Hollywood Babylon: The Big Knife (1955)

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.


July 28, 2015


In the summer of 1956, Sam Fuller took a 50% stake in Globe Enterprises, an independent production company that would strike deals with RKO, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia for financing and distribution. He received creative control over his projects, and though this setup only lasted through 1961, he made six strong films with Globe: Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, and Underworld U.S.A. His first Globe production, Run of the Arrow (’57), is now available on a long-overdue DVD from the Warner Archive, and reflects the unusual freedom Fuller secured himself in this period. It is a prickly, jumpy Western in which a post-Civil War Confederate loyalist named O’Meara (Rod Steiger) joins the Sioux in order to fight against the United States. It depicts America as a land of perpetual warfare, one in which race and cultural hatreds are reconfigured to justify the current battle, whether without or within. It is a film of jagged rhythms, its chase scenes broken into extreme long shots and close-ups, which are then followed by minutes-long takes of two-shot conversations. At no point does one feel settled or comfortable regarding a character’s motivations or their position in space, and that is how Fuller wanted it.


In the June 24, 1956 issue of the New York Times, Sam Fuller talked to Oscar Godbout about his new production, then called “Arrow”:  “This is a post-Civil War frontier story that will contain, according to Mr. Fuller, parallels between that period and the difficult social transition now roiling the South. He will be disappointed if it does not provide thinking material for the intellectually committed on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.” From the beginning Fuller conceived it as a story about Southern Whites, and their violent reactions against threats to their power. In the film O’Meara fires the last shot of the Civil War, which just misses the heart of Union Lt. Driscoll (Ralph Meeker). While his family encourages him to return home and accept the Confederate defeat, O’Meara wants to fight on. He figures the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so he heads West into Sioux territory, where he befriends the returning Indian scout Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen). They are captured by renegade Sioux warrior Crazy Wolf (H.M. Wynant), and in order to avoid execution, agree to try the (invented by Fuller) “Run of the Arrow”. It is a barefooted chase where they receive a head start based on the distance of an arrow shot by the pursuers.  O’Meara survives through the help of Yellow Moccasin (Sarita Montiel, who’s voice is dubbed by Angie Dickinson), the inevitably beautiful young Sioux who falls in love with him. For surviving the run, he is granted safe passage by Chief Blue Buffalo (a bronzed Charles Bronson), but instead O’Meara chooses to stay with the tribe and become a member of their society, taking Yellow Moccasin as his wife and the orphaned mute kid Silent Tongue (Billy Miller) as his son. But the U.S. Army wants to build a fort in Sioux territory, and they send Lt. Driscoll to protect U.S. interests. O’Meara is sent as the Sioux emissary, to guide Driscoll to build on neutral ground. But Driscoll is an irritable, racist warmonger, and rattles his saber until he gets the fight he was begging for.


The head of RKO, William Dozier, was an admirer of Fuller’s newspaper drama Park Row, and gave him the green light to make the project. These were the last days of RKO as a producer/distributor, and by the time Run of the Arrow was ready for release, it was Universal-International that handled it. While Fuller had control of his script, he needed Dozier’s approval for the cast. They had a stark disagreement for the lead actor. Dozier wanted Gary Cooper, while Fuller argued strenuously for the young method actor Rod Steiger. Steiger had made an impression in supporting roles in On the Waterfront and a slew of television dramas, and Fuller felt he was perfect for the part: “I need the opposite of Cooper. The character’s hateful, a misfit. I want this newcomer, Steiger. He’s got a sour face and a fat ass. He’ll look awkward, especially when he climbs up on a horse. See, my yarn’s about a sore loser, not a gallant hero” (from Fuller’s autobio, A Third Face). Dozier caved, and Steiger got his first starring role. Fuller had a tense relationship with his leading man, who, the director noted, “tended to overact”.  And one’s opinion of the film can hinge on the reaction Steiger’s performance, which is mannered, mumbly and admirably off-putting.


One of the more remarkable sequences occurs about an hour in, a conversation between O’Meara and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), who is leading the Army engineers to build a new fort. In an unbroken shot that lasts 4 minutes and 25 seconds, DP Joseph Biroc captures a relatively simple two-shot in which the formerly warring duo discusses the future of their country. It begins with everyday concerns, Clark complaining about his saddle, and tracks a few feet to a rest area with covered wagons and a table. “You’re not the only Johnny Reb fighting a one-man war against the United States, you know. Some of them went down to South America.”, Clark says, as he stares down into a few coffee mugs, tossing the old brew out of a few before he finds a clean one. He sits at the right edge of the frame. O’Meara standing off to the left,  claims that this part of the country isn’t part of the United States, and sits down with the words, “we had a right to fight for our rights”, while accepting a cup from Clark. The camera pushes in as O’Meara inveighs “The Union be damned, the Union be damned…we don’t like you makin’ up laws…We’ll go down like a free, White, Christian country.” Clark laughs, “Free, white and Christian, eh. Burning crosses and hiding under pillowcases and terrorizing families. Free, white and Christian!” Brian Keith delivers that devastating line with a smirk, eyeing Steiger to his right. Steiger clenches up, raises both hands to his cup and says, as if a chastened child, “I don’t know anything about that, sir.” Clark sarcastically responds with, “It’s always the other guy.”


The word “black” or “slave” is never uttered, but the righteous fire briefly dims in Steiger’s eyes, quickly acknowledging and then repressing what underlies a white Southerner’s freedom in post-Civil War America. Or a Northerner’s, for that matter. Captain Clark doesn’t last long, and Lt. Driscoll takes over. If Clark is dreaming of a better Union, Driscoll dreams only of colonization and subjugation. Every power structure in the film is split, internal battles spilling out into exterior ones. The Sioux are riven with dissension between the pragmatic Red Cloud (Frank de Kova) and the warlike Crazy Wolf, and the South has O’Meara’s mother preaching reconciliation with the North, while her son is a staunch separatist. These coalitions are repeatedly jumbled until alliances become meaningless, and all that’s left are the hatreds left undissipated by years of war and bloodshed. Fuller ends the film with the on-screen exhortation, “The end of this story can only be written by you!” Looking back at race relations in the United States in the 58 years since the film’s release, it now reads like an accusation.