One of those interesting “message” pictures of the 50’s, Robert Aldrich’s 1955 filmed version of Clifford Odets’ 1949 play The Big Knife works pretty well as a sort of riff on Sunset Boulevard, packing in mostly solid performances from a fine cast. Yes, there’s a certain “stagey” feeling to the film as well as a few scenery-chomping bits colliding like lumbering wrestlers in a busted ring. But it works well enough to leave an impression with a few memorable “noirish” scenes that make for a powerful viewing experience.
Jack Palance (trust me, just roll with it and it works) is Charles Castle, hot Hollywood hunk with a particularly pernicious problem. He’s set to sign a seven-year contract extension with studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger in full tilt gloriously nasty mode), but his wife Marion (Ida Lupino) has had it with Charlie’s womanizing ways which obviously threaten their somewhat busted marriage and properly raising their young son. As the film begins, the harried couple is estranged and already living apart, but Charlie is constantly working “hard” on keeping the rubble of their happier days somewhat upright. Charlie also finds out Marion has an open marriage proposal from Horatio “Hank” Teagle (Wesley Addy), something that annoys him to no end because he’s something of a hypocrite.
(Thanks, neondreams 25!)
Initially it seems Charlie is just another jerk who wants to be a dog by catting around on his wife using his star power and male privilege. But while he’s wrangling that wrench around, we find out he doesn’t want to sign the contract at all for a few more reasons. The pictures he’s in stink to high heaven and Charlie wants to move up to becoming more of a big name with bigger roles and less of a big shot with small-minded fans screaming his name solely for his muscles. Hoff and his boot-licker assistant/right-hand man Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey) have a dark secret about Castle they dangle over him until he relents, disappointing Marion, Charlie’s too-soft agent Nat (Everett Sloane) and yes, Charlie.
Things get even more complicated when a drunken Charlie has a drunken rendezvous with his best friend’s wife, Connie (Jean Hagen) as her husband Buddy calls Charlie on the phone looking for her. Buddy’s involvement in Charlie’s life extends to the incident that forces him to sign that contract, so the film throws that at you in addition to adding a Dixie Evans (Shelly Winters) into the mix as a too-chatty up and coming star who knows and tells a bit too much for her own good. The resulting mix is a lot of angry, upset people yelling, pleading, drinking, smoking and whining themselves into frothy messes with a somewhat turgid finale.
It’s not a bad film by any means and in fact, can be quite powerful at times. But there’s a wasted opportunity in the form of Patty Benedict (Ilka Chase), a gossip columnist who pops up early on and disappears without a trace for the remainder of the film. She coldly prods Charlie about his separation/impending divorce and Marion also gets the third degree to a point. It’s an interesting scene as well as a commentary on how information can be twisted in a few directions at a moment’s notice. But the main story veers away from Patty’s petty poking and focuses on Charlie’s larger personal issues that end up costing him dearly.
Arrow Academy has added a few special features in addition to a decent 2K restoration:
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition presentations
Original English mono audio (uncompressed LPCM on the Blu-ray)
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Commentary by film critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton, recorded exclusively for this release
Bass on Titles – Saul Bass, responsible for The Big Knife’s credit sequence, discusses some of his classic work in this self-directed documentary from 1972
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Nathalie Morris
There’s a produced for television “making of” that’s basically an introduction to the cast with certain scenes from the film. It’s an interesting take on promoting a film from the days when movies needed to compete with TV for attention and it’s also pretty funny to see Palance grinning his way through a few minutes of well-rehearsed corniness. You’ll also get a the great documentary Bass on Titles which features Saul Bass covering some of his phenomenal and influential work on title sequences from parts of the 1950’s and 60’s. Unfortunately, none of his work for Alfred Hitchcock is here, but I’m gathering that was for a few professional reasons the 1972 audience this documentary was made for wouldn’t grasp.
Overall, I liked the film, but really wish Arrow or some other restoration house would get a hold of Aldrich’s 1056 film Attack! and give it a proper Blu-Ray edition. You also get a Saul Bass title sequence, even better acting from its ensemble cast and a plot derived from a stage play. The film ends up being a powerful anti-war message piece that still works to this day despite some flaws military movie hounds easily pick up on. Eh, maybe one day this will happen, maybe not. But it would be nice to see The Big Knife do well enough that it’s something that’s considered should a decent print still exist.
Score: B+ (85%)
Review copy provided by the publisher