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.
(Or: Bad films we love)
The Best of Everything (1959) is one of those movies I go back to time after time for no reason I can intelligently explain except that I love it. The film was adapted from a bestselling novel by Rona Jaffe and was later turned into a daytime drama (soap opera) in 1970 with James Lipton, the creator and host of Inside the Actor’s Studio as its head writer. But the film is what we’re talking about here. It is a slick piece of Hollywood gloss produced by 20th Century Fox and directed by Jean Negulesco (1900-1993) at the time Hollywood’s go-to guy of “Women’s pictures”, who directed such films as: Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), A Certain Smile (1954), A Woman’s World (1954) and later The Pleasure Seekers (1964) which was really a remake of Three Coins in the Fountain. They went to the right guy for The Best of Everything is very much a woman’s picture and Negulesco directs it with such polish it could easily have come right out of the pages of Women’ Home Journal or Cosmopolitan magazine.
It is the story of three attractive and innocently sexy young women who go to Manhattan in search of romance, adventure and a career that will sustain them until they fall in love and get married. The tone of the story is set up at the start by a toast they propose in their apartment.
“Here’s to men. Bless their clean cut faces and dirty little minds.”
The career in this film is publishing. They all work as secretaries at Fabian Books, a conglomerate that publishes novels, How-to books and various magazines. And some of the things that take place behind those closed office doors and played for humor would qualify today as “sexual harassment” of the most tasteless kind. But never mind that. The pleasures of the film are multiple. First there is the title song written by Sammy Cahn (Lyrics) and Ken Newman (Music) and perfectly sung over the titles by Johnny Mathis. The visual montage of people going to work that accompanies it is a valentine to early morning Manhattan. That alone is worth the price of admission. In fact the film is so beautifully shot in rich color by Deluxe that the entire film could be viewed as a visual valentine to New York city, especially the East Side and Madison Avenue.
Then there are the three principals Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) young, serious and hopelessly in love with a wrong guy. Her best line in the film comes after she learns that the love of her life has married another. She says this to Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd 1931-1977) a co-worker at the company.
Oh Mike, please make love to me. Even if you don’t love me, please, please make love to me.”
They used that clip in every trailer of the film as a come on and to illustrate how bold and daring the film really was. The second roommate is April Morrison (Diane Baker). She’s young, naive and a little bit dopey. She’s due to learn a harsh lesson about men and love from a wealthy no account named Dexter Key (Robert Evans). But the most dramatic story revolves around Greg Adams (Suzy Parker) an aspiring actress who falls in love with a brilliant and smolderingly attractive stage director David Savage played by Hollywood’s smolderingly attractive Louis Jourdan. Suzy Parker at that time was Fashion’s highest paid model. She was said to be “the most photographed woman in the world”. Critics brought out their axes for her performance in this film but I never saw anything particularly bad about it. No, she wasn’t Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis but she wasn’t awful either. I suspect that it was their way of getting even for her being just so damn beautiful. Who knows?
In a supporting role is Martha Hyer, a quite attractive woman who never got the guy in most of her films (See Some Came Running –1958 or House Boat –1958). She’s having the same problem here. And saving the best for last there’s the queen of them all Miss Joan Crawford (1905-1977) as Amanda Farrow, a tough, hard bitten and cynical editor who hates “You young college types who think you can come in here with your Bachelor’s degrees and take over the company.”. Her character is so bitter that she could serve as a cautionary tale all by herself. But she too has a secret. She’s having an affair with a married man.
“I waited for you all night.” She says to him on the phone. “What? You were home? But last night was ours. I will not be taken for granted. I only have one small corner in your life and I will not settle for less. Now you and your rabbit faced wife can both go to hell!”
She delivers that line of dialogue as only Joan Crawford could and that too is worth sitting through the film for.
The men in the film don’t count for much. Mike Rice (Boyd) is a rueful drunk who hangs around the edges of scenes. Louis Jourdan plays David Savage in his French/American mode. French for seduction, American for cruelty. And Robert Evans, later head of production for Paramount, was an actor who always projected a repulsive charm on screen. Here he is at his most charmingly repulsive.
All in all the film is great, soapy, glamorous fun that takes place in the real world which nevertheless comes up looking like Never-Never Land. It is the kind of film that Hollywood makes better than anyone else in the world. This is a movie that you can laugh at, laugh with and enjoy, all at the same time.
A film truly for which the phrase “Guilty pleasure” was coined.
(Or: Bad movies we love for no good reason)
Everyone has their favorite movies or sometimes a list of their “10 Favorite films” etc. Celebrities, film scholars, filmmakers, critics and fans have been polled ad infinitum about what they consider to be their favorite cinematic masterpieces. Some of these lists have been published and the various selections puzzled over, praised, criticized and argued about.
At the other end of that spectrum are the guilty pleasures, films we love and can’t intelligently justify as to why we love them. Bad movies we love that everyone else hates. In most cases these films aren’t just bad in the usual sense of the word, they’re appalling. Yet we love them with a passion that approaches religious fervor and could watch them over and over again without becoming tired, bored or impatient when almost everyone else would run screaming out of the room. The reasons for loving such films are multiple and inexplicable therefore one should never try to explain such madness to others. Because no matter how articulate you are or how hard you try they’ll never understand it anyway.
One true guilty pleasure for me is the original Oceans 11 (Lewis Milestone,1960). Forty one years later (2001) this story has been refashioned into a slick, well packaged bit of Hollywood razzle dazzle that resulted into two high grossing sequels (Oceans 12 and Oceans 13). But as they say in the commercials promoting the reruns of Law and Order; “The original is still the best.” At least in my mind anyway.
This remake doesn’t come anywhere near the original which was a rambling, stumbling, somewhat clumsy hunk of Hollywood absurdity starring Frank Sinatra and his now famous “Rat pack” which included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and the John Kennedy connected Peter Lawford. The plot is about how 11 Army commandos using what they learned in the US military go to Las Vegas and simultaneously rob 5 casinos on New Year’s Eve. The narrative thrust of this film and its digressions have to be seen to be believed, or disbelieved. So why do I love this film? For all the reasons that make it a bad and terribly unfocused film.. The plot is so loose and implausible (except for a nice snappy twist at the end) that one can virtually ignore it and focus on Frank and his friends playing around in their natural habitat, Las Vegas, gambling Mecca of the US. The sunshine, the chicks, the gangster element suggested by the presence of George Raft in the cast and just the whole ambience of Vegas as the somewhat innocent sin capital of America in the 1950s.
Then there’s Sammy Davis Jr. playing a garbage collector who sings the title song. Through it we get a glimpse of the dynamism that made him one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th Century. And there’s Dean Martin, playing a club singer, he gets in a solid number (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”)through which we get to luxuriate in the laid back charm of his night club persona. There are other grace notes in this loose limbed riff as well. Angie Dickinson as Danny (Frank Sinatra) Ocean’s wife, Patrice Wymore as a quintessential Las Vegas witch spelt with a B. Cesar Romero who nearly steals the picture with his flashy style and old school Hollywood acting savvy, and finally Richard Conte who gives the only affecting performance in the film. These and a few other things keep me going back to the film on DVD year after year. But the thing that really centers all of it is Sinatra, a walking contradiction, if there ever was one. A man and performer who at the snap of a finger or the turn of a mood could either come across as an arrogant fool or an inspired near genius. Probably the best pop singer of the century and certainly the best singer turned actor Hollywood has ever produced. In this film he doesn’t sing and hardly acts at all but nevertheless he holds the film together and gives it a reason for existing. For these and other reasons I find the film a real kick in the head.
There were other “Rat Pack” movies that followed Ocean’s 11: Sergeants 3 , Robin and the 7 Hoods . All had numbers in their titles for some reason but they provided nowhere near the guilty pleasures of Ocean’s 11, which for my money is the only true “Rat Pack” movie.