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USA 1955
Directed by
Robert Aldrich
111 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

The Big Knife

This florid melodrama was based on a 1949 play of the same name by Clifford Odets. In the spirit of Vincente Minnelli’s Bad And The Beautiful (1952) it depicts the seamily ruthless world behind the glamorous veneer of Tinsel Town,

Jack Palance plays screen idol Charlie Castle in the employ of Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger) a cynical producer of financially successful but mediocre crowd-pleasers. Charlie enjoys the star life style including a good deal of philandering that is wrecking his marriage to Marion (Ida Lupino). She doesn’t want Charlie to sign a new seven contract with Hoff but the latter has some dirt on Charlie that will destroy his career if he doesn’t. Will Charlie be man enough to stand up to him?

Aldrich keeps close to the script’s theatrical origins shooting mainly on a single set with long takes and preserving (and perhaps even adding to) the over-wrought dialogue but using raking camera angles to emphasize the intensity (Ernest Lazlo was D.O.P)..  And intensity is certainly what you get from Palance(in a role which John Garfield had played on stage and was intended to play on the screen but who had died of heart attack) as the conflicted actor, Lupino as his loving wife and, above all, Steiger at his scenery-chewing best playing a character allegedly based on Columbia head Harry Cohn with a bit of Louis B, Mayer (the crying stunt) thrown in for good measure.  Shelley Winters plays the kind of two-bit starlet that she was in reality for a good number of years (how she managed to have a career at all has always mystified me). Wendell Corey is strong as Hof’s compliant hatchet man. Other players include Everett Sloane, Nick Dennis and Wesley Addey as Hank Teagle, evidently Odets’ stand-in as moral commentator.

If the performances are as strong as the script is over-cooked there is one odd feature that throws the film off course. The first half is concerned with Charlie’s dilemma over re-signing with Hof, the second half about his past coming back to haunt him. The problem is that there is no connection between the two halves and we never hear of the re-signing again. My first thought was that the new direction was in fact a flash-back but this was not borne out and I spent much of the film trying to reconcile myself to the incongruity. As for the title, its meaning remains obscured to me.

FYI:  Aldrich was fired from a 1957 Columbia movie called The Garment Jungle by Cohn when  the latter realized halfway through filming that the director he had hired was also the director of The Big Knife.




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