Robert Aldrich, 1955
Starring: Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Shelley Winters
A major Hollywood star, Charlie Castle, wants to retire in order to save his marriage with his wife Marion, but the studio boss, powerful and demanding Stanley Hoff, insists that Charlie renews his contract for another seven years. Though he initially refuses, Charlie soon gives in, much to the disgust of Marion, who can’t decide if she is going to stay or finally seek a divorce. Charlie can’t just walk away because he was involved in a drunk-driving accident where he killed a child. His friend, Buddy Bliss, took the rap and the jail time, but Charlie’s secret is also known by Dixie, a wannabe actress. When she can’t keep her mouth shut, Hoff wants to have her permanently silenced and expects a horrified Charlie to take part.
Director Robert Aldrich essentially made his career just before The Big Knife with a Mickey Spillane noir adaptation, Kiss Me Deadly, after years working with other controversial directors, such as Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Charlie Chaplin, and Abraham Polonsky. The Big Knife is a smaller, less grandiose film than Kiss Me Deadly. Based on a play by Clifford Odets, it primarily takes place on one set, in Charlie’s California home, and is far more dialogue-heavy than hard-hitting, fast-paced Kiss Me Deadly. There is much less sex and no on-screen violence, and yet The Big Knife is a deeply sleazy, filthy film with scene after scene of a crumbling marriage, affairs, seduction-for-hire, sex as manipulation, manslaughter, attempted murder, cruel fate, and more. Like the earlier Sunset Boulevard, it exposes the corruption inherent in the Hollywood system – and in turn, the American dream.
The film actually has much in common with Sunset Boulevard down to the extensive use of melodrama, the theatricality and over- stylization – in The Big Knife, even the character names are a bit silly – and the film centers on a weak protagonist who effectively digs his own grave. Jack Palance, chewing scenery with gusto as Charlie Castle, is the soul of victimization and inaction. He insists that everything happens to him and he is powerless to change events. In a sense, it is easy to be lulled and manipulated by this seeming passivity, but in reality Charlie killed a child while driving drunk and allowed his only real, loyal friend to go to prison on his account. And then, as the ultimate betrayal, he had an affair with his friend’s alcoholic wife.
Though Palance is enjoyable, he – and Charlie – are outshone by the ensemble cast, many of whom are actresses. The great Ida Lupino is underused as an unhappy woman who can’t make up her mind and feels more like a wife caricature than a developed character. Nonetheless, she still gives an excellent performance. Lupino was particularly busy during the period, not only acting (Women’s Prison, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps), but she got her start directing television at this time. The real star of the film is perhaps Shelley Winters as Dixie Evans, shining yet again as a lonely, desperately sexual woman (similar to her performances in The Night of the Hunter and Lolita). She manages to out-Palance Jack Palance in the key scene where she explains that her position with the film studio is as little more than a glorified prostitute. Also keep an eye out for Jean Hagen (The Asphalt Jungle) as the manipulative seductress who seduces Charlie, and Iika Chase (Now, Voyager) as a gossip columnist with a mean streak.
Wendell Corey (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Rear Window) is great here as the aptly named Smiley Coy, a black-hearted press agent able to change emotions at the drop of a hat. He is far more sinister than either Palance (known later for his villainous roles) or Stanley Hoff. It’s a shame his character wasn’t given more screen time. The scene where he casually discusses Dixie’s murder with Charlie – without directly putting anything into words – is downright creepy.
Finally, Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront) is absolutely wonderful as Stanley Hoff, a histrionic studio executive who also oddly resembles a Bond villain with his white-blonde hair, tan, dark suits and sunglasses, and inexplicable hearing aid. He’s apparently based on several real Hollywood personalities, particularly his need to out-acting and constantly manipulate the actors in his employ. He adds a surreal element to the film and it’s easy to see how maybe this went on to influence David Lynch.
I’m not really sure whether or not to recommend The Big Knife. It’s available on an out of print DVD and will certainly delight some viewers – I enjoyed it very much – but others will find it too talky, staged, and melodramatic. It’s a sleazy, uncomfortable work, like several of Aldrich’s films, but really packs a punch with the surprise ending. SPOILER: Charlie resigns himself to the facts that he will never leave the studio system and his wife will never divorce him but will always remain unhappy. Dixie is going to reveal that Charlie was responsible for the child’s death, just as his friend (the one who assumed guilt) learns that Charlie slept with his wife. In response, he locks himself in the bathroom and slashes his arms open, presumably with the titular “big knife.” Suicide was generally frowned upon by the Production Code, which is undoubtedly why Aldrich felt the need to include it here, as yet another middle finger pointed at a system he loathed and frequently did battle against.