What seemed too raw for 1955 still packs a punch, as Robert Aldrich takes a meat cleaver to the power politics of the old studio system. Monstrous studio head Rod Steiger has just the leverage he needs to blackmail frazzled star Jack Palance into signing the big contract. But will Hollywood corruption destroy them all?
The Big Knife
1955 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 111 min. / Street Date September 5, 2017 / 39.95
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
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
Robert Aldrich’s 1940s film apprenticeship was largely spent as an assistant director for strong, creative filmmakers that wanted to do good personal work free of the constraints of the big studios. He assisted for William Wellman, Jean Renoir, Lewis Milestone, Albert Lewin, Abraham Polonsky, Max Ophuls, Joseph Losey and Charles Chaplin, an amazingly diverse group of artists.
When it came Aldrich’s turn to make a move at directing, he had plenty of boosters. An MGM producer hired him, but additional directing breaks came through television and a star-led independent outfit. All of them recognized Aldrich’s unique experience in getting things done on a movie set.
For his fourth feature film Aldrich formed his own production company, ‘Associates and Aldrich.’ Its first project became The Big Knife, an adaptation of a 1949 play by Clifford Odets. Odets had spent long frustrating years in Hollywood, and his play is an acid-laced attack on the corrupt studio system, a place that drains the life and soul from creative talent. Conservative critics slammed the play for using Hollywood as a metaphor for exploitation in general. Aldrich probably found the play to be a compressed but not inaccurate picture of the worst abuses of the studio system.
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. was only a mild indictment of Hollywood for abandoning its greats and ignoring its own glorious past, but it angered the town’s conservative faction — Louis B. Mayer said he wished that Wilder could be run out of town. MGM counter-punched back with a saga about a Hollywood producer, The Bad and the Beautiful. In the studio’s version the sins and excesses of Hollywood are all due to unstable talent, and the worst crime on view was over-ambition. The wise, benevolent studio brass remains above the fray. The god-like studio head is only heard on the telephone, speaking from On High.
Aldrich had already inflamed the Kefauver Commission with his violent Kiss Me Deadly and would soon enrage military boosters with his war movie “attack”, about an army officer so vile that his own men frag him in combat. But when Aldrich launched his critical attack on Hollywood, boosters like Cecil B. De Mille were furious.
The Big Knife drags everybody into the mud. Clifford Odets’ vision of nasty doings in Tinsel Town is too close for comfort: the monstrous studio boss Hoff appears to be an amalgam of Louis B. Mayer (MGM) and Harry Cohn (Columbia), moguls that used starlets as sex toys and punching bags. Hoff’s cobra-like ‘fixer’ Smiley Coy is given qualities (and apocryphal crimes) associated with MGM’s Eddie Mannix. Aldrich would make more films set in Hollywood, but this play adaptation has the sharpest bite.
Hollywood star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is in a tough spot. His loving wife Marion (Ida Lupino) is threatening to leave him for a quiet writer, Hank Teagle (Wesley Addey). The reason given is Charlie’s constant philandering, but she’s really upset that he is caving into the demand by Hoff-Federated chief Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger), that he sign another stifling long-term contract. Hoff-Federated has already turned Charlie’s promising career into moneymaking mediocrity. But Charlie is under too much pressure to sign — Hoff can ruin him at any time by turning him in for a hit and run accident the studio covered up four years ago. Charlie’s publicity man Buddy Bliss (Paul Langton) took 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’ starlet Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters), who is foolishly blackmailing the studio with what she knows. Add to all this a dalliance with Buddy Bliss’ troublemaking wife Connie (Jean Hagen), and Charlie Castle has painted himself into a dilemma. Only Charlie’s agent Nat Danziger (Everett Sloane) and his personal Trainer Nick Feeney (Nick Dennis) are totally on his side.
The Big Knife is nearly two hours of agony for Charlie Castle, caught between his own weaknesses and the minions of a predatory boss. Stanly Hoff pretends to be Charlie’s loving friend, when he’s really the Devil — making scenes and crying to get his way. Everything is ugly — kisses and hugs accompany barely disguised threats. Hoff seems to be living in an angry bubble, eating himself alive. True, everybody feeds on the stardom surrounding Charlie. Hoff demands his soul, while the cruel Patty Benedict demands access to his private life. Charlie’s agent Nat understands his client’s need for independence and self-respect but urges him to capitulate, just for survival’s sake.
Charlie is far from an innocent party in all of this. He allows himself to be placed in compromised situations, and worse, he’s neck-deep in the cover-up of a death. He sleeps with the wife of a studio underling who actually went to jail in his place. He selfishly denies the obvious threat to Dixie Evans, not realizing that he can’t extricate himself from Charlie Hoff’s logical next step in dealing with her. Charlie foolishly tries to keep Marion out of his problems, which is why their marriage is foundering. All he’d have to do is level with her, and she’d provide solid support and guidance. He instead expects her to stick by him on blind faith alone.
Charlie’s assistant Nick (Nick Dennis), Marion and Marion’s boyfriend Wesley Addey only want the best for Charlie, but they’re in the minority. Everybody else on view is a viper or a lost soul. The cobra-like Smiley Coy is one of the movies’ most convincing portraits of a ‘company man’ capable of dark crimes. Coy plays the game like a pro; he’s always telling people that nothing he does is ‘personal.’ He has no animosity toward Charlie, and not really any toward Dixie either. But if doing his job means arranging for an occasional accident, it can happen. Smiley uses evasive language and colorful substitutes for the word ‘kill,’ By the time of Vietnam politicians were doing the same, so maybe playwright Odets’ larger vision of a corrupt America isn’t that far off the mark.
Although the learned commentators on this disc insist that The Big Knife isn’t a film noir, the Smiley Coy character says different. His presence changes the tone of every scene, subverting all the wealth and prosperity on view. In ’50s noir, harsh moral realities take the place of the deep shadows that disappeared from the style.
Clifford Odets also unloads some highfalutin purple prose in this one, what with grotesque theatrical dialogue like, “How dare you come in here and throw this mess of naked pigeons in my face!” It’s right up there with some of the zinger lines from Odets’ Sweet Smell of Success. One simile must have been an Odets favorite, for it’s in both movies: “That’s fish four days old.”
Aldrich plays it straight, mostly keeping the drama restricted to Charlie’s living room, as in the play. Everybody gets to do some ‘big acting.’ Jack Palance is variable — he makes Charlie’s dilemma seem real and pressing, but we quickly lose sympathy for him. Aldrich’s (or Odets’?) main dramatic tactic could be called the Stage Retreat. Whenever a character is made uncomfortable, he runs to a corner of the room, hoping his inquisitor will ease up. When someone dares contradict him, Stanley Hoff runs around like a speared bull. When his screaming attacks provoke Charlie to get physical, he squinches himself up to avoid the blows he thinks he’ll be getting. But Charlie Castle displays the same cowardice. He retreats before Marion’s questions, refusing to give an honest answer. Charlie instead changes the subject, or cries out that he’s the injured party.
Ida Lupino handles her part well, lending Charlie sympathy he barely deserves. Paul Langton is sympathetic as the cuckolded publicist, and has his best screen moment in an emotional breakdown. Everett Sloane communicates well the situation of a good man trying to bargain with the Devil, completely against his personal ethics. This is a fine appearance by Jean Hagen as well. She impresses as just the kind of thoughtless drunken seducer who can feed Charlie’s ego. The specially billed Shelley Winters captures the foolishness of a not-too-bright starlet with no idea that, as Stanley says of Charlie, is digging her own grave with her mouth. The casting of Ms. Winters is particularly apt, in that even in the 1950s before the tell-all books, she was rumored to have begun her career as a Dixie Evans-like starlet, a good-time girl kept on the payroll for special clients and special occasions.
This was always the movie that fans would say showed what Rod Steiger could do, ‘big’ acting in a big role. The two scenes with Stanley Hoff may look like a lot of screaming and face making, and the blonde wig and hearing aid are a distraction, but not many actors could pull it off. The movie generates a heightened reality (all that pickled dialogue) that discourages restraint, but Hoff has to be a hate-filled monster. It’s practically an acting stunt, but I think it works.
For me the film’s standout performance comes from Wendell Corey, an actor often blamed for bringing insufficient passion to his work. With his neutral stare and measured lines, Corey makes Smiley Coy entirely believable. All the stories of Hollywood corruption seem possible with a guy like Coy in charge — a creep like him could have known the truth about The Black Dahlia, and never talked. No matter what happens, the sardonic Smiley Coys of Hollywood walk away unharmed. We all know when a generic thriller is failing, when we don’t believe that the characters really want to hurt anybody. Wendell Corey makes murder seem credible, under ‘civilized’ conditions.
It’s been written for years that The Big Knife contributed to Robert Aldrich’s being fired from the Columbia picture The Garment Jungle and set him on a four-year ‘wandering in the desert,’ working on movies in Mexico, England and Italy. But when Aldrich returned to Hollywood, he had a triumphant success with yet another extreme drama set in the movie biz — What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? His 1968 The Legend of Lylah Clare exists in an evil Hollywood universe similar to that of The Big Knife, a venal cesspool of gossip columnists, creepy hangers-on and a screaming studio head. Lylah Clare also concludes with Aldrich’s most radical vision of apocalypse, graphic images of raging, snarling beasts.
Today, the anti- Big Knife seems to be the Coen Bros.’ Hail, Caesar!, a tale of scandal-myth Hollywood with similar predatory agents, foolish actors and all manner of human weakness being swept under the swimming pool. The difference is that the hero is the hardworking, devout studio fixer, who would correspond to Odets’ Smiley Coy. And he even carries the name Eddie Mannix. Go figure.
I wrote in my first review from 2003 that someone says the words, “Hail, Columbia!” in this picture. It’s the agent, Nat (Thank you Gary Teetzel.). It’s the clincher connecting the Coens’ Hail, Caesar! with The Big Knife, in the same way that O Brother Where Art Thou? is a spiritual spin-off of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of The Big Knife is a fine transfer and encoding of Aldrich’s movie, with an unfortunate major fault: DVD Beaver soon discovered that it’s about a minute short — one scene between Everett Sloane, Ida Lupino and Jack Palance is missing a section. It takes place 95 minutes in.
I’m not sure what the source of the problem is. The edit was carefully done, as continuity is smooth. But the missing scene is fairly important. 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. For extras we’re given a texted original trailer and a good transfer of a vintage TV promo for the film, shot on the living room set. The Big Knife has an early main title design from Saul Bass, and another extra is a half-hour documentary by Bass on his famous title sequences.
The best extra is a full commentary by critics and film writers Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton, who cover the 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.
I’m impressed by Sean Phillips’ attractive cover art, also used on the disc’s insert pamphlet (only on this initial pressing). Forty pages long, the profusely illustrated booklet contains two informative 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.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Big Knife
Movie: Very Good
Video: excellent but flawed — a piece is missing (see above).
Supplements: Commentary by film critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton, Bass on Titles Saul Bass documentary from 1972; trailer, five-minute TV promo, booklet with essays by Nathalie Morris and Gerald Peary.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 24, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson