Wednesday, November 12, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE BIG KNIFE" (1955)

If you've ever had the urge to write an I'll-get-even-with-those-SOBs script about a job you hated, watch The Big Knife to see how those things turn out. In a word, badly. 

The main problem is its dramatic fulcrum: Should A-list movie star Charlie Castle renew his contract with Hoff-Federated Studios? 

Look at your own life. Then look at Charlie Castle, who must decide if he wants to spend another seven years living in a Beverly Hills mansion and having the world snap to attention at his every whim, all the while making a bundle of money. This is drama?

Oh, and not enough liquor, either.



Well, Castle does have real problems. Fooling around with every two-bit tootsie while his long-suffering wife watches from the sidelines, for instance. A reliance on booze to ease his "pain." And then there was his drunken, fatal hit-and-run accident for which his PR guy took the fall. Predicaments, in other words, of his own making, and which are supposed to be on par with The Iceman Cometh. It may come as a shock to people in the movie business, but listen up: Nobody cares about your problems.

To be fair, it took director/producer Robert Aldrich guts to portray the movie business as seedy as The Big Knife presents it. Everyone, from the studio boss to the Hedda Hopper stand-in gossip columnist, excels in moral and emotional blackmail. The studio is even willing to murder Castle's floozie Dixie Evans just to keep her from going public about Castle's hit-and-run. The entire industry is portrayed as a West Coast Mafia, only without the ethics. 

Ida Lupino studies Jack Palance's head
for lice.
The script betrays its original stage origins. In fact, you could close your eyes and not miss a thing, other than subtlety and good taste, which you'd miss with your eyes open anyway. When the dialogue isn't expository ("Here's your agent!"), it's melodramatic to the point of hilarity ("You swat the fly from my face with a hammer!"). Really, I'm more willing than most to give older movies a fair shake, but I'm only human. You could give the original SCTV cast this script and not tell the difference.


"...and right, too!"
"And I can do it with my left hand..."
John Garfield originated the role of Charlie Castle on Broadway, and probably brought genuine angst to an otherwise-unlikeable part. But here, Jack Palance, fine in character roles, never rings true as the leading man with artistic aspirations; he's just not able shake his tough-guy persona. Palance can't even kiss women without looking like he's going to strangle them. 


"You think you've got problems? I went from
working with Orson Welles to this dreck!"
And those women of The Big Knife are fit to cliched type: saint (Charlie's wife), bitch (the columnist) and sluts (the mistresses). As the doomed Dixie Evans, Shelley Winters is sympathetic, being used by studio execs for sexual favors in return for a couple of bit parts. (She's billed in the credits as "Miss Shelley Winters," presumably so as not to be confused with Mr. Shelley Berman.) Everett Sloan repeats his Jewish tragic/comic relief routine from Citizen Kane as Castle's agent Nat Dazinger, offering bromides like "Stop wringing your mental hands!" like he was quoting Oscar Wilde.


"Look at me when I'm declaiming
overheated dialogue!"
But, brother, clear the decks for Rod Steiger's no-holds barred antics as studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff. Clearly based on Louis B. Mayer (with a touch of Harry Cohn and Darryl F. Zanuck), Steiger is full-on, head-collision ham, going from gentle 
father-figure to howling underworld don faster than you can say "sequel possibilities." His performance is a master class in overacting that could be measured by seismometers. You marvel at how the sets remain standing, or that Steiger himself doesn't drop dead of a heart attack by the end -- and the whole time sounding exactly like Marlon Brando! Anyone who takes his performance seriously doesn't know what they're missing. It's like Lionel Barrymore after a year of Method acting lessons.
  

It sounds classier in Italian.
The Big Knife has a certain pedigree, being based on the Broadway play by Clifford Odets. Odets, unfortunately, was one of those "groundbreaking" playwrights whose works scream WARNING: IMPORTANT MESSAGE AHEAD. He stopped off in Hollywood for a spell, allowing an up-close view of how studios work. That was probably when he heard the rumor about Clark Gable's real-life fatal DUI hit-and-run, which an M-G-M executive pleaded guilty to in exchange for a lifetime salary --  a story that's never been confirmed, but I'd like to think is true.


Odets even worked himself into The Big Knife as Horatio "Hank" Teagle, who doubles as Castle's Jiminy Cricket. We know he's the only character with a moral compass because A) he's a writer, B) is moving back to New York to work on an important novel he admits nobody will read, and C) says things like, "Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul." No wonder nobody reads his books.

Right column, third from the top: I've heard of casting couches,
but this is ridiculous.
When The Big Knife flopped critically and financially in its 1955 release, Robert Aldrich pinned the blame on Jack Palance for not looking like a leading man, while ignoring everything else -- like the concept, script, acting, the bombastic score and his own direction. However, the upholstered furniture, which actually receives a credit, does a believable job.

The original 1949 stage production of The Big Knife ran only three months, leading me to believe nobody liked it then, either. (It was directed by, who else, Lee Strasberg.) When my wife and I saw its Broadway revival in 2013, we spent most of the time stifling our giggles while our eyes rolled like bowling balls. Somebody ought to take a big knife to The Big Knife once and for all.
 

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