(1955) director Robert Aldrich
viewed: 07/09/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
I watched The Big Knife at the Castro Theater as part of a double feature with The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), which was the final day of a string of double features that the Castro ran for a series titled “Hollywood on Hollywood”. I had wanted to get there for other nights/films in the series (In a Lonely Place (1950) with The Player (1992) in particular) but the only one that I made it out for was this, the final night of the series. And I had been motivated primarily because I wanted to see The Bad and the Beautiful again. I wasn’t so familiar with The Big Knife but it seemed like an interesting double feature.
Adapted from a stage play by Clifford Odets, The Big Knife has its knives sharpened for Hollywood, in particular the big Hollywood studios and a maniacal producer. And in this case, with the maniacal producer being played with booming emotiveness by Rod Steiger, the studio is not a far cry from the mafia, with men “made”, favors procured, careers controlled, and what won’t they do to keep things the way they want them?
The film stars Jack Palance, which is interesting in itself. Palance, so typically recognized as villainous heavies, plays a big hunk of a movie star with tender issues and at times almost effeminite characteristics. It’s awful strange seeing Jack Palance play emotions and intellect. His face is kind of facinating, full of angles and with gleaming eyes, but he’s just a shade off of handsome. Maybe that’s why he always got the bad guy roles. He’s not bad here, but it’s also not quite a command performance.
Adapated as it is from a play, the film largely uses a single set, Palance’s movie star mansion. I always find that play adaptations in films tend to feel limited, not just in this way, but in part due to the single or limited locations for the narrative action. On top of that, though, this play has that quality of drama from 1950’s America, in which everyone gets a few cutting lines, issues are expounded upon, drama is heightened, a somewhat of a dramatic bombast and self-importance. And, perhaps unlike the greater stage-to-screen adaptations, this film can’t quite manage to lift itself above all this.
The film also features Ida Lupino as Palanace’s wife, and Shelley Winters, so the cast is pretty solid. Directed by Robert Aldrich, who actually directed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) (also part of this film series), it’s good stuff, not great stuff, but certainly interesting enough.