Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: James Poe
Based on a Play by: Clifford Odets
Starring: Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Rod Steiger, Jean Hagen, Everett Sloane
Country: USA
Running Time: 111 min
Year: 1955
BBFC Certificate: PG

Robert Aldrich is a director I’ve admired a great deal in the handful of his films I’ve seen (although the less said about The Frisco Kid, the better). So I was keen to check out Arrow’s re-release of The Big Knife, a film I must admit I’d never heard of until now.

It tells the story of Charles Castle (Jack Palance), a popular movie star who’s grown unhappy with his position. He’s stuck in a rut of making low rate Hollywood trash, when he longs to make something more meaningful. Unfortunately, he’s held firmly under the thumb of tough studio head Hoff (Rod Steiger), who is pressuring Castle to stay there, using a potentially scandalous incident as leverage against him. Adding to Castle’s troubles is a crumbling relationship with his wife Marion (Ida Lupino), who is fed up of her husband’s inability to stand up against Hoff. The only chance Castle has of saving his marriage is to refuse to sign Hoff’s latest contract, but the boss’ blackmailing tactics prove too strong. Hoff’s later insistence that Castle helps with some darker studio ‘business’ is the last straw though and events reach boiling point in a powerhouse of a final act.

This Hollywood melodrama is a bit stagey and dialogue-heavy (it’s based on a play after all), but works a treat. It threatens to get a bit over the top at times, but has a bitter, vicious edge that makes it feel more like a film noir than a standard melodrama. You get the feeling the writer and director had a hard time with studios in the past and are using the play/film as a way to vent their frustrations. I’m surprised they were even allowed to make the film, given how anti-Hollywood it is. Little respect is given to mainstream studio output and the people working there are all made out to be bloodthirsty psychopaths. Looking at who produced the film though, it was The Associates & Aldrich Company, so the director obviously had control over proceedings. United Artists released it too, a company originally put together by big-name stars and directors to take control of their projects away from the purely commercial interests of the big studios.

So it’s definitely a passion project and it shows. The cast really go for it too, with Palance showing a great range, capturing his character’s inner turmoil; a mixture of fear, desire and anger, brilliantly. He manages to make Castle relatable and strangely likeable too, even though he can often be quite a slime-ball. Steiger is particularly memorable as the film’s villain too. He talks and acts with a cold, lifeless menace for the most part, occasionally exploding when he doesn’t get his way. It’s a big performance that threatens to become hammy, but he chews up the screen whenever he appears so is thrilling to watch.

Speaking of thrilling, the film is pretty gripping throughout. The script does a good job of slowly trickling out more information about the ‘incident’ that Hoff uses against Castle and there are plenty of twists and turns throughout the film to keep you interested. The finale is particularly shocking and unexpected.

Yes, the film gets rather melodramatic and stagey, but it’s so pointed and bitter that it’s a strikingly revealing glob of dirt thrown in the eye of the Hollywood studio system. With a richly conflicted central character and some memorable performances, it’s a bold, acidic treat.

The Big Knife is out on 28th August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. The picture and sound quality are great.

There are a handful of special features included too. Here’s the list:

– Commentary by film critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton, recorded exclusively for this release
– Bass on Titles Saul Bass, responsible for The Big Knife’s credit sequence, discusses some of his classic work in this self-directed documentary from 1972
– Theatrical trailer
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips
– FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Nathalie Morris

The Big Knife
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

4 Responses

  1. Johnny Lagoon

    It may interest you to know that Rod Steiger was close friends with James Dean right around the time he shot this film, and in the final days of Dean’s life, he handed Steiger a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s “Death In The Afternoon” with anything pertaining to a bullfighter’s demise in the ring underlined by Dean’s pen numerous times. It’s also intensely resonant, if not downright chilling, to realize that the initial first showing of “The Big Knife” took place at The Venice Film Festival in Italy on September 10, 1955, a mere 20 days before Dean died.
    Knowing this, the film suddenly leaves the realm of dated melodrama, and cuts much deeper in ways than anyone may have previously realized.

  2. Johnny Lagoon

    Mr. Brooks: Thank you for your kind reply. Something further for you to meditate upon, in regards to James Dean and “The Big Knife”….a car accident is at center of
    the film’s blackmail and cover-up plot. Odets may have been florid, but he was never superficial. In this case, he may well have been precognitive.

  3. Johnny Lagoon

    Mr. Brook: Sorry for the typos! My comment should read: Thank you for your kind reply. Something further for you to meditate upon, in regards to James Dean and “The Big Knife”….a car accident is at the center of
    the film’s blackmail and cover-up plot. Odets may have been florid, but he was never superficial. In this case, he may well have been precognitive. Another interesting footnote is when Steiger’s character contemptuously spits out the word “psychoanalysis” to Palance. It was well known at that time that actors
    such as Brando, Dean, and Clift were in analysis, and that the relation between
    Sigmund Freud and The Method might make for explosive performances, but
    created “difficult” stars in the eyes of the repressed and conservative power
    brokers of mid-1950’s Hollywood.


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