The Big Knife

Studio: Arrow Academy

Sep 25, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The Big Knife starts with a visual hook. We get a close-up of Jack Palance’s Charles Castle in a moment of torment, hands planted on the side of his head as he rocks back and forth. It’s the most formally inventive visual composition of the film, as what follows is very clearly adapted from a stage production. It’s an invitation into the mind of Castle, and the inner turmoil he’s been going through, even if the specifics are initially unknown. It’s an extremely effective piece of image-based storytelling before letting the actors do the heavy lifting with piercing dialog and melodrama.

And this is very much an actor’s movie. Palance is at the center as a troubled Hollywood actor who doesn’t want to sign a new contract with his studio – personified by a young Rod Steiger as a bleach-blond heavy named Stanley Hoff. It’s revealed that the studio may have him over a barrel with information that slowly comes to light. Castle, an aging star, has grown disillusioned and sees his marriage to Marion (Ida Lupino) crumbling because of his dalliances and generally boorish behaviour. The film shows Castle as a reluctant participant in a life that has lost its lustre – though he’s not portrayed as a shining light of virtue, either. Palance, possibly because of his imposing stature and appearance of being carved from the side of a mountain, tiptoes a very careful line. He so desperately wants to be a better man, but his past actions and current situation have him shackled.

So, the biggest question Robert Aldrich’s film asks – but is careful not to definitively answer – if there is a personal hole so deep that it’s impossible to climb out of. It may be set in Hollywood, but these themes can travel, so it shouldn’t be difficult to understand his struggles intellectually.

There is a problem, and it comes in the form of Steiger’s Hoff. It’s not an entirely unsuccessful portrayal – and, honestly, it’s such a curiosity in execution that I am anxious to revisit it only for his scenes – but Steiger gets so large in the moment, bringing down smug fire and brimstone onto Castle in attempts to bully him into signing. These sequences go beyond blackmail, which becomes secondary, and crosses into a state of ownership. It’s cartoonish, especially considering the care put into the complicated characterizations of Castle and Marion. Hoff’s bravado is, at least in part, a show, but it’s almost distracting and separate from the rest of the film – but perhaps that’s not a negative, after all. At least not in today’s context.

Hoff’s over-the-top nature provides a good analog for a certain subset of society today (meaning this week). Hoff wants Castle to be a subservient actor and nothing more. When Castle dares to question this, to actually strike out on ideas of his making and his own agency, Hoff crumbles into a pile of blubbering goo (not literally). It’s awfully similar to how some choose to shut down people they disagree with who they have placed inside a box. “Stick to sports” or “stick to movies” has become a common refrain. Hoff wants Castle to stick to movies. An added complication, and another relevant outcome, is Hoff’s attitude toward women – it ain’t positive. He views women as roadblocks unless they are entirely under his thumb.

An essay by Nathalie Morris that accompanies the film explains that Odets wrote his play that the film is based on after leaving Hollywood was not intending to make an anti-Hollywood screed, even though it was taken as such. The same goes for Aldrich, who said it was more in concert with the powers that be getting their fingers into the pie to ruin any form of art. Hollywood still seems like the closest connection, especially when transported to 2017. How often do studios take the safe road over identifying what audiences actually want? The Big Knife doesn’t dive into that, specifically, on screen, but there is a tug-of-war of control at the heart of it. Castle wants control over his own fate, but the studios won’t let go.

The Arrow Academy edition of the film is loaded with bonus materials, including a feature-length commentary from film critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton, and a documentary featuring the legendary Saul Bass discussing credit sequences. Bass, who designed the credits to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, was responsible for the opening credits sequence here as well.

The Big Knife is a fascinating relic that otherwise may have been forgotten – it also recently screened in Toronto as part of an Ida Lupino retrospective – but this release digs into its history. Even if the film itself isn’t a knockout, its place as an outsider film – Aldrich couldn’t get financing, and made it independently – and its hyper relevant themes make it worth a gander. 


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