The Big Knife Review
Robert Aldrich was one of old Hollywood’s great directors and with titles like The Dirty Dozen to his name, he was reliably tough, in a similar vein to John Huston (Asphalt Jungle). He also had an aptitude for drama, such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in which he was able to exploit the on-set tension and invest it into a dark-hearted story. Therefore it shouldn’t matter that The Big Knife is sold as Film Noir and turns out to be a melodrama in the style of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. We’re surely in safe hands, especially so soon after Aldrich made Kiss Me Deadly. Unfortunately, the story is fundamentally flawed and full of pretentious, overwrought performances by an albeit brilliant cast.
Developed from Clifford Odet’s play by Lee Strasberg, the story follows movie star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) who is trying to save his marriage to Marion (Ida Lupino). She doesn’t want him to sign a new contract with powerful studio head Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), but Hoff knows a tragic secret from Castle’s past and can hold it over him. Castle will be condemned to seven more years of rubbish movie roles and a ruined marriage if he can’t find a way through his dilemma.
The film has a reputation for exposing the real Hollywood and lifting the lid on the heavily controlled publicity of the studio system. That was probably incendiary stuff in 1955, but in retrospect, there has been too many other such exposes since that handle it much better. This is no L.A. Confidential.
The limited format of almost a single-set where Castle has a series of conversations with visitors to his home is perfectly fertile ground for a play, but the film feels throttled; we are told in clunky exposition of key plot points that happen off-screen. There is a better film playing somewhere while we’re trapped in this house, but at least it’s a very nice house; which leads us to the elephant in the room: the story is daft. Are we supposed to sympathise with Mr and Mrs Castle’s first-world problem of being condemned to earn millions of dollars for making movies instead of going to prison? We can only appreciate the potential consequence of Castle not signing through what we see of Stanley Hoff.
Rod Steiger is one of the cinema’s greatest actors and Jack Palance, a brooding hulk of a man with astonishing screen presence, had rare opportunity to prove what a subtle performer he could be. Their scenes together should fizz, such as Ray Winstone cowering from Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. And yet, it’s more like watching a Greek tragedy unfold. They, like the rest of the cast, act at each other rather than with.
Steiger is an ineffective oddball and it isn’t clear why everyone is terrified of this supposed monster. He’s bleached blonde, with shades and an inexplicable hearing aid that makes him look like a bodyguard, and he chews scenery like never seen before. The film is stymied by fantastic dialogue (“liquid honey”) that nonetheless lends itself to selfish delivery and has no substance, other than an odd emotional tone that borders on homoerotic; the men in the story are very comfortable with one another, open to feelings and keeping the women at arm's length. It’s a shame, especially for Palance, who easily carries the film on his broad shoulders. It’s telling that the best performance is that of Wendell Corey as Hoff’s enforcer, Smiley. His icy, understated character is a breath of fresh air.
The Big Knife has a promising start, is beautifully written and held by a superb performance by Jack Palance, but it has no visual flair and the monotonous routine that demands misplaced sympathy tries the patience through to a frustrating conclusion. It has no place being associated with Film Noir, least of all Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, but can still appeal to those with an ear for dialogue and metaphor.
This is another strong transfer from Arrow. Contrast is consistent and there are no signs of defects. That said, the source is questionable. Perhaps it’s the limitation of the almost single-set approach, but the film is visually lazy.
Sound is inconsistent, with noticeable dips between characters that smack of a lack of looping in the source which would normally balance the dialogue properly. Generally, it is good and clear though.
Choosing to highlight the film as Film Noir is a stretch, but Arrow’s treatment of The Big Knife is excellent as always.
Bass On Titles (34m)
A wonderful vintage look at the legendary Saul Bass’ credit sequences. Worth half an hour of anyone’s time, Bass’ impact on cinema is subtle and yet can’t be understated.
Commentary by Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton
When the film was made and its intentions are more interesting than the film itself, so the commentary is a good listen. Glenn and Nick are an entertaining pair and put the movie into context.