guts not to renew his contract with Hoff-Federated, the studio that has
turned his promising career into moneymaking mediocrity to enrich studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff
(Rod Steiger). Charlie promises to stay independent, but Hoff holds a mephistophilean axe over the
actor's head: the studio can ruin him at any time by turning him in for a hit and run accident
he weaseled out of by having his Publicity man Buddy Bliss (Paul Langton) take the rap in his place.
Nasty gossip columnist Patty Benedict (Ilka Chase) demands the full story, while Hoff hatchet man
Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey) wants to keep the past tidy by 'removing' accident witness Dixie Evans
(Shelley Winters), a starlet blackmailing the studio with what she knows. Add to all this Buddy Bliss'
troublemaking wife Connie (Jean Hagen), and Charlie's painted himself into a dilemma. Only his
loyal agent Nat Danziger (Everett Sloane) and his personal Trainer Nick Feeney (Nick Dennis) are
totally on Charlie's side.
A filmed play by the same creative crew of 'Associates' that did his
Kiss Me Deadly a few months before, The Big Knife
has all of Robert Aldrich's raw stylistics - harsh lighting, jarring editing, bare-knuckle confrontations, flirting with the
production code ... and, for the time, a suicidal willingness to take on the uglier side of Hollywood.
Odets' play as adapted by James Poe, is a Shakespearean Tragedy in three long Beverly Hills acts. Like
Sweet Smell of Success, the dialogue is so overripe, it approaches Baroque: the two shows even share a simile.
But Knife has the definite, uh, edge on over-written dialogue: "How dare you come in here and throw this
mess of naked pigeons in my face!"
As a style, it's more than a little awkward, but it generates an over-the-top dramatic boil where the
extremes of Jack Palance's histrionics fit right in. Odets gives overly descriptive names to some of the
characters - Smiley Coy, Buddy Bliss, etc. It's a very artificial, dramatically upholstered piece, that the relative
realism of the two or three sets doesn't dilute. Odets pointedly gives the film a noted writer, Horatio (Hank) Teagle,
as a message spokesman. He's a calm sage who's above the hurly-burly of the Hollywood whirl, and a transparent
stand-in for the author.
Aldrich was a respected and dynamic director who wasn't always in control of his actors. Palance and Ernest Borgnine tend
to be just too BIG and LOUD for Aldrich, especially in Attack! and another Aldrich Hollywood muckraker, The
Legend of Lylah Clare. Here the actors mostly stay in balance. Lupino isn't helped by the raw camerawork (Aldrich
never made a 'pretty' film) but it's her best role of the 50's. Wesley Addey and Nick Dennis (Va-Va Voom! Pretty Pow!)
are back from Kiss Me
Deadly in very different parts. Jean Hagen and Shelley Winters sketch a picture of a town where everyone's sleeping
around; 'Miss Shelly', as she's billed, spent years as the kind of on-call
starlet she plays in this film, and she has a field day with her scenes. Everett Sloane is as exitably virtuous here as he was
horrid in the next year's Patterns, and Paul Langton is pitiful as a demoralized sycophant.
Smiley Coy is a key role for Wendell Corey, who was never fully sympathetic as a romantic lead (The File on Thelma Jordon) but
makes a terrific company hatchet man. He can talk about murder one second and smilingly retract his words a moment later. This
and Corey's role as 'Foggy' Poole in The Killer is Loose are must-see performances. Smiley's evasive euphemisms for
murder hit home a full generation before John Milius' 'terminate with extreme prejudice', and the executive's jaded attitude indicates that
an unseen orgy is underway just next door to Charlie's house. This was very hot stuff at the time - compare it to the relatively
sedate image of Hollywood in 1954's The Barefoot Contessa, where the partygoers play Bridge.
Rod Steiger, with a blonde wig and a hearing aid, is the movie's equivalent of a radioactive monster. Stanley Hoff's overbearingly
tyrannical personality represents everything Evil in 1955 Hollywood, where power is so tightly concentrated that human lives
are less important than the prestige of the studio chief. Hoff doesn't talk to you unless he wants something, and then
his niceness is a thin veneer hiding a club. Hoff's object is total control, and has just the leverage he needs to push around
the weak, foolish Charlie. Steiger takes Hoff through all the
steps - his condescending storytelling, tears, and phony affection, right up through four or five levels of rage. That the
acclaimed method actor goes a bit off the deep end during his tirade is hard to criticize, as the volcanic fury required for
the role would be beyond Brando ... who Steiger seems to be imitating in some of his outbursts. When Hoff spars
with Castle, the two actors clash like pit bulls. Depending on one's point of view, it's either scenery-chewing, or
Hollywood is Los Angeles (for the time being), and LA is the car capital, so it's proper that Charlie's flaw originate in
a craven DUI hit and run scandal. A later vehicular death is so credible, we believe the snakelike Smiley Coy's surprise
when he claims not to be responsible for it. The ugliness backs Charlie Castle into a corner. He's weak enough to choose
the easy way out of his sordid mistakes, and weak enough to cave in to Hoff, when just showing some guts would
probably get him what he wants. The real man can't live up to his fearless screen image.
Robert Aldrich's career hit the fan in 1957, when he was fired from a Columbia movie called The Garment Jungle.
Apparently Columbia head Harry Cohn only realized halfway through filming that the director he hired was the perpetrator of The Big
Knife. Unofficially blackballed, Aldrich went to Europe to direct the Hammer
film Ten Seconds to Hell, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and to blacklist-friendly Kirk Douglas for The Last
Sunset. Stanley Shriner Hoff was more an amalgam of studio monsters than a direct gloss on Harry Cohn - the crying bit,
for instance, was a favorite gambit of Louis B. Mayer. But the impersonation was close enough to make the very Hoff-like
Cohn uncomfortable. One of Hoff's first dialogue lines is a cheery, "Hail Columbia!", that the one-track Cohn would surely
Aldrich's brand of Hollywood liberalism could be too hidden or intellectual for its own good,
but he stood behind his words time and again, and wasn't afraid to bite back at the studios when he smelled a rat.
He came up through the ranks as a tough but beloved assistant to many a top director and blacklistee: Charlie Chaplin,
Joseph Losey, William Wellman, Jean Renoir, Lewis Milestone, Albert Lewin, Robert Rossen, Max Ophuls, Abraham Polonsky. Unlike
commercial-liberal Stanley Kramer, Aldrich didn't throw cheap punches or cross his 'Associates', to whom he characteristically
gave first billing. Not bad for a man with a privileged background, from one of the richest families in America.
MGM's DVD of The Big Knife is a decent transfer that looks all right flat, but has lots of dead space top and bottom
meant to be cropped away by theater masking. The bit rate is a bit light at first (the stylized titles, with Charlie
perhaps already in his bathtub, are rathy buzzy) but clears up mostly later on. I didn't see any marks or damage on the print
used. A very ragged-looking trailer emphasizes the 'scorching, tearing the lid off Hollywood' angle. A quote on the package
back is from some entity called the 'American Cinematique', but the flashy & arresting cover art has the welcome
look of a hardboiled pocketbook from the period.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Knife rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 29, 2002
1. "That's fish four days old!"
2. The film's title has tangentially become a bit more memorable thanks to Joe Dante's 1993
Matinee, where combination juvenile delinquent / beat poet Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire) recites one of
his own works, The Big Knife. It's hilarious.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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