A couple of years ago, the Coen Bros. made a behind-the-scenes Hollywood satire- exposé called Hail, Caesar!, which does the strangest things with Hollywood history. As a joke, liberal Hollywood writers are presented as a Communist conspiracy writ large, to the extent of having them make contact with a Soviet submarine. The main character is a dedicated, devout production chief whose job is put out the fires of dissent, scandal and criminal wrongdoing. But he's given the name of Eddie Mannix, the real-life MGM troubleshooter who (according to Hollywood lore) frequently thwarted the law in clearing MGM talent from various problems moral and ethical.
The feather-light sentiment of the Coens' movie is light-years removed from Robert Aldrich's barn-burner The Big Knife, adapted from the play by Clifford Odets. 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 must have been on Robert Aldrich's mind three years later, when he had a career run-in with one of the tyrannical Hollywood moguls on which Odets based his central villain.
Clifford Odets based his acid-toned Hollywood tale on his years of experience as a Broadway playwright, lured to the glamorous opportunities out West. The stellar career 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 Marion he will stay independent, but Hoff holds an 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 of Charlie's failed marriage. 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 of this grief Buddy Bliss' troublemaking wife Connie (Jean Hagen), and Charlie has gotten himself into a fine fix. 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 most of the same creative crew 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 a suicidal willingness to take on the uglier side of Hollywood. A couple of the moguls were still around, and they had already expressed their antipathy for Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., a much milder slam on the business town's less wholesome aspects.
Odets' play as adapted by James Poe, is a Shakespearean Tragedy in three long Beverly Hills acts. Both movies use the same line -- (I won't buy that,) that's fish four days old." Like Odets' Sweet Smell of Success, the dialogue is stylized with overripe zingers: "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 an artificial, dramatically upholstered piece, which 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 gave his actors freedom, which sometimes led to spates of overacting. 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 'fifties. 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, reportedly 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 excitably virtuous here as he was oppressive 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 jaded attitude indicates that an unseen orgy is underway just next door to Charlie's house, and the executive's evasive euphemisms for murder hit home a full generation before John Milius' famous phrase 'terminate with extreme prejudice.' 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.
With his blonde wig and hearing aid, Rod Steiger 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 intimidate 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 is either scenery chewing, or Hollywood truth.
Hollywood is Los Angeles (for the time being), and L.A. is the car capital, so it's proper that Charlie's flaw originate in a craven DUI hit & 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. It's been often suggested that Columbia head Harry Cohn did this on finding that Aldrich was the director of The Big Knife, but that was not the case. The first good offers Aldrich found were out of town jobs. He went to England to direct the Hammer film Ten Seconds to Hell, to Italy for 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.
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. That speaks well for a man with a privileged background, from one of the richest families in America.
Arrow Academy's Blu-ray of The Big Knife is a good transfer properly formatted for 1:85. Unfortunately, as was pointed out by DVD Beaver it's missing part of a scene, a talk between Charlie Castle, his wife Marion and his agent, Nat. Almost a minute long, it was carefully edited out, as continuity is smooth. But the scene is needed. In it Charlie first talks about taking ultimate responsibility, and states that he can't go on covering up crimes with other crimes, like in Macbeth.
There is some buzzing, a faint motorboat sound, on the audio track for a minute or two. Otherwise the disc is up to Arrow's fine technical standards. The extras are equally good. Present is a good transfer of a vintage TV promo shot on the living room set, and a texted original trailer. The Big Knife has an early main title design from Saul Bass, and another extra is a half-hour documentary by Bass in which he explains his famous title sequences.
The best extra is by a full commentary by critics and film writers Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton, who cover the film, its actors, Aldrich and the major stories associated with the film. They joke around a bit but are thoroughly informative and on topic. They get the film's original aspect ratio wrong and quote passages from books about Aldrich, but also bring up many fresh thoughts about the show.
Sean Phillips' fine new cover art is also used on the disc's insert pamphlet (only on this initial pressing). Forty pages long, the profusely illustrated pamphlet contains two interesting essays. Nathalie Morris's new piece discusses the movie, and Gerald Peary's essay from 1986 goes into playwright Clifford Odets' dark experience in Hollywood, which began in the 1930s.
Text (c) Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson