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Hollywood, the mythical land of dreams. Though it's often glamorized on the screen, occasionally an industry insider dares to bite the hand that feeds him by showing us the flip side of fame and fortune in tinseltown; What Price Hollywood? (1932), both versions of A Star is Born (1937 & 1954), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and The Player (1992) are just a few examples that come to mind. Yet, none of these films can match the negative depiction of the movie business and its power brokers offered in The Big Knife (1955), directed by Robert Aldrich and based on Clifford Odets' 1949 Broadway play. Focusing on a two day period in the life of film star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), the narrative follows the conflicted actor as he agonizes over his career, which though successful, has been based on deceit, artistic compromises and unethical practices - all of it masterminded by studio boss Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger) and his minions. But it is Castle's own self-destructive impulses that lead ultimately to his downward spiral by his refusal to sign a new seven year contract with Hoff (Rod Steiger). Blackmail, tabloid scandal, infidelity, and a betrayal of his own standards all contribute to Castle's bleak final decision.
The tone of the entire film is set in the opening shot of The Big Knife accompanied by a portentous voiceover by Richard Boone stating, "This is Bel Air. Lush, luxurious retreat of the wealthy and powerful. If you work in the motion picture industry and are successful, this is where you will probably make your home. Failure is not permitted here." Regarding his true intentions, director Robert Aldrich stated (in The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edward T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller) that he did not feel The Big Knife was "exactly anti-Hollywood, for that would make it too sectional. To me it can apply to any sphere of business, or the arts, where man's natural liberty or expression is squelched by unworthy, incompetent, tyrannical leaders or bosses, many of whom are not deserving of their powers."
On the Broadway stage, John Garfield played Charlie Castle, which was ironic considering that Odets modeled his protagonist on Garfield (the actor died of a heart attack in 1952, reportedly the result of his harassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee). For the film version, Aldrich wanted Burt Lancaster for the lead role but when he declined the offer, the part went to Jack Palance. The film was modestly budgeted with a tight sixteen day shooting schedule and it was Aldrich's first attempt to film a stage play (His other stage-to-film adaptations include Attack! (1956) and The Killing of Sister George, 1968). The use of long takes by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo adds greatly to the film's claustrophobic tension and the mingling of fictitious names with real ones (Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, William Wyler and others) throughout the dialogue gives The Big Knife a candid, almost documentary-like quality at times.
Shelley Winters, cast in a supporting role as Dixie, Hoff's ill-fated personal secretary, prepared for her role by hanging out during breakfast hours at Schwab's where she interviewed numerous call girls about her character. In her autobiography, Shelley: The Middle of My Century, the actress recalled, "When I described the role I was researching and Dixie's courage and cunning and the way she was victimized by being told she was a starlet and then used as if she was a prostitute, they understood what I was trying to put on the screen. Then they began to tell me their sad, funny and terrifying stories." Winters also consulted acting coach Lee Strasberg about her performance, flying to New York City one weekend for advice and then returning to Los Angeles early Monday morning for her big scene in the film. "The assistant director...began to bawl me out for being late. Robert Aldrich was standing in the darkness, away from the lighted set, and he had been watching me rehearse. He yelled, 'I don't know what Shelley did on Saturday or Sunday, but leave her alone now. This scene will be the pivot of the film.' And so it was. Lee had helped me be funny and brave and at the same time communicate "nameless dread," that feeling of trying to function without knowing where or how your doom is going to strike...The Big Knife was my personal salute to the angry and gifted, great, sad and sweet John Garfield. It was also my personal tribute to my many friends who had been so brave, facing that truly un-American HUAC Committee."
While The Big Knife was never positioned as a commercial film for the masses, it still failed to find an appreciative audience at the time of its release in the U.S. It was, however, championed by French film critics, awarded honors at the 1955 Venice Film Festival, and has since amassed a cult audience due to its highly stylized nature and the excellent ensemble cast, though some feel that Rod Steiger's hyperactive histrionics go beyond the borders of camp. It was actually the casting of Palance, however, that Aldrich identified as the major flaw. Most viewers refused to accept him as "a guy who could or could not decide to take $5,000 per week. We failed to communicate to the mass audience...that it was not primarily a monetary problem; it was a problem of internal integrity." The average moviegoer still saw Castle's dilemma as a no-brainer. In the words of Aldrich's own father, "If a guy has to take or not to take $5,000 per week, what the hell is the problem?"
Producer/Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: James Poe, based on the play by Clifford Odets
Art Direction: William Glasgow
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Editing: Michael Luciano
Music: Frank De Vol
Cast: Jack Palance (Charlie Castle), Ida Lupino (Marion Castle), Wendell Corey (Smiley Coy), Rod Steiger (Stanley Hoff), Shelley Winters (Dixie Evans), Jean Hagen (Mrs. Connie Bliss), Ilka Chase (Miss Patty Benedict), Everett Sloane (Nat Danziger), Wesley Addy (Horatio 'Hank' Teagle), Richard Boone (Narrator).
BW-113m. Closed captioning.
By Jeff Stafford