The Big Knife May 23, 2016
To be a major Hollywood star is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Perks are always available and idolization is a given, sure, but the redundancy of being treated like a piece of meat and not a breathing, feeling, human, is something that can get to you. Some are able to handle the phony nature of Tinsel Town, but most aren’t — the number of tragic figures within the cinematic side of show business is staggering. Even death is sprayed with a scent of otherworldly romanticism.
In a land of people trying to get ahead, it’s only predictable that cutthroat action have debilitating effects. Take the identity crisis The Big Knife’s Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is having, for example. A heavyweight who has drank from the goblet of fame for a number of years, Charlie has survived as an actor of the John Garfield type throughout his career. Adoring fans are still as present as they were in his younger days. Studio heads still want him for their latest box-office smash. He has it all.
But, nearing forty, he’s in the beginning stages of an early midlife crisis. He’s not so sure he can take stardom for much longer, especially now that his wife (Ida Lupino) is on the verge of leaving him because of his occupation and because of his tendency to cheat. Like a male, 1950s era Bette Davis, he’s ready to fight his way out of his present studio contract — but things aren’t as simple as he’d like them to be.
Charlie is unable to free himself of celebrity due to a single issue that will likely haunt him for the rest of his life. Years back, he was involved in a hit-and-run accident that the studio covered up. As a result, he’s been blackmailed by his boss (Rod Steiger) into staying in the profession. The film opens just as Charlie’s contract is about to expire, his employer willing to do anything to get him to sign another one.
In essence, 1955’s The Big Knife, written by James Poe and directed by Robert Aldrich, is a filmed play, a concoction of breathy exchanges and fiery monologues that more or less work until things become too overwrought for their own good. Considering the way it rarely changes scenery, it is oftentimes a case of too much happening in too little of a scenario. Its “day in the life” plot is mostly convincing, but frequently tilts toward contrivance; the diabolical nature of Hollywood is stretched to limits that either pass as satirical or hysterical.
But I like how far Steiger, as the studio chief, goes with his hamminess (he’s more over-the-top than Joan Crawford and Tallulah Bankhead combined), and how much Shelley Winters (as the starlet who might give Charlie’s secret away) and Jean Hagen (as his mistress) are committed to melodramatically playing our lead’s “other women.”
And since The Big Knife is your standard acting movie, I cannot ask for much more than it provides — it gives great actors a well-conceived chance to flex their emotive muscles and deliver characterizations of unrelenting power. For that, I can only give it credit. Palance is effectively torn up as the film’s unsteady center, and Lupino is compelling as a wife who loves her husband but is at a point in her life where caring about herself might be a better option.
A memorable movie it isn’t — The Big Knife is little more than an intelligently executed exercise in expression — but it is more than eager to prove that a movie can be just as worthwhile when all the action is humanistic rather than extraneously thrilling. The snappy dialogue and skillful performances are something to behold; The Big Knife is a B-noir gem worth a look some sixty-plus years later. B