The Big Knife (1955)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.   

USA, 1955.   Screenplay by , based on the play by Cinematography by Produced by Music by Production Design by Film Editing by .

Clifford Odets’s vicious play about the movie business is brought to the big screen by Robert Aldrich, who naturally had difficulty financing its production with any major studio. Jack Palance plays a Kirk Douglas-esque star who feels the need to walk away from his career in order to get his personal life in order; he is begging his ex-wife to reconsider their parting but she is determined to stay split, believing that he will never be able to truly put his career aside or escape the business. His studio boss (Rod Steiger) shows up to convince him not to give up on his contract by using a secret of his past: Palance was involved in a hit and run accident that his friend took the fall for. Throw into the mix the fall guy, his wife (Jean Hagen) with whom Palance has had an affair, and a not-very-bright actress (played in a brief but potent scene by Shelley Winters) who threatens to expose the entire affair and you have the makings of an explosive dramatic situation. Not that Odets does much with this situation, nor does Aldrich make much effort in his transference to the screen, basically filming a play without escaping the confines of its setting. Little of what Odets writes about Hollywood comes off as false, Steiger’s performance is an overblown stereotype and probably very true to the kinds of guys he was based on (Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, the list goes on), but all there is in the story is one conflict and little drama. These people have desires that oppose each other and don’t struggle with them, there’s one good man and a bunch of evil selfish people and that doesn’t change from the beginning to the end, so what is there to sit through but a writer’s bitterness about a business he hated experiencing. A valid complaint but torture to sit through, and the miscasting of Palance, in a role meant for the late John Garfield, doesn’t help things much: he’s virile and physically impressive but his face reveals little subtlety or charisma for carrying an entire film, and his dramatic decision at the end of the film feels that much more contrived as a result.

Venice Film Festival Award: Silver Lion

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