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The Big Knife

The Big Knife(1955)

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The film begins with an offscreen narrator briefly describing Bel Air and introducing the character "Charlie Castle." The film's title refers to Charlie's emotional dilemma, and his feeling that he has a knife hanging over his head, which will fall no matter what he decides to do. Shelley Winters' cast credit reads: "And Miss Shelley Winters as Dixie Evens." Winters is the only actor credited with a character name in the onscreen credits. According to a April 24, 1955 New York Times article, the film's budget was to be $400,000, and the picture was to be shot in only two weeks. In the article, Robert Aldrich, who made his first independent production venture with The Big Knife, credited nine days of intense rehearsal, with Victoria Ward standing in for the then-absent Winters, Jean Hagen and Ilka Chase, as the reason for his ability to shoot the film so quickly on such a tight budget "without sacrifice of quality." A April 24, 1955 Los Angeles Times article reported that the film's budget was $423,000, $260,000 of which was alloted for the actors' salaries.
       Although a March 23, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Ruth Roman had been cast in the picture, she does not appear in the released film. According to a May 12, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, in order to fit the main set, that of Charlie's living room, on the small stage at the Sutherland Studios, art director William Glasgow came up with a "combination of wild walls." The article reported that "as a result, the camera can be placed anywhere in a complete circle around the set, permitting shooting from any angle."
       According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA Office was worried about the portrayal of adultery in the picture, as well as the "glorification" of Charlie's suicide. In a March 10, 1955 letter to Aldrich, PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock warned: "It was our feeling in reading this screenplay that The Big Knife very bitterly peels the hide off our industry. The conviction naturally arises that we do ourselves a great disservice in fouling our own nest, so to speak. The indictment of our industry is so specific and so unrelieved that it has the one-dimensional effect of labeling us all `phony.' Of course, if the finished picture should prove to be such an ambassador of ill will, then we would be faced with a serious public relations problem."
       On April 1, 1955, Shurlock notified Aldrich again that the suicide could not be justified or glorified. Aldrich apparently intended to shoot the sequence two ways, but on April 18, 1955, the PCA notified him that the sequence would not be approved. On April 20, 1955, a version of the sequence was finally accepted, and eventually Aldrich sent the PCA a letter thanking them for their cooperation, as he had "expected a nasty fight" over the film's production.
       The Big Knife, which received mixed reviews in the United States, was awarded The Silver Lion of St. Mark at the 1955 Venice Film Festival. Advertising for the picture emphasized that it was the only American production to win a medal at the festival that year. According to October 1955 Los Angeles Times andHollywood Reporter news items, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce protested the exhibition of the controversial film, which the chamber felt reflected badly on the motion picture industry. A committee organized for the protest issued a statement decrying the film as "a gross misrepresentation of the motion picture industry and its traditions of ethical and moral practices," according to the Hollywood Reporter item.
       In his review of the picture, the Hollywood Reporter critic asserted: "The real standout is Rod Steiger, as the villanous producer who weeps with calculated hysteria to get his own way. This part seems to be modeled on a recognizable personality. I leave it to others to judge the fairness of taking the idosyncracies of a man (famed for his charities and public service) and grafting them on a murderer." The BHC review also commented: "Choice bits of Hollywood scandal have been woven into the plot, and the characters, while composites, have traits which are recognizable." Some modern sources allege that Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, was one of the studio chiefs on whom "Stanley Hoff" was based. Ilka Chase's character, "Patty Benedict," was most likely based on gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Although several contemporary reviews declared that the contract Charlie is pressured to sign is for fourteen years, it is clearly stated in the film that it is a seven-year-contract. In noting several "inconsistent" plot points, the Variety reviewer even complained: "Furthermore, there ain't no such animal, legally or professionally, as a '14-year contract'; California law limits any deal to seven annums."
       Two teleplays based on Clifford Odets' play have been made. The first, starring Patrick McGoohan, aired in 1959, and the second, staring Peter Gallagher and Betsy Brantley, aired on PBS's American Playhouse series in July 1988.