Academy AwardŽ 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... more » 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)« less
"For anyone like myself who has a fondness for the darker 1950s productions like Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success or Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, this movie--which might well have been called Faust in Bel Air--is an absolute must. Robert Aldrich was a perfect director for this kind of material, although The Big Knife--most of whose action takes place on a single set--is less kinetic than his earlier Kiss Me Deadly. Two great movies, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and George Cukor's A Star Is Born, had already wickedly dissected the less glamorous side of life in the movie industry, but The Big Knife not only presents a far gloomier view of Hollywood, but makes the backstage intrigues of the motion picture capital into a metaphor for the rampant political paranoia of Cold War era America. The movie is based on a 1949 play by Clifford Odets--who had himself named names to HUAC in order to continue working in the movies--about an actor being blackmailed by a Mephistophelean producer, but when Aldrich and James Poe transferred the drama into the context of the middle 1950s, no halfway knowledgeable viewer could have missed the analogy to the blacklist--particularly since the movie depicts the producer, brilliantly played by Rod Steiger, as a vicious reactionary in the mold of L.B. Mayer who worships General Douglas MacArthur. In addition, The Big Knife may also be seen as a reply to Kazan's On the Waterfront, which glorified an informer--and tacitly rationalized the director's own collaboration with HUAC--by showing its hero choosing to commit suicide rather than capitulate to the evil Steiger. As the other reviews note, the performances are all remarkable, but I was especially impressed by Shelley Winters as a would-be starlet. She only has one extended scene, but that alone is more than worth the price of the video, which is ridiculously low-priced."
Red Neon Lights and Drunken Blackbirds
Randy Buck | Brooklyn, NY USA | 02/22/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The corn is as high as a movie star's eye in the yammer-yammer-yammer of Clifford Odets's Hollywood play THE BIG KNIFE, and Robert Aldrich's bristling film version can't do much to open up the talkfest. But there's some fascinating stuff here. For starters, the model for Jack Palance's cornered movie star is obviously John Garfield, but Odets seems to use the character as a mouthpiece for why he himself had failed to live up to his spectacular beginnings on Broadway. The country of those who have sold out is familiar territory to Odets, and scattered in lots of very purple prose lie nuggets of sharply-observed writing. The players know the terrain, too, and they tear into their roles with gusto. Palance, Ida Lupino, and Miss Shelley Winters (what's with her billing here?) are all marvelous, and Rod Steiger is jawdroppingly good. This is the 50's, remember, when George Stevens (held up here as a model of "meaningful" filmmaking) gave us the ultra-waspy Millie Perkins as Anne Frank, which makes Steiger's Jewish inflections and rhythms in an exceedingly unsympathetic role a risky, but very rewarding, choice. (Hollywood had generally taken the guts and the ethnicity out of Odets, as per the very denatured film of GOLDEN BOY.) When Steiger gets into gear, you can't take your eyes off him. Special kudoes, too, to Jean Hagen. Those who only remember her in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN are in for a shock. Playing a drunken, masochistic adulteress, she manages to be simultaneously childlike, sexy, pathetic and chilling. Good support from dependables like Ilka Chase, Wesley Addy, and Wendell Corey, too. Really worth a look."
Not a Very Cinematic Adaptation. Histrionic but Powerful Per
mirasreviews | McLean, VA USA | 10/03/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
""The Big Knife" is based on the Clifford Odets play of the same name, adapted for the screen by James Poe and directed by Robert Aldrich. The film is not very cinematic. It is essentially a play that has been filmed. It takes place almost exclusively on one set -a Bel Air living room, the dialogue is mannered, and the performances are often histrionic. This is Clifford Odets, and it's melodrama. The dialogue tends to purple but is certainly intriguing. It's not a natural adaptation of Odets, like 1952's "Clash By Night", which was transformed into a real work of cinema by director Fritz Lang. The actors sometimes deliver Odets' heavy dialogue naturally and casually; other times they go over the top. Moments of high drama are punctuated by drum rolls. Sometimes it seems that director Robert Aldrich should have interpreted the play more cinematically or more realistically for the silver screen, but I suppose that is a matter of taste. "The Big Knife" succeeds on the strength of its performances, which are almost universally excellent.
"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."
Douglas Doepke | Claremont, CA United States | 02/12/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Too talky for some, too stage-bound for others, too strident for all, this is not a movie for everyone. Yet The Big Knife contiues to fascinate at the same time it annoys. Maybe it's the savage depiction of Hollywood politics and the amoral glamor industry surrounding it. After all, neither blackmail nor murder is off-limits to egomanical studio boss Stanley Hoff ( vintage Rod Steiger), while the human sharks swimming around him behave nothing like opening night at the Oscars. Maybe it's the sterling cast, featuring such 50's exotica as Steiger, Jack Palance, Wendell Corey, and Shelley Winters. In the end, of course, everyone gets to explode on screen except the ice cold Corey whose chronic bemusement proves ultimately more satanic than cynical. Whatever the reason, the result is an over-the-top cavalcade of unusual flair.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."
Hollywood From the Bottom Up
Peter L. Winkler | North Hollywood, California USA | 10/18/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In just one of the trenchant lines in this superbly written film, Shelley Winters's character, a pathetic starlet/whore, tells the film's tortured protagonist (Palance), "You don't see these people the way I do, from the bottom." Unlike the preponderance of other reviewers here, I love Rod Steiger's performance as studio chief Stanley Shriner Hoff. Steiger has an incredible dynamic range-one critic called him a cross between a cobra and a bull. I've read Odets' play, and the film is a remarkably faithfull adaptation. Robert Aldrich's films could often be coarse and catered to an audience of jaded working class men looking for action, but here he comes through with one of his best films."