Big Knife, The (1955): Robert Aldrich’s Dark Satire of Hollywood, Starring Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, and Shelley Winters

The Big Knife, Robert Aldrich’s grim film noir, is set in the movie industry.  Though drawing on sharply observed screenplay by James Poe, based on the 1949 play by Clifford Odets, the film is too theatrical in narrative (long monologues) and structure (defined by exits and entrances of the main persona at crucial points of the plot).

Thematically, The Big Knife is a dark satire and harsh condemnation of life in the Hollywood limelight, going in its cynicism and negativism way before other insider movies, past (Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard), present, and future (Robert Altman’s 1992 The Player, which bears some resemblance in ideas and characters)

The protagonist, Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), is a classic noir hero, a popular yet deeply tormented Hollywood actor, lives in a huge home with his wife Marion (Ida Lupino), who’s about to leave his for the third time in two years.

The tale begins when influential gossip columnist Patty Benedict (Ilka Chase) comes to interview him about his personal crisis but he refuses to talk.

Main drama concerns Charlie’s relation with his wife and his big studio boss, the powerful and immoral Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger in a mannered performance).  Marion advises him not renew his contract, so that he frees himself from the studio’s tight grip on his life and career.

This enrages Hoff who, along with his right-hand man Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey) try to manipulate Charlie with their knowledge of a hit-and-run accident in which he was involved. They now threaten to use this information against him, determined to do everything and anything to make the actor sign a seven-year renewal.

With his soul tortured, and tormented with various demons, Charlie wants to win back his idealistic wife, who has been socializing with Hank Teagle, a writer smitten with her.  Eager to do more serious and inspiring work than the schlock trashy films Hoff forces on him, Charlie pleads with his needy agent Nat to help him be free. But the studio chief’s blackmail works and Charlie signs the new contract—against his better instincts.

Feeling sorry for himself, Charlie is driven to have a fling with Connie (Jean Hagen), the flirtatious wife of his friend Buddy Bliss, who had taken the blame for Charlie’s car accident.

When a struggling starlet named Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters) threatens to reveal what she knows about the crash, Hoff and Smiley decide to have her silenced permanently. They try to involve Castle in their sinister plot and even extort Charlie’s wife, secretly recording her conversations with Hank, new man in her life. That is the last straw for Castle, who finally defies the ruthless men who employ him.

However, having betrayed a friend, lost the woman he loves and sacrificed his integrity, Charlie is no longer able to live with himself.  The burden of the various pressures exerted on him leads to a tragic ending, a suicide he commits in his own bathroom—with his wife in attendance downstairs, deluding herself that they are about to begin a new, clean chapter in their lives.

True to form, the very last scene is bitter and cynical to a fault, depicting the fake press release that Smiley dictates on the phone, describing Charlie’s suicide as a fatal heart attack, tended by his doctor, and surrounded with his beloved wife and studio friends.

Despite a good cast, the play was a failure on Broadway, running for only three months.  The film version, though still overly theatrical in structure and tone, was more effective than the stage production, largely due to the good acting from most of the cast and the dark, shadowy black and white images by the brilliant cinematographer Ernest Laszlo.

The film played in competition at the 1955 Venice Film Fest, where it won the Silver Lion Award.

 

Cast

Jack Palance  as Charlie Castle

Ida Lupino as Marion Castle

Wendell Corey as Smiley Coy

Jean Hagen as Connie Bliss
Rod Steiger as Stanley Shriner Hoff
Shelley Winters as Dixie Evans
Ilka Chase as Patty Benedict
Everett Sloane as Nat Danziger
Wesley Addy as Horatio “Hank” Teagle
Paul Langton as Buddy Bliss
Nick Dennis as Mickey Feeney