Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Big Knife (1955)

Big Knife1

Hollywood loves to hate itself, and Robert Aldrich’s 1955 melodrama The Big Knife is self-hatred at its most disgusting worst.

Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is a big movie star. But Charlie is unhappy. Why is he unhappy? Because he feels he has sold out his talent, that he should be doing something Significant and Important. Charlie wants to be an artist, to do socially relevant work, but he is trapped by his contract with the wicked Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger). It is a nightmare existence for him. All he has is fame and lots and lots of money. And it’s not enough for him, poor pet. He feels artistically stifled. The studio forces him to make successful movies and to make pots of money and to live in a luxurious mansion in Bel Air with lots of servants. Yes, I know you feel his pain as I do.

Now the wicked Stanley Hoff wants Charlie to sign another contract, a contract which will doom him to another seven years of fame and wealth. Naturally Charlie is very upset. And his estranged wife Marion (Ida Lupino) agrees with him. She hates wicked Stanley and she hates what he is doing to poor Charlie. That naturally doesn’t stop Marion from asking for more money, money which comes from the wicked Stanley Hoff.


Charlie is desperate. In the past Charlie did something very foolish, something which could  have not only wrecked his career but landed him in prison. Stanley Hoff saved him from the consequences of his foolishness, thus ensuring that Charlie would continue to be famous, successful and very rich. Naturally Charlie hates him for this. Who wouldn’t?

Now Charlie’s past threatens to catch up with him, and he discovers just how wicked a town Hollywood really is.

Oh dear God, the self-pity! Excuse me while I vomit. And the way Jack Palance wallows in this self-pity would turn the strongest stomach.


And giving Stanley Kramer as an example of a director with integrity! Stanley Kramer, one of the most nauseatingly self-righteous bores ever to plague Hollywood. Excuse me while I vomit again.

This is a truly stunning performance by Palance. You might think that you’re familiar with all of the ways in which an acting performance can be bad, but in this picture Palance invents whole new ways of being a bad actor. He opens up whole new vistas of thespian ghastliness.

This movie presents Rod Steiger with one of the greatest acting challenges of his career. Palance’s performance is so spectacularly awful, so cringe-inducingly embarrassing, that it is difficult to conceive of any way in which any actor could possibly do worse. But Steiger is equal to the challenge, giving one of the most excruciatingly bad performances in the history of motion pictures.


Then there’s Shelley Winters, making this a real parade of the hams. She plays Dixie Evans, a nobody who landed a contract at the studio because she knows all about Charlie’s little secret. Winters was always inclined to go over-the-top but she still gave some very effective performances in her career. This is not one of them.

And just when you think this movie couldn’t possibly contain any characters more irritating than Charlie, Stanley or Dixie, along comes Wesley Addy as Hank Teagle. Hank is a writer. A real writers. He’s tried and failed to make it in Hollywood and now he’s going back to New York to write the Great American novel. He’s been romancing Marion. God knows that after Charlie any man would seem attractive but it’s soon obvious that Hank is just too mealy-mouthed and self-satisfied for any woman to touch with a barge pole. Luckily suffering is good for writers so Hank won’t lose on the deal.

Ida Lupino was a great actress and she manages not to embarrass herself too much in this lamentable cinematic ordeal. Marion is a smarmy hypocrite but compared to the loathsomeness of the other characters she’s almost human.


The screenplay by James Poe was based on a play by Clifford Odets, and it shows. It’s very very stagey and everything that makes the theatre the most tedious of all dead art forms is present in this movie. Every line of dialogue is a speech, and every line of dialogue is more phony than the previous one. I can only imagine that watching this rubbish on stage would have been an even more painful ordeal than watching it on the screen.

At one point Charlie asks one of the other characters to hit him. I certainly wanted to hit him. But mostly I wanted to hit screenwriter James Poe and director Robert Aldrich. I wanted to go on hitting them until they’d experienced some of the misery they inflicted on me with this turgid reeking pile of cinematic trash.

This horrific mess of a movie stumbles along for 111 very very long minutes. It’s been described as unwatchable and that’s very nearly true. The only thing that keeps one watching is a kind of fascinated horror. It’s like discovering something on the bottom of your shoe. You’re not sure it’s dog excrement so you have to check to make sure. In this case it really is dog excrement. The sooner you scrape this movie off the bottom of your shoe the happier you’ll be.

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