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The Big Knife

The Big Knife
MGM Home Entertainment
1955 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 111 min. / Street Date October 15, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Jean Hagen, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, Ilka Chase, Everett Sloane, Wesley Addy, Paul Langton, Nick Dennis
Cinematography Ernest Laszlo
Production Designer
Art Direction William Glasgow
Film Editor Michael Luciano
Original Music Frank De Vol
Adapted by James Poe from the play by Clifford Odets
Produced and Directed by Robert Aldrich

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.  1 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 heats the drama to a 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 Addy 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 he has just the leverage he needs to push around the weak, foolish Charlie. Steiger takes Hoff through all the steps - 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 truth.

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 misinterpret.

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
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer
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 2007 Glenn Erickson

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