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The Big Knife (1955)

October 31st, 2006 · 1 Comment

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Matinee idol Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) struggles with whether or not to ink a seven year contract with Hoff Federated, the movie studio that made him a star. His estranged wife Marion (Ida Lupino) is disenchanted with celebrity, and feels that the once passionate “Charlie Cass” has sold out his ideals and that they should get as far away from Hollywood as they can.

Charlie argues that the industry can still produce movies with “guts and meaning.” Marion names “Stevens, Mankiewicz, Kazan, Huston, Wyler, Wilder, Stanley Kramer” as producing work with artistic integrity, but never Stanley Hoff, the studio boss whom Charlie is beholden to. Marion convinces her husband not to sign, but when the bullying Hoff (Rod Steiger) visits the house, Charlie buckles.

Back with the studio family, Charlie’s problems become Hoff’s to manage. B-list starlet Dixie Evans (Shirley Winters) has learned that a drunk driving fatality Charlie’s friend and manager took the rap for years ago was actually Charlie’s fault. Hoff’s articulate assistant Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey) intends to silence her permanently and would like Charlie’s help.

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Directed by Robert Aldrich, from a screenplay James Poe adapted from the play by Clifford Odets, The Big Knife sounds a lot more watchable than it actually is. It usually gets filed in the “film noir” genre that was growing in strength at the time, but this is straight melodrama at best, a soap opera at worst, with all the rigid liabilities of a piece written for the stage on full display.

Clifford Odets, who had joined the American Communist Party before World War II, spent several years toiling in Hollywood in the ’40s. This experience made its way into The Big Knife, which debuted on Broadway in 1949, with John Garfield in the lead. Odets wound up trying to clear allegations made by HUAC that he promoted Communism. This turmoil – stewing beneath the surface of Tinseltown’s glamour – is evident in the film, though Odets was spared the blacklist, and continued to work in the industry, later writing The Sweet Smell of Success.

If there’s ever been a movie that could be acted out live in front of an audience without changing a word in the script, it would be this one. All but two brief scenes take place in the living room of Charlie’s Bel Air home, but without live actors standing in front of you bellowing, the movie is hard to sit through.

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The film version features a memorable credits sequence where we see Palance’s head and watch him wound up as tight as a coil, but once that’s over, the story is dependent on staged monologues. The effect this has on the 114 minute film is to make it feel twice as long.

Jack Palance does as good as he can, but is too hard bitten to be believable as a charming, larger than life Clark Gable type. Rod Steiger flies in and occasionally goes over the top, though Lupino and Wendell Corey are dependable character actors who are subtle and engaging.

Odets does write some sharp dialogue, most memorably the advice Charlie’s agent gives him: “Never underestimate a man just because you don’t like him.” The musical cues Aldrich employs are heavy handed to the point of being funny, like a soap opera. Despite the turn toward the end of the film, there is no criminality or skullduggery going on in the story. I’d recommend this only to theater buffs with epic concentration, or Palance fans.

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Tags: 24 hour time frame

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Chicken Lady // Nov 1, 2006 at 9:04 am

    Oh, and BTW….one thing that might improve your site (although you didn’t for my opinion, is to have a “gereral comment” link….cause there are lots of things that I would love to comment on, but no place to leave them except at the end of one of your reviews…and what if I don’t have a comment for that particular review, but just a general comment about something else that I saw??? Kind of like the “3’s company” thing….. See I have to leave my comment on the review for the Howling cause there isn’t a “general comment” link…. Oh and BTW I found some spelling errors, but of course can’t leave the comment for them where I found them cause there isn’t a “general comment” link…

    Just thought you might like some feedback…..

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