April 18, 2017
To view The Big Knife click here.
In The Big Knife (1955) Jack Palance is a blunt instrument, barreling his way around a Bel Air living room set like a finely chiseled bull in a china shop. He plays Charlie Castle, a self-loathing movie star being blackmailed by the head of his own studio. So he signs whatever contracts are put in front of him, and his Bel Air home becomes a gilded prison, a well-appointed depository of his rage. The film never strays far from his living room, giving it a claustrophobically theatrical feel. It is an adaptation of the Clifford Odets play, done faithfully by director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe. The first independent feature Aldrich directed, for his newly formed The Associates and Aldrich Company, it is a relentless, and at times exhausting, jeremiad against the dehumanizing manipulations of Hollywood executives. Shot quickly and simply, it is a showcase for the performers, and Palance is matched against Rod Steiger as studio president Stanley Hoff, a Mephistophelean string-puller with a flair for the dramatic pause. Even more unsettling is Hoff’s reptilian assistant Smiley Coy, who Wendell Corey portrays with a smooth monotone, unfurling both compliments and death threats in the same uninflected hiss. The only human in the house is Castle’s long-suffering wife Marion, who Ida Lupino instills with a stubborn, sandpapery grace. The Big Knife is now streaming on FilmStruck with five other features under the “The Lives of Actors“ theme.
While in New York City filming episodes of Four Star Playhouse in the early 1950s, Robert Aldrich approached Clifford Odets with the idea of adapting The Big Knife, which premiered on Broadway in 1949 with John Garfield in the lead. It had been Odets’ first Broadway production in six years, after a stay in Hollywood. According to Alain Silver’s Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Aldrich and producer Bernard Tabakin offered to option the play for $500 for a film version with a budget “not to exceed $100,000.” A modest offer to be sure, but Odets was eager to see his work on-screen again – and he was thrilled with the result, writing in The New York Times in 1955 that it was the “best of all” the film adaptations of his plays.
Charlie Castle is introduced working out in his backyard with his personal trainer, keeping his leading man figure in tune. His wife Marion is readying to leave him again unless he refuses to resign with Hoff, a craven businessman who keeps Castle under his thumb due to a portfolio of incriminating acts he could use against Castle at any time. After minimal prodding, Castle signs the deal. Though seemingly carved out of granite, Castle is a bundle of insecurities and preternaturally eager to please – he is able to shift from arguing with his wife to smooth-talking a gossip columnist with disconcerting ease. Hoff has turned Castle into an actor 24/7, and the man that Marion describes, one of artistic spirit and intellectual curiosity, seems to have departed from the earth.
It is Marion who hung up the Rouault painting of a clown up on the wall, which Castle is eager to over-analyze and prove his worth. He is in a permanent state of self-justification, but eventually runs out of excuses. He makes garbage movies for good money to keep Hoff’s film factory rolling. To ensure his loyalty, Hoff reminds Castle of his crimes – he was involved in a hit-and-run years ago, and the studio pinned the act on his former associates. It was a monstrous act, and now Castle is kept by monsters like Hoff and his assistant Coy, who show up as specters of his lost freedom.
Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe keep the action restricted almost entirely to Castle’s house, putting enormous pressure on Palance to inject dynamism into a small set. It was shot in two weeks on a budget of $400,000, with nine days of “intense” rehearsal beforehand, per The New York Times. Aldrich claimed it made $1.25 million but that all the profit went to the distributor. It’s difficult to retain dynamism in a single set over the course of a feature, and it puts enormous pressure on the actors to deliver something new in every shot. It creates a cramped hothouse atmosphere, made even more so by the small set. According to the AFI Catalog, “In order to fit the main set, that of Charlie’s living room, on the small stage at the Sutherland Studios, art director William Glasgow came up with a ‘combination of wild walls.’ The article reported that ‘as a result, the camera can be placed anywhere in a complete circle around the set, permitting shooting from any angle.’” Even with that technical shortcut, there is not a lot of different set-ups that can be made over the course of a one-location movie, by the end you know every nook and cranny.
The Big Knife has what you might call “unlikable” characters – it’s lead is a murderer, and his bosses blithely discuss committing some of their own. It can become an issue, though, if you don’t buy Castle’s central dilemma – whether he should take lots of money, or not take lots of money. Robert Aldrich recalled his dad reacting to the premise: “Am I to understand that [Castle’s] choice was to take or not take $5,000 a week? Well then, you’ll never have a successful picture. Because there is no choice.” This criticism followed around the play and the film, but it received plaudits elsewhere, including the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Looking at it today, it’s a film of swirling male hysteria, with Palance and Steiger taking turns chewing the minimal scenery. In The Big Knife Hollywood has turned these men into ogres, fighting to the death over a few scraps of dignity.