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The Big Knife

The Big Knife(1955)

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"Failure is not permitted here." That line of dialogue from producer/director Robert Aldrich's rancid Hollywood skewering The Big Knife (1955) may as well be placed on Hollywood city limit signposts. It is an axiom in the film by which the characters live and die. Now available on DVD from MGM/UA home video, The Big Knife was adapted by James Poe from a play by Clifford Odets. The film is largely set in a living room belonging to top movie star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), where he works through the grief and turmoil brought upon his head from living too close to the guillotine edge of Hollywood fame. His estranged wife (Ida Lupino) threatens to leave him, his studio boss (Rod Steiger) demands he sign a new, Faustian contract, and illicit indiscretions with Jean Hagen and Shelley Winters come back to draw blood.

The dependency on one main set in The Big Knife is no doubt largely because of its Broadway stage source, but it is also a part of a long line of other Hollywood productions that stuck to one or two sets, like Twelve Angry Men (1957) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962). The influence of television can be seen in this trend, but regardless of the reasons, the style denies flowery cinematic technique while giving favor to more classic dramatic elements like the script and the acting, all of which are in full force in The Big Knife.

Palance gives an angry, vulnerable, and pitiful performance as the movie star on the edge. Ida Lupino, Jean Hagen, and Shelley Winters are also excellent, as are Wendell Corey and Everett Sloane. But the scenery is chewed up and spat out by a vicious Rod Steiger, playing the studio chief Stanley Hoff, who's propensity for weeping bears a striking resemblance to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. And given the Hoff studio's power in covering up contracted stars' unsavory actions, the parallels to Metro are even more suspicious.

The central conflict between Palance and Steiger is structured like a boxing match between two heavyweights. We're introduced to Palance sparring with a loyal underling, who will later be rubbing down the star. The first round of contract negotiations between Palance and Steiger is blocked like a boxing match, with Corey and Sloane acting as the two fighters' ring team. Of course, in place of punches, Palance and Steiger use thespian histrionics, with Steiger winning the first match by a knock out. Aldrich's sly comment on the brutality of the Hollywood star machine could have been taken too far, but he ends it with Palance and a circle of friends watching one of his pictures, a boxing movie.

This was not Aldrich's last foray into dark dramas. He would later go baroque with the Hollywood dramas Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968). To order THE BIG KNIFE, visit TCM Shopping.

by Scott McGee