Entry #9: The Big Knife
By Nathan Rabin
The Fractured Mirror is an ongoing column about movies about making movies.
The posh modern mansion where the 1955 melodrama The Big Knife takes place may be located geographically somewhere in Southern California but make no mistake: movie star protagonist Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is in hell. He’s dead, he just doesn’t know it yet. He is an artistic zombie. Oh sure, physically he might be in robust health, in fine, fighting form, a quivering set of muscles and raw machismo. He looks like the kind of guy who could kill you with his fists and his rage but he’s rotting away on the inside, a shell of a man with a million-dollar smile but a desperate emptiness where his soul and conscience should be.
He wasn’t always a hollow man, however. Once upon a time he was full of fire and passion, a dedicated leftist who wanted to change the world through theater and change theater by forcing it to engage with the world in ways it never did before. In his days when he could live with himself, our protagonist worked tirelessly to make theater an instrument for social change.
That was a long time ago, however, and Charlie now lives in the kind of haunted house that is paid for both in money and in sin, in monthly installments and awful compromises. Charlie’s Faustian bargain with the entertainment industry at its most evil, conniving and rapacious takes multiple forms. There are the mediocre and worse films he lowers himself to star in in order to maintain his life of empty luxury. But his sins go deeper than that.
In a subplot inspired by real-life Hollywood lore, Charlie accidentally killed someone in a hit and run accident a while back and covered up the crime by having a flunky take the wrap for the killing. Charlie wants desperately to leave behind the soul-sucking film business and return to the soul-satisfying substance of politically-engaged theater. Stanley Hoff, a powerful mogul inspired by such famously histrionic, ruthless early titans of the film industry as Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer and played by a so-white-he’s-translucent Rod Steiger in a typically hammy turn, has other ideas, however, and isn’t averse to employing illegal tactics and threats to keep his impa-tient star in check.
Hoff is personally insulted that anyone would dare defy his wishes, and is perpetually ready to make with the waterworks and make a scene to make even the most minor of points. So he does not respond kindly to the tortured movie star’s earnest requests to be released from the studio’s clutches so that he can start life anew.
Castle’s estranged wife is that rarest of creatures: a person of integrity in a dirty town and a dirty business. As played by pioneering female filmmaker and actress Ida Lupino with steely strength and just the right note of world-weariness, she wants Hoff to break free of the movie industry’s clutches but doesn’t realize just how deeply indebted Charlie remains to an evil studio that thinks nothing of covering up a murder, or even committing murder, to protect its investments.
Charlie eventually realizes, in the pit of his dyspeptic stomach, that that’s all he is to the studio and to Stanley: an investment that must be protected. But Charlie is about to re-learn the first rule of both Satanic bargains and Hollywood (they overlap considerably): once you sell your soul, you can never get it back. And if the devil looks and acts like Stanley Hoff, as he does here, then asking politely for your life and soul and career back is only going to make him madder.
The Big Knife is adapted from the first play Clifford Odets wrote after returning to the stage following an extended hiatus during which he of course worked in Hollywood on scripts, a famously rocky gig that inspired Barton Fink, the first entry in this series. So it does not take a psychiatrist to discern autobiographical overtones in a famously political and idealistic theatrical wunderkind who went to Hollywood and lost his way working for the movies making a return to theater with a play about a famously political and idealistic theatrical wunderkind who has lost his way working for movies and is desperately trying to reclaim his tarnished creative soul, and being punished disproportionately for his crimes.
And because this began life as a Clifford Odets play, the dialogue is stylized to the point of being borderline unintelligible in places, like when Steiger’s mogul, in a not atypical bit of banter, roars, “I was there for you and yours and the vexing problems that are so manifold in the heat and toil of the day!”
Theaters that mounted The Big Knife should have given audiences dictionaries along with programs. Odets loves his million dollar college words. Odets tried to make conversation into stream-of-consciousness poetry. The result is alternately electrifying and exhausting, exciting and embarrassing. The folks in The Big Knife do not talk like human beings that might exist in this universe. No, they all sound like products of Odets’ furious typewriter. They all communicate in his rumbling, booming rhythms, in a single, writerly voice that can be traced back to their creator, who was, if anything, perhaps overly distinctive.
Robert Aldrich, who specialized in movies about tough guys (The Dirty Dozen) and even tougher women (Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?), released The Big Knife the same year he produced and directed Kiss Me Deadly, the movie that made his name and today stands as one of the ballsiest, toughest and meanest noirs ever made. With Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich brought Mickey Spillane’s low-culture icon Mike Hammer to the big screen in all his caveman glory. Political theater icon Odets occupies a considerably different cultural place than Spillane. I can’t imagine, for example, that the angry political playwright would ever appear in television commercials for Miller Lite, as Spillane did in the 1980s. Odets certainly compromised his integrity for the sake of survival but that took the form of naming names to HUAC, not making beer commercials with former major league catcher turned wisecracking, self-deprecating national treasure Bob Uecker.
But Spillane and Odets aren’t as dissimilar as they might appear. They each had a real weakness for purple prose and tough-guy melodrama. As played by the exceedingly, even excessively masculine Palance, who is perhaps rightly remembered less for his sometimes sublime, sometimes hilarious hammy, sometimes sublimely hammy performances (I’m thinking of his demented turn as a heavy in Tango & Cash, where he was the single craziest element of a movie where every element is batshit crazy) than for exercising at the Academy Awards, plays Castle as a real man’s man, a bruiser with a soul. And Jean Hagen and Shelley Winters are both poignant and powerful as melancholy glamour girls trying to make it in an industry that crushes fragile souls and small people like them.
Like Kiss Me Deadly and Sweet Smell of Success, an equally corrosive depiction of show-business as an amoral cesspool co-written by Odets and released just two years after The Big Knife, The Big Knife is shot in stark black and white. Rather than try to open the action up, Aldrich highlights the material’s theatrical origins. He favors long takes and deep focus in a way that simultaneously highlights the spacious and well-heeled decadence of the home where the action takes place and establishes it as a moneyed prison that Charlie cannot escape and whose pampered lushness somehow just makes his inner turmoil worse.
Like John Garfield, who played the role on Broadway and would have reprised it in the film had he not died early, Jack Palance is a profoundly physical actor. In The Big Knife he prowls the screen like a panther desperate to escape his cage. Though he can muster up a movie star smile, and movie star charm when the occasion calls for it, he’s never more than a few seconds away from exploding with rage.
The Big Knife is a film of excess. It’s over-written, over-acted, overwrought and over-emotional. It’s full of bombast and shouting and actorly monologues but the film has the courage of its convictions. It’s unrelenting and unsparing in its depiction of the film industry as a hellscape where the worst of capitalism meets the worst of the arts.
The Big Knife is a morality tale from a man intent on beating himself up over transgressions real and imaginary. Aldrich’s take on Odets at his most self-lacerating and defeated functions best as a film noir that doubles as a horror movie about the evils of capitalism and how the cruelty of the movie industry can make death seem preferable to living in a hopelessly poisoned system, even for ostensible winners like Charlie.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Marietta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.