Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Big Knife (1955)

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

The Big Knife cuts deep in its depiction of the studio system of Hollywood's Golden Age.

There's not much happiness in these parts, as depicted by director Robert Aldrich (The Flight of the Phoenix) in this powerful 1955 effort.

Charles Castle (Jack Palance) is at a crossroads. His studio contract is up for renewal. Boss Stanley Hoft (Rod Steiger) wants him back for seven more years. Castle is disillusioned with the roles he's given. His wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), has left him. There's signs of a possible reconciliation, but only if Castle leaves Hollywood. His wife is tired of his cheating and is getting serious with another man, Hank Teagle (Wesley Addy).

TWO IDEALISTS Teagle and Castle are both idealists. Castle sold out for success. Scriptwriter Teagle stayed true, but his works never make the screen.

Castle's leverage in negotiations is limited by a nasty incident in his past that Hoft, and a floozy who he was with at the time, Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters), have in their arsenal. Evans is a potential powder keg to Castle's future. She drinks too much and starts talking too often at parties about what happened a few years back. Castle's next starring role could be as a prisoner in jail.


Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey) is the studio's fixer, just like George Clooney was for a law firm in 2007's Michael Clayton. Charles is concerned Coy's not joking when he describes what he'll do to make sure Evans stops yapping.

"Sorry to throw the meat on the floor," he offers when he explains what he'll have done.

The Big Knife offers many fine performances. Palance, known to today's audiences for his work in City Slickers, is explosive as Castle. He's shown sparring in the film's first scene, but it's him who's being beaten down at work and home.

Steiger is a powerful force as Hoft. His screen time is limited, but he dominates the screen. Corey's quiet, deadly authority is chilling.

Dixie shares Castle's disillusioment with Hollywood, but not his success. She's offered a studio contract to keep her mouth shut about Castle's indiscretion. But her roles are limited with studio bosses more interested in her shapely figure than her acting talent. "I'm a deductible item," she laments.


The Big Knife is based on a play penned by Clifford Odets. The film's stage origins are noticeable with most of the action set in the living room of Castle's swanky Bel Air home. Viewers be warned, there's a lot of talking and not much action. The musical score is often obtrusive too.

Movies offer occasional glimpses at Hollywood with efforts such as Sunset Boulevard and The Player. The Big Knife is a knockout.

RATING: 8/10

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