Big Knife (Widescreen) [Import]
Academy Award® winners* Jack Palance, Rod Steiger and Shelley Winters deliver knockout performances in this vicious "poison-pen letter to the movie business" (American Cinematheque)that's an extreme close-up of greed, lust and murder! Hollywood superstar Charlie Castle (Palance) has it all except a way out. When he tries to leave show business, his tyrannical studio boss Stanley Hoff (Steiger) blackmails him with a lethal, covered-up secret that could land him in jail. A loose-lipped starlet (Winters) also knows too much, and when she starts talking, Hoff plans murder. Now Charlie is more cornered than everon the brink of losing his wealth, his power and his soul. *Palance: Supporting Actor, City Slickers (1991); Steiger: Actor, In the Heat of the Night (1967); Winters: Supporting Actress, A Patch of Blue (1965), Supporting Actress, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
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"Charlie Castle is a man who sold out his dreams, but he can't forget them." Charlie (Jack Palance) is a movie star who made it big under contract to Hoff Federated studios, owned by unscrupulous megalomaniac Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger). Charlie's wife Marion (Ida Lupino) has threatened to leave him should he renew his contract with Hoff. She can't stand the way that inane movies and virtual imprisonment have turned her once-idealistic husband into a spiritless toady. But Charlie isn't free to do as he pleases, because Hoff holds incriminating information over him. Charlie was in a drunken car accident, for which a friend and studio employee took the blame. And the only other witness to the accident, aspiring young actress Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters), has developed the habit of shooting her mouth off about it.
Most of "The Big Knife" is conversation, so we get to know these characters well. Jack Palance gives a powerhouse performance and is usually able to make the overwrought dialogue believable. Ida Lupino is striking as his wife as well. The tyrannical Stanley Hoff is forceful but over-the-top. He's so thoroughly evil and grand in his speech that he isn't very credible. He's played as if he were on stage, which I don't think was wise. That doesn't go unnoticed by the writers or characters, though. Charlie asks Stanley point blank if he's ever been told that "the embroidery of your speech was completely out of proportion to anything you had to say!?" That line made me laugh. Once you get past the histrionics, "The Big Knife" is a well-articulated, if theatrical, story of an idealist -Charlie, a man who sold out and never looked back -Hoff's assistant Smiley Coy, played perfectly by Wendell Corey, and a person who never met an ideal -Stanley Hoff. We get a fun, cynical take on the players of Hollywood's golden era as well.
The DVD (MGM 2002): This print of the film has not been restored. Most of the flaws are minor scratches, but the picture flickers briefly and shows a big black spot about 1 hour and 23 minutes into the film. The only bonus feature is a theatrical trailer (2 ½ minutes). Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
It's likely that producer-director Robert Aldrich targeted the film in behalf of blacklisted mentor Abraham Polonsky with whom he had collabrated on 1948's Force of Evil. After all, the year was 1955 and the all-powerful list could not be attacked directly, so what better vehicle than Clifford Odet's corrosive stage play adapted for all America to see. (Odets would do the same for Broadway in 1957's revealing Sweet Smell of Success.) It's fun to imagine how Aldrich's resulting indictment played in studio screening rooms where real reputations were at stake. Then too, much of the film's dirty laundry appears based on fact. The hit and run on Clark Gable's hushed-up 1933 episode; the Palance character on John Garfield's death at 39, listed officially as heart attack.
It's hard to picture the producers ever believing such curdled fare would actually make money. Of course it didn't, angering many ticket-buyers with a title that seemed to imply real action instead of endless palaver. Still, this overheated exercise in shameless baroque remains an interesting oddity. A permanent record not only of individual styles, but of artistic protest amidst the throes of cultural repression.