Mere months after delivering one of the definitive examples of film noir with Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich brought a noir flavour to Hollywood with his classic adaptation of Clifford Odets stage play, The Big Knife.
Charles Castle, one of Hollywood s biggest stars, looks like he has it all. But his marriage is falling apart and his wife is threatening to leave him if he renews his contract. Studio boss Stanley Shriner Hoff isn t taking the news too well, and he ll do anything he can to get his man to sign on the dotted line even if means exposing dark secrets...
Winner of the Silver Lion at the 1955 Venice Film Festival, The Big Knife also boasts a remarkable cast list including Jack Palance (Shane) as Castle and Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront) as Hoff, plus Shelley Winters (The Night of the Hunter), Ida Lupino (On Dangerous Ground), Jean Hagen (Singin in the Rain) and Everett Sloane (Citizen Kane).
Hollywood was often dubbed The Dream Factory, but a nightmare reality lurked beneath the glitz and glamour, and in the early 1950s, directors like Billy Wilder, Vincente Minnelli, and George Cukor exploited it. Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, and the Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born all paint dark, cynical portraits of Tinseltown. Yet arguably the period's nastiest look at the film industry's underbelly comes from renowned playwright Clifford Odets (Awake and Sing, Golden Boy), whose bitter perspective evolved over several years on studio payrolls. The Big Knife doesn't directly chronicle his experiences, but it brutally spotlights a ruthless, cruel, hedonistic, and amoral society that treats people as commodities, then discards them on the scrap heap when they've lost their value. It's a powerful, melodramatic, and oh-so-vindictive work, and director Robert Aldrich's screen adaptation remains largely faithful to it.
Sadly, The Big Knife never gained the acclaim it deserves, but its dynamite cast, literate script, memorable characters, and explosive subject matter make it worthy of rediscovery. Other self-reflexive Hollywood films, despite promises of gritty realism, maintain a modicum of gloss and often wink at the audience, as if to say, "despite all you've seen, this is still just a movie." Perhaps because The Big Knife is an independent production and not bound by studio mandates, it never sugarcoats its harsh message. The film occasionally feels a bit stiff and stagy, but its intimate focus on the desperation of its colorful characters often provokes a visceral response that makes the provocative themes - which are not unique to Hollywood - resonate more strongly. Though set in the film industry, the story could be adapted to fit any profession that systematically chews up and spits out its people.
Actor Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) has toiled dutifully for years for studio mogul Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), a gruff, manipulative s.o.b. who manages his stable of stars like a tyrannical dictator. When Charlie first came to Hollywood, he had lofty ideals and big dreams, but when he signed on the dotted line, he sold himself lock, stock, and barrel to Hoff, who has kept him on a short leash - and in a string of mediocre pictures - ever since. Stardom brought wealth, women, fame, stature, and an inflated ego to Charlie, but all those spoils have sapped his talent, weakened his will, and eaten away at his soul. His marriage to Marion (Ida Lupino), who provides a much-needed anchor in a turbulent sea, is failing due to his serial infidelities, and his contract with Hoff is up for renewal. Like a slave, Charlie craves emancipation and longs to escape the pressures, responsibilities, and moral decay of Hollywood, but he's addicted to the town's luxurious trappings and beholden to the mighty forces who rule it with an iron fist.
Marion vows to leave him for good if he renews his seven-year contract, but if Charlie walks away, he risks the exposure of a dirty and shameful secret. For in the not too distant past, Hoff helped cover up a hit-and-run car accident involving a drunken Charlie that resulted in the death of a child. Charlie's worshipping publicist willingly took the blame for the crime and served 10 months in prison to protect Charlie, but Hoff has held the incident over his head ever since and threatens to spill the beans to the press and turn his top star over to the authorities if he doesn't re-sign. Wracked by self-loathing and teetering on the edge of a moral precipice, Charlie must decide whether to keep compromising his integrity to save his skin and continue leading a cushy life or bite the hand that feeds him, call Hoff's bluff, repair his marriage, and salvage what's left of his self-respect.
The Big Knife is often quite audacious as it portrays the Hollywood studio system like an arm of organized crime - run by an egomaniacal kingpin without a conscience who demands unflinching loyalty and obedience from all his subjects. And if he's ever crossed, his brutal henchmen will use all the means at their disposal - blackmail, secret surveillance, even murder - to rectify a troublesome situation. Power, money, and control drive this morally bankrupt environment, where predators prowl around every corner and only the savviest reptiles survive. Sensitive artists like Charlie are easy prey, and by the time they realize they're just a pawn in a game, they're in so deep they can't claw their way out.
Screenwriter James Poe (who would win an Oscar the following year for his adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days) slightly opens up Odets' play, but by keeping most of the action confined to Charlie's living room, he creates a claustrophobic and incendiary atmosphere, where tension reigns supreme and bombshells continually explode. So many revelations in such a short time span somewhat strain credulity, but the stylish direction by Aldrich (who would helm a much more famous and grotesque Hollywood drama - What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? - seven years later) and terrific performances by a top-notch cast temper the melodrama and keep attention riveted even during talky stretches.
John Garfield created the role of Charlie on Broadway. He strongly resembled the character and would have been terrific in the film version had he not died of a heart attack at age 39 a couple of years earlier. (Intense stress over a House UnAmerican Activities Committee investigation reportedly contributed to his death.) Burt Lancaster turned the part down, so it went to Palance, who files a deeply affecting portrayal that deftly balances rage, heartbreak, and resignation. In one of her last leading lady turns, Lupino is warm, lovely, and very natural as the long-suffering wife who, hard as she tries, can never quite flush Charlie out of her system. As Hoff (who supposedly was modeled after Columbia's monstrous mogul, Harry Cohn, with a little bit of MGM's manipulative Louis B. Mayer thrown in for good measure), Steiger chews all the scenery he can find, and at times seems to channel his inner Marlon Brando. (He had just finished shooting On the Waterfront with the actor prior to beginning The Big Knife.) With his bleached white hair, dark sunglasses, and hearing aid, Steiger strikes quite a pose and gives an electrifying performance, even if it goes way over the top.
In other pivotal roles, Jean Hagen, best known as squeaky-voiced Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain, makes a notable impression as a horny Hollywood housewife with the hots for Charlie; Wendell Corey shines as Hoff's quietly venomous "fixer," who dirties the hands of others to keep the studio clean; the always interesting Everett Sloane tugs the heartstrings as Charlie's protective and ultimately horrified agent; and Shelley Winters (bizarrely billed here as "Miss Shelley Winters") evokes Marilyn Monroe in her brief appearance as a sexy, headstrong, not-so-dumb blonde starlet who's caught in Charlie's web and fed up with Hoff's empty promises and abuse.
Though it can't compete with Odets' best works, The Big Knife sticks it to Hollywood and indicts everything the movie industry stands for. No film that details how a toxic environment insidiously infects and destroys the human spirit can be called pleasant, but this searing drama insightfully examines one man's fall from grace and the conspiring forces that bring him down. The flawed characters are well defined and the excellent performances and stylish direction immerse us in the disturbing narrative. While there are certainly better films out there about Hollywood, few of them scrub away the veneer and cut deeper into its underlying ugliness than The Big Knife.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Big Knife arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard clear case. A glossy, beautifully produced 40-page booklet featuring an essay on the film, a reprinted article on writer Clifford Odets, cast and crew listing, transfer notes, and several black-and-white scene stills is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer was "exclusively restored in 2K resolution for this release by Arrow FIlms" from "an original 35mm fine grain positive." While much of the presentation, which nicely honors Ernest Laszlo's stark, naturalistic cinematography, earns high marks, excessive grain often overshadows the transfer's strengths. The grain occasionally adopts a snowy texture that draws attention away from the narrative and detracts from the picture's excellent contrast and enhanced clarity. The effect seems to lessen as the film progresses - and is far less noticeable on a small display - but it casts an unfortunate shadow over a pleasing restoration that rescues a neglected movie from oblivion.
On the plus side, black levels are quite strong, whites are bright but never bloom, and a nicely varied grayscale renders fabrics and textures well. Patterns remain rock solid and resist shimmering, close-ups showcase the angular ruggedness of Palance's face and smooth complexions of Lupino, Winters, and Hagen, and background elements are easy to discern. Superior shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and only a few errant nicks and marks dot the print. Though the grain issue dulls enthusiasm for this otherwise fine effort, The Big Knife has certainly never looked better on home video, and fans will very much appreciate the finer points of Arrow's restoration.
Audio remasters usually erase the ravages of time that plague vintage soundtracks, but the LPCM mono track included here doesn't address that serious issue as well as it should. Surface noise rears its ugly head on innumerable occasions, with intermittent pops, crackles, hiss, and hums disrupting the action and dulling tension and mood. (An annoying clicking noise erupts at the 24-minute mark, returns more forcefully for two solid minutes around the 26-minute mark, and then again at the 36-37 minute mark.) Like the video, the audio quality improves as the film progresses, but a slight hollowness of tone remains constant.
Not all the news is bad, however. A wide dynamic scale embraces the brassy strains of Frank DeVol's score, which even at its loudest resists distortion, and excellent fidelity allows the music to fill the room with ease. Some of the dialogue is a little difficult to comprehend, but for the most part, the potent language of playwright Clifford Odets is clear. Though restorative miracles have been performed on classic movie audio tracks for many years, unfortunately, the clean-up on The Big Knife doesn't go far enough.
All the supplements are high-def exclusives (see below).
Though at times melodramatic and over the top, The Big Knife doesn't pull any punches in its systematic excoriation of Hollywood. Director Robert Aldrich's slick adaptation of Clifford Odets' biting play paints Tinseltown as a moral wasteland where greed, ego, excess, and cunning manipulations asphyxiate the human soul. As the actor caught in the crosshairs of a ruthless studio mogul's power play, Jack Palance files a dimensional portrayal, and Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, Wendell Corey, Jean Hagen, and Everett Sloane supply top-notch support. The restored video and audio don't quite live up to expectations, but a couple of interesting supplements and a gorgeous 40-page booklet elevate the Blu-ray presentation from Arrow Films. The Big Knife may not always ring true, but it relishes shedding light on the dark side of Hollywood and stabbing the industry in the gut. Recommended.