The Big Knife – or: Hollywood on Hollywood
Over the years and decades of its existence Hollywood has made any number of films attempting in one way or another to dramatize itself, its industry, its lifestyles along with stories of those who seek the spotlight of the motion picture camera as a way of making them successful and famous or simply justifying their existence on earth. All of these films have been flawed one way or another. So much so that it was touted as conventional wisdom that “Hollywood was capable of examining just about anything but itself”. The search for “The great Hollywood movie” appears to be as elusive as “The great American novel” that was talked about so often years ago. Some writers even claimed that they had scaled that particular Everest. But today that ambition has pretty much been forgotten. That seems to be the fate of “The great Hollywood movie” as well. At least two novels challenged for the title of “great Hollywood novel”. They are What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) and The Disenchanted (1950). Both were written by Bud Schulberg (1914-2009) who was the son ofB.P. Schulberg the head of Paramount Pictures. Both books were best sellers but thus far neither has ever been adapted for the big screen. On stage and on TV yes, but not on the big screen.
In considering the films about itself that Hollywood has produced the two that stand head and shoulders above the rest (at least in my mind) are: Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Singing in the Rain (1953). Both are considered masterpieces of their particular genre. Somewhat below there are: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and A Star is Born (1954). Then on a third tier are a group of films that don’t quite deliver all the goods but are interesting nevertheless. In chronological order they are: What Price Hollywood (1932), A Star is Born (1937), The Star (1950), Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), The Goddess (1959) Inside Daisy Clover (1965), Day of the Locust (1975), The Last Tycoon (1976), Barton Fink (1991), The Player (1992), and Ed Wood (1992). A couple of wild card titles would include In a Lonely Place (1952) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). But to me those films belong in a category by themselves. Wonderfully so.
The film under consideration now is The Big Knife (1955) directed by Robert (The Dirty Dozen) Aldrich and adapted by James Poe from a play by Clifford Odets. The story concerns the fate of Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), a man of humble beginnings who has become a top Hollywood box office star, and who apparently has succumbed to all the material trappings of his profession; the big house with servants, adoring fans and the availability of any number of women at the snap of a finger. Charlie is married to and is still in love with Marion (Ida Lupino), a serious and intelligent woman who is fed up with their life in tinsel town and would rather end their marriage than endure another year of it. Complicating matters is the fact that the dictatorial studio head Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger) is insisting that he sign a lucrative 7 year contract with his studio. And if Charlie refuses the studio will release information that they covered up about a DUI incident involving Charlie where a child was killed.
The play by Odets, who spent much of his career in Hollywood working mostly as a screenwriter and an occasional director, appears to be trying to make a large statement about movie stardom and Hollywood success, how it saps the creative spirit and through its false values destroys the very souls of its inhabitants. The dramatic event revolves around watching Charlie struggling to save his own. And all the usual suspects show up….The predatory gossip columnist (Ilka Chase) a combination Louella Parsons, Shelia Graham, Hedda Hopper and others. Sample dialogue; (To Charlie) “Some of you seem to forget this town has to keep its skirts clean…A scandal is not forgotten if I choose to revive it.” (To a studio underling) “Shut up. I want my news from the horse’s mouth, not its tail!”
The long suffering agent ;( Everett Sloane) “No matter how you slice it up there’s never enough time in Hollywood.”…The adulterous wife of a publicist, Connie Bliss (Jean Hagen). “I like snug, draped bedrooms with locked doors so I can be my naked self, as you desire me….You’re hurting me love. But I’m a bad girl, I wish I could say I didn’t like it”…The cynical studio factotum Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey); “Ideals, kid? Nowadays? A lost crusade.” And in response to the question: What do you think about women? He says; “There’s no satisfying them. Like kids, they’re not of our world. I like them for the tricks they can do Their so-called specialties.”…. The abused starlet Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters). “If I take one more drink I’ll see a snake. …Although I’d rather see a snake than a Hollywood producer…They hire girls like me to entertain the visiting sales force.”…The tyrannical studio head; “Who are you? Petty aristocracy because the female admissions want to sleep with you? I’ll break you like I broke Wally Cole. He was a bigger star. You have pissed away a kingdom today.”
One could quote dialogue from the film all day, the good and sometimes terrific, the bad and the clumsy simply to illustrate the literary ambition behind The Big Knife in its effort to tell the definitive Hollywood story. What the film does achieve to a great extent is reflecting the love/hate relationship Odets had with the place. And as a result the whole thing comes up like a poison pen letter to Hollywood and the industry. Charlie Castle at one point observes; “California, think of it. The place where an honest apple tree won’t grow.”
The acting throughout is big and vivid in the 1950s method and semi-method style. And everyone in the cast is up to the task. The directorial concept appears to favor retaining the concentration of the plays one set location (The Castle home) abetted by a few exteriors (The swimming pool, a studio sound stage, a brief glimpse of a party next door and a shot of Marion at the beach). But the play wasn’t “opened up” much. The camera doesn’t even travel upstairs of the Castle home where the most dramatic event of the story takes place. We’re just told about it. There are big confrontation scenes that just explode with fury. And a few quiet ones that make you wish they were better or more lovingly staged. The worst thing about The Big Knife is its heavy handed need to indict Hollywood and all it represents. Odets play and the screenplay practically scream it at you. And the result is it denies the film any moderation and nuance. The whole thing often comes up like a rant. It also has some of the most pretentious sounding dialogue heard anywhere. Most of it spoken by Hank Teagle (Wesley Addy) , a melancholy novelist who’s leaving Hollywood to write a novel about; “How a man can become a popular movie star without reflecting the average (man) in one way or another.”… Someplace else he says; “Half idealism is the peritonitis of the soul. America is full of it.” The character comes up like the author’s stand-in mouth piece and Charlie Castle’s conscience. In another exchange he says to Charlie “If you wrestle (with your integrity) you might win a blessing.” To which Charlie says; “I’ll miss you Hank. Write your book and make it scandalous. Wire me for money anytime you need it. Someone has to complete the work he was born to do.”
The best thing about the film is the passion its makers (Writers, actors, director and producer etc.) invest in their endeavor. It charges the screen with several bursts of energy that is quite bracing. Many of its scenes feel like they’re about to break out of their cinematic confines at any minute. And that is something to be treasured. I can’t say that it’s a good film or a bad one. That has to do with your mood, your tolerance for the kind of high flown dialogue Odets likes to throw around and your appetite for stories that have to do with the pitfalls of success. The Big Knife is a film I go back to from time to time. Sometimes it annoys me, other times I’m amused by it while at other times I become engaged with some of the questions the screenplay is wrestling with. This is a film I always wish was better but for what it is I still like it, faults and all.