Arrow Video: The Big Knife (1955) - Reviewed

While the Hollywood autocritique (or ‘taking-the-piss-out-of-itself’ movie) shining the spotlight on some of the more unsavory practices and ideologies of the Golden Age of Hollywood are hardly new with seemingly more immediate relevance than ever, few filmmakers-as-critics plunged their daggers quite as deep into Tinseltown as writer-director Robert Aldrich.  Originally an assistant director before working his way up through television direction before producing and helming his own features, Aldrich is best known for the Lee Majors’ starring war film The Dirty Dozen and the survival action thriller The Flight of the Phoenix

Most filmgoers are aware of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard taking on the Golden Age of Hollywood but few are aware of Aldrich’s cinematic tussles with Tinseltown.  Among the ones that stand out in Aldrich’s takedown of the Hollywood system are Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? concerning two fading child actresses and a stage-to-film adaptation of playwright Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife.  Originally a Broadway production directed by Lee Strasberg starring John Garfield who passed away just three years before Aldrich’s film came about, The Big Knife stars Jack Palance as action movie star Charlie Castle and his ongoing war with fearsome and domineering Hollywood studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger). 

Castle, living in his expensive Hollywood home, has everything but his personal freedom to pursue the film roles he wants and to spend much needed time with his wife Marion (Ida Lupino) who is on the cusp of divorcing him.  Tiring of doing the same uninspired B movie roles and wanting to enrich his marriage, Castle vows to void his contract with Hoff’s studio until Hoff himself shows up at home threatening to blackmail him with a sordid incident in the actor’s past unless he renews his contract. What follows are a series of tense shouting matches between Palance and Steiger one-upping each other in equally over the top performances that border on Samuel Fuller’s trademark melodramatics and encounters with various figures amid Castle’s Hollywood posse of drunkards and sex starved starlets ready to hop into the casting couch for their next big break.  

To this day, The Big Knife carries it’s staunch band of defenders and detractors, some finding it a scathing takedown of the likes of Hollywood players Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn (who took person offense at the picture’s snarky parody of himself) while others taking the whole thing as an overwrought screaming match where Palance and Steiger turn the volume up well past eleven.  Among the film’s stronger and more subtle assets are Ida Lupino as Castle’s no-nonsense wife who just wants to live a normal life with the man she loves, and a fleeting but memorable cameo by a then unknown Shelley Winters as an up and coming actress who may know a thing or two about Castle’s dirty little secret past. 

For my money, the performances of this melodrama are appropriate in setting the stage for this unfettered gaze at the opulent lifestyle of a well-to-do actor being more in line with slavery than superstardom.  Aiding the proceedings are Frank De Vol’s subtly seductive and at times mournful score and Academy Award winning cinematographer Ernest Laszlo’s confining and often claustrophobic camerawork, offering more than a few canted angles of Hollywood’s warped and deeply damaged view of itself.  One of the film’s wonders is the set piece of the house itself, with actor Charlie Castle and his wife Marion desperately trying to get some alone time as anybody and everybody seem to pass through their household without knocking first, reinforcing the notion of the Hollywood life being anything but their own. 

Despite criticisms that adapting Odets’ play as written to screen makes the case for why film and theater are vastly different mediums, The Big Knife couldn’t have resurfaced at a more pressing time when Hollywood and the increasingly salacious and unsavory behind-the-scenes machinations running the film industry keep coming to light.  Steiger and Palance have always been known as over the top players and with The Big Knife they couldn’t have found a better stage to unleash their pent up rages with their teeth out. 

Yes the film wears the stage play roots upon it’s sleeve and some wonder whether or not some changes could have been made during the film’s transition from floor to screen.  As such however, The Big Knife joins films like All About Eve, Inserts, Sunset Boulevard and of course The Day of the Locust in giving viewers what many now regard as a far more realistic depiction of the movie business as it really is, painting the picture of Hollywood as a Hellscape rather than Heaven.

- Andrew Kotwicki