Robert Aldrich produced and directed many types of films over the course of his career, resisting the self-categorization that might’ve earned him greater favor with auteurists. Common elements run through his work, though, especially an obsession with faces and strong personalities. Aldrich often corralled an assortment of icons into close spaces and mined their charismatic visages for tableaux of striking emotional power, mixing neurotic expressionism with a smooth sense of studio craftsmanship. The films are the efforts of a working man’s artist: of someone who’s in touch with his uncanny side as well as with the practicalities of telling a three-act story in which the trains run on time, each incident revealing subtext and portraiture.
Aldrich’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’s 1949 play The Big Knife has quite a bit in common with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. All of these productions are essentially horror films in which the protagonists are locked up in houses that come to epitomize their psyches as well as the functions of the society that imperil their mental state. The Big Knife concerns a famous actor, Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), who’s wrestling with one of Odets’s signature obsessions: the perils of selling out. The script’s dialogue tells the audience that Charlie was once an idealist who spoke of revolution and the New Deal, though he now does genre films for Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), a producer partially modeled on Harry Cohn.
Charlie has the usual trappings of stratospheric success, including a house in Bel Air, a beautiful wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), adoring groupies, a blossoming sense of refinement with which he’s clearly uncomfortable, and the ability, should he exercise it, to do whatever he pleases so long as he honors the Man. Marion is sick of Charlie’s compromises and threatens to leave him if he doesn’t get out of the business and refuse Stanley’s new seven-year contract. But Stanley has damning information on Charlie that could explode his life and a significant portion of Hollywood’s hidden infrastructure of enslavement.
The plot has no shock value for a 21st-century American. Total chaos and disbelief in everything are the new breeding grounds for complacency, and so Charlie’s secret would now barely be enough to drive a middling episode of Ray Donovan. But the film’s formal intensity hasn’t aged an iota, and renders most contemporary melodramas chaste and skittish by comparison.
Aldrich assembles a wonderful cast of actors, among them Wendell Corey, Jean Hagen, Everett Sloane, Ilka Chase, and Shelley Winters, and lionizes their faces in riveting close-ups that physicalize the purple emotion of Odets’s dialogue. These close-ups, cast in stark noir-ish shadows, are contrasted with sleek and sinuous tracking shots that render Charlie’s home a microcosm of Hollywood. Though it’s essentially a one-set film, The Big Knife nevertheless teems with every filmmaking caste, including the casting-couch serfs, the trainers and assistants, the wives, the producers, and the henchmen who secretly tend to the carnage on which this world operates.
As he would continue to demonstrate in his later horror films, Aldrich has a taste for baroque symbolism. A spiral staircase in Charlie’s home is positioned as a portal between the shadow world of sex and the euphemistic society that obscures it. When Connie Bliss (Hagen), the wife of one of Charlie’s most loyal and pitiful employees, seduces the actor, her victory is embodied by her slinky ascension up the stairwell, a bottle of tequila hanging from one of her hands to suggest a weapon. When Marion finally agrees to reconcile with Charlie, she ascends the same stairs, suggesting a reopening of intimate doorways.
Throughout these dizzying negotiations, Charlie remains profoundly passive. As film critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton observe in the superb audio commentary that was recorded for this disc, a boxing motif runs through The Big Knife. Charlie has appeared in boxing films for Huff, and we see him working out at the start of the film. Charlie’s in a robe much of the time, and his physicality always suggests retreat from the stronger personalities who want something from him. A painting near the bar shows a face that’s somewhat blurred, paralleling the close-up of Charlie’s head, bathed in darkness, that opens the film. These symbols, also baroque, suggest that Charlie’s a non-person endlessly tugged at by supreme forces of evil, such as Huff and Smiley, Corey’s terrifyingly pragmatic fixer, and those of puritanical, hypocritical, and equally self-absorbed “goodness,” such as Marion and her new boyfriend (Wesley Addy), an insufferably pretentious prig who actually describes a forthcoming novel as being a moral story about an average Joe.
It’s Palance’s visceral dramatization of Charlie’s uncertainty, which pivots on oxymoronically powerful weakness, that ties The Big Knife’s broad symbols and big acting and orating together, particularly grounding the film after Steiger goes off the rails in a performance that’s insane even by this highly subjective standard of reality. Underneath the film’s obvious and influential moralizing, which reflected Odets’s roots in the Group and relationship with John Garfield, is a subtle and disturbing psychological study of a person who effaces himself, becoming a canvas for warring factions within his society’s id.
The image is fairly grainy, though facial texture is finely detailed and shadows are rich and full-bodied. Which is to say that the image is beautifully rough around the edges, with a refurbished sense of depth that sharpens one’s awareness of Robert Aldrich’s once-unheralded artistry. Background texture is also considerably clearer than before, bringing the setting’s architecture to sensual life. The monaural soundtrack is clean, rendering the ornate dialogue with pleasing snap and the infrequent score with a forbidding sense of bass.
In their audio commentary, film critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton offer an erudite discussion of The Big Knife’s significant contributors, particularly Aldrich, Clifford Odets, and the principle cast members. The Group, of which Odets was a formidable member, is discussed, as well as the playwright’s relationship with John Garfield, who initiated the role of Charlie Castle on the stage. The critics are especially on target when discussing the contrast between Wendell Corey’s chilling, astonishingly subtle performance and Rod Steiger’s infamous overacting and how the two styles cumulatively enrich each other. This commentary is a must-listen that provides a nuanced discussion of Hollywood politics, aesthetics, legacies, and the lasting influence of The Big Knife at large. Complementing this supplement are pieces in an accompanying booklet, by Nathalie Morris and Gerald Peary, respectively, that offer more information on the film and, in the case of Peary’s essay, on Odets’s place in American history. The theatrical trailer, a negligible archive promo, and a dull documentary on Saul Bass round out a slim but evocative package.
A good transfer and a great audio commentary pivotally contextualize The Big Knife as a neurotic and lastingly influential American melodrama.