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The Big Knife

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Hypocritical Hollywood folk under the spotlight

Image of The Big Knife

Robert Aldrich / US / 1955 / 111mins

Available on Dual-format Blu-ray/ DVD now.

There is a cheap and cheerless tendency to Robert Aldrich. In his prime he made the startlingly apocalyptic noir Kiss Me Deadly but his talent was frittered away by his later schlocky-but-watchable movies in the 60s, like the dementedly vulgar classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The Big Knife‘s set-bound style (the shouty acting lacks nuance) parallels its stage origins; it’s based on a play by Clifford Odets.

Hollywood films about Hollywood never quite capture the dark seamy underbelly of the behind-the-scenes business although many like to pretend they do. And Aldrich knew the workings of Hollywood better than most. He had a long career making likeable and profitable films. One of his best-loved pictures was the boys’-own adventure Flight of the Phoenix. As a director he was impossible to pigeonhole.

The Big Knife takes as it setting the backstabbing studio politics of Hollywood with its grotesque cast of grasping agents and slimy producers and temperamental stars. The movie has a cracking cast led by Jack Palance who became typecast as a snakelike villain helped by the actor’s mean mouth and high cheekbones. Palance plays Charlie Castle, a successful movie star whose credibility is slipping and whose Broadway training makes him deplore the cheesy roles he is offered. He wants out of his contract and out of Hollywood. But it’s not that easy.

His wife is played by Ida Lupino (Hollywood’s first female actor/director) and a weirdly blonde Rod Steiger (fresh from the Oscar success of On the Waterfront) plays the film studio boss who chews out Castle. The action may be a little cliché-ridden at times – the penny-pinching producer, the star with too much attitude and the devious, thoroughly unprincipled mogul. Castle’s split-level sitting room is as much a character in the story as any of the actors. As a forced jollity in the decor (the upholsterer even gets a mention in the opening credits), there’s a garish harlequin-patterned room divider and a Rouault painting of a sad clown above the wet bar. Early exposition is supplied by a gossip columnist character played by Ilka Chase and based on Hedda Hopper.

The film reflects Aldrich’s not altogether easy ride within the Hollywood system. He was often written off as a hack director, and The Big Knife can be seen as his poison pen revenge letter.

While Castle’s career threatens to go into a tailspin (his wife is about to leave him – again), the gossips are threatening to run dirt and his studio boss plans to abet the headline-humping  muckrakers if the star doesn’t sign his next seven-year contract. Castle feels he can’t trust anyone (except maybe his physical trainer/fight coach, played by Mickey Feeney, who is clearly infatuated with the star.

Although things can get a bit stagy, there’s some great writing. Of the blabbermouth starlet (Shelley Winters, seen too briefly) who needs placating. Someone says “play ball with her? I’ll play ball with her head!” And Steiger, especially creepy and slightly effeminate, is on top form.