Monday 1 September 2008

The Big Knife (1955)

There were a number of serious contenders for the best film of 1955: Marty, Rififi, The Ladykillers, Death of a Cyclist, Les Diaboliques... and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. This was the other film he made that year, and it's the one that probably shook up half of Hollywood. Based on a play by Clifford Odets, who had spent enough time there, as playwright, screenwriter and husband to stars to know what went on that the public didn't see. He certainly didn't hold back here and neither did James Poe who adapted his play for the screen.

Jack Palance took the role that half of Hollywood turned down: that of actor Charles Castle, failed artiste but successful star. He has the fame and fortune but at the cost of his integrity. Now his contract is up for renewal and he has the choice of staying in the Stanley Hoff stable or staying in his marriage. Both are formidable people to go up against, so Castle is going to lose whichever way he goes: Hoff, the studio head, who owns everything and everyone in his world, is played by a fierce Rod Steiger; Castle's wife Marion is played by Ida Lupino, she of the most powerful flared eyes in the business.

The problem is that Hoff has some serious dirt on Castle. I've read enough about the great studio heads to know that they all had fixers on their staffs, who could make anything right. The only thing that mattered was that the public wouldn't find out about what really went on in Hollywood Babylon. The dirt here is that Castle went drunk driving and killed a kid in a hit and run. He was even entertaining a young lady at the time, a young lady that wasn't his wife. Hoff or his employees, such as Smiley Coy, made the problem go away: someone else went to jail for ten months on his behalf. But of course the problem only looked like it went away, but it resonated and festered and rankled.

It's an interesting film but I felt it was very stagy. It's an open question as to whether that was a deliberate choice of style, given that the characters are all movie industry folks who act for a living, even when they're not actors. Certainly part of it comes from the very limited budget and timeframe Robert Aldrich had to play with. He shot long scenes and he had a set that came apart quickly and easily so he could shoot different angles. Whatever the reasons though, it feels like a play, which of course it was, and it suffers from all the inherent restrictions of a play.

Palance is good, as are Lupino and supporting actress Shelley Winters. I wasn't convinced by Rod Steiger, which surprised me, but maybe that is in part because Stanley Shriner Hoff looks unfortunately like Dr Strangelove. Best of all could be Wendell Corey as Hoff's fixer and Jean Hagen as the manipulative wife of a friend of the Castles. Robert Aldrich achieved far more with his other 1955 film, Kiss Me Deadly, though. That one is not to be missed.

No comments: