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Overwritten and overacted -- what's not to like
gws-224 May 2005
"The Big Knife" is really a stage play recorded on film. It's a Hollywood soap opera that features a lot of good actors eating the scenery. Rod Steiger and Everett Sloan are great as the monstrous studio honcho and weaselly agent, respectively. Jack Palance is a competent actor but was woefully miscast as the sensitive, tortured matinée idol -- nobody would ever confuse Palance with a matinée idol. Nevertheless, he does an adequate job.

The power of the studio system in the '50s is well depicted, if a bit overwrought. Steiger's performance is particularly delicious as his toweringly self-centered character cries, wheedles, and intimidates his underlings into doing what he wants.

The movie is showing its age but its excesses, especially its colorful language, are a lot of fun. Recommended, 7 out of 10.
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The studio system
jotix1005 June 2009
"The Big Knife" caused a sensation when it came out. After all, no one in his right mind would dare to criticize the movie industry, after all, it was the studio and its ruthless executives that were exposed as the bad guys, even at the time where the old studio system was disappearing.

Clifford Odets wrote the original play, which under Robert Aldrich direction doesn't translate to the screen because it feels claustrophobic in many aspects. The movie treatment was by James Poe, did not make the material come alive because of the theatricality of the source.

Charles Castle, an actor working in Hollywood, is about to commit himself to a renewal of his contract to a major studio. That means another seven years of his life working in whatever pictures the higher ups have in store for him. It couldn't come at a worse time; his wife, Marion, who evidently hasn't a good relation with Charles, is fed up with the idea of staying in Bel Air. Marion pleads with him to give up the movie business so they could have a normal life bringing up their young son.

Castle has had his share of adventures in Hollywood, something that Marion is aware of. In addition to that, he has a dark secret, something that involved a terrible accident for which his publicist has taken the blame and has even serve time in jail. A couple of women are also in the picture, threatening Charles' marriage.

To make matters worse, Charles is visited by the head of the studio, Stanley Hoff, who has brought his assistant, the oily Smiley Coy, to help him convince Castle to sign the contract. Charles Castle is finally defeated at the game as Stanley plays his cards right since he has the upper hand. The result is a bitter loss for the actor, who sees no way out of the situation at hand.

Jack Palance, who, up to this film, had only minor parts, rose to the challenge of playing Charles Castle, who in a way, he had the background, having been a boxer, to play. His work, although a bit unsure, was a revelation to the movie going public at the time. Ida Lupino, an excellent actress, is probably the best thing in the picture. Rod Steiger shows up as the studio head Stanley Hoff, a man that knows well his opponent's weaknesses and uses all in his power to get his way. Wendell Corey, in a small part, also does good work. Jean Hagen and Shelley Winters also contribute to the film.

Ernest Lazlo's cinematography works well, as does the musical score by Frank DeVol. Robert Aldrich, a man with a lot of experience in the business, was a natural choice to undertake the direction of this picture. His only problem was a basic one, how to open the play to cinematic terms.
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Adaption of Odets play a classic.
guilfisher-14 February 2005
This 1955 film was adapted from a play by Clifford Odets and James Poe. It is a dark study of the seedier side of Hollywood of it's time. Making all involved not such pleasant people. It centers around a top movie star, Charlie Castle (played brilliantly by Jack Palance) who wants out of the movie limelight in order to move on to better high grade films. But, the movie studios are not that eager to lose their sexy star. Most of the film is about Charlie and his struggle to come out ahead. With the studio boss (one of Rod Steiger's better roles), his wife (the wonderful Ida Lupino in another terrific performance); the sleezy studio promo man (Wendell Corey in a delicious underplayed role); and the agent (one of Everett Sloane's best performances). Also rounding out this stellar cast are Jean Hagen, as the wife of Charlie's best friend, and a gal out to get Charlie in bed, and Shelly Winters, who does well as a sort of dumb blonde being used by the studio to entertain executives. Thinking this is the way to become a movie star.

Robert Aldrich directed this classic with a deft touch and excellent interplay with his cast. A simple set allows the actors to do their work without the Hollywood tinsel. Made in black and white, this is drama at its best and the stars at their best. See this amazing film if you're an actor. It will teach you much.
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Tremendously powerful movie
inframan24 July 1999
Jack Palance gives an amazing performance here in a part that so many other actors must have been dying to play. You can picture a lot of actors of the time - Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando - as Charlie Castle, but I can't picture anyone as good as Palance. It's a riveting movie from start top finish with one great line after another. Almost Shakespearean in breadth, depth & power.
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Inside Hollywood
sol12189 October 2003
A truly memorable film with tough and rugged, but hardly handsome, Jack Palance as Charlie Castle playing of all people an actor who's always playing matinée Idols and great lovers. As Charlie's boss and studio owner Stanley Hoff,Rod Steiger, says of him throughout the film :"He makes all the women of America heart's swoon". "The Big Knife" is worth the price of admission just to see how and if director Robert Aldrich can pull it off and make the film both entertaining and believable.

You see Charlie is getting tired of playing all those roles over the years as a heart throb to the women of America and wants to get out of his contract with the Hoff Studios and go independent; That was a big thing for actors back in the 1950's. Charlie wan't to do films that are worthy of his extraordinary talents as a serious and Shakespearian actor. It's that Charlie's off the wall and possessive boss Stanley Hoff, the Big Knife, doesn't want his meal ticket to leave and take his fans with him! So Stanley rolls out the heavy artillery and plays his trump card. It seems that Charlie has a dark secret that the studio has been covering up for years and if Charlie leaves that secret won't be a secret any more! Get It Charlie!

The film "The Big Knife" can really be described as one of the most multi storied soap operas ever put on film with the audience needing score cards just to keep up with the story and even then they'll get lost. Whoever coined the phrase "Seeing is believing" must have based it on the the incredible performance of Rod Steiger's Stanley Hoff which goes from a Saturday Night Live impersonation shtick of a big Hollywood producer to an Oscar winning interpretation of Hamlet all at the same time! It's really incredible to watch and believe what your seeing in Steiger's over the top performance.

And Jack Palance, determined not to be shown up his co-star, really did pull it off in him Playing a role so out of character and yet evoking real and genuine sympathy from the audience that he should have, but didn't, won the 1955 Academy Award for best actor hands down! As the tortured soul with a dark past who only wanted to do Art Films and get away from playing debonair and charming movie parts that make women go ape all over him. In the end of the film when Palance went all out, or was it underwater, in the final few minutes of the movie he was so convincing that I just couldn't keep the tears from rolling down my cheeks!

No matter how much people criticize Robert Aldrich's "The Big Knife" and with good justification this is one movie where you can really say that the acting actually overwhelmed the script!
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Clifford Odets's One Finger Salute To Hollywood
bkoganbing8 March 2010
Unless you understand that The Big Knife was Clifford Odets's one finger salute to Hollywood and its mores, you will not understand the film at all. Odets after some bad times in tinseltown went back to his first love which was the theater and wrote this play which ran for 109 performances in the 1949 season on Broadway.

In the lead roles of actor Charlie Castle and producer Marcus Hoff, Odets cast a couple of guys who were having difficulty finding employment in Hollywood at that time as well, kindred spirits from the Group Theater back in the day, John Garfield and J. Edward Bromberg. Garfield who certainly could bring his own life into the part plays Odets himself who had as tempestuous personal life as his creation Charlie Castle. He feels starved creatively because of the junk he's been doing in Hollywood, not the stuff of social significance that Odets did back Group Theater days.

Jack Palance plays Castle in the film and while he does justice to the part I only wish John Garfield had lived to do the screen version of what he created. He had an unceasing rebellion against Warner Brothers for the stereotypical tough guys parts he was being cast in. But just after he broke free came the blacklist.

Rod Steiger is malevolence itself as the producer whom I believe was based on Louis B. Mayer. Odets dealt with him through his then wife Luise Rainer over at MGM. Mayer was not liked even by his fellow studio moguls and he had been toppled in a studio power play at MGM a few years earlier. Had he still been in charge at MGM, I'm willing to bet The Big Knife might never have been made even as an independent film with a United Artists release.

Director Robert Aldrich filled out the rest of the cast with familiar Hollywood names like Ida Lupino as Palance's estranged wife, Everett Sloane as his long suffering agent, Wendell Corey in a role that has to be modeled on MGM's fixer who knew where all the bodies were buried Eddie Mannix, Shelley Winters as the bimbo like starlet who can put an end to Palance's career and Ilka Chase as a Hedda Hopper like columnist who is the self appointed keeper of the Hollywood morals. Chase's scenes are at the beginning of the film and she really has the columnist character dead on.

On stage the entire play is set in the living room of the Palance/Lupino Hollywood style mansion. Like the house in Long Day's Journey Into Night, the opulent living room becomes a character itself, showing the velvet and comfortable trap that Palance is in and why he just can't give up all this comfort, even for the art that used to motivate him.

Odets might have done better had someone else a little more dispassionate had written this based on his memoirs. The Big Knife gets a little too personal at times. And it never quite loses the stage origin even with a few scenes away from the house. But the acting his first rate from a first rate cast. I'd watch The Big Knife as a look into the mind of Clifford Odets.
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Powerful fifties' drama
rcraig6215 April 2003
The Big Knife is a mostly good adaptation of a Clifford Odets play about a Hollywood actor who's being blackmailed into studio servitude while trying to patch up his failing marriage. This is a movie for which the word powerful was truly invented. Most of the film takes place on one set and places heavy emphasis on speeches from the individual characters for its really riveting moments (as I would expect from a stage play), but those moments definitely get across. The whole cast is good, but Jack Palance in a nuanced and fiery performance as the actor Charlie Castle, and Rod Steiger, giving a deeply felt and passionate realization of the corrupt studio boss are nothing short of superb. The screenplay is full of smart, incisive, biting dialogue as well. Except for a melodramatic turn at the end, that, for me, takes a lot of the edge off the story, this is a well-acted film that is solid, though not spectacular, entertainment. 3*** out of 4
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Tough 50's Hollywood Nightmare!
shepardjessica-112 December 2004
One of the 10 best of '55 with sparks flying between Palance & Steiger. Subtle performance by Ms. Ida Lupino and intensity personified by J. Palance. Rod Steiger with white hair and hearing aid is pretty scary. Written by Clifford Odets, this realistic Hollywood tale cuts no corners and does not see out.

An 8 out of 10. Best performance = Rod Steiger. Too grim for some. Beautiful B/W cinematography and terrific script and the entire cast is deliberate and impassioned. I don't believe it was nominated for anything, but should have been. I'm not sure if this is on video or DVD, but check it out!
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writers_reign25 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Cliff Odets was one of the finest American playwrights of the 20th century and several of his plays have been adapted for the screen with varying results. This is one of the best. Odets made his name with the Group Theatre in the mid thirties where one of the actors was Jules Garfinckle. Hollywood knocked that out of him and he became John Garfield, in many ways the acting personification of Odets writing, raw, virile, coiled spring contained energy. So it was fitting that when Odets wrote a new play in 1949 Garfield played the lead on Broadway. Alas, I didn't see it but I can imagine how writer and actor combined perfectly. When Robert Aldrich came to make the film he tapped Jack Palance - an actor he worked with in back-to-back productions, this one and 'Attack' - for the Garfield role, a good choice as it's difficult to think of another actor of the time, with the possible exception of Charles Bronson who was still relatively unknown, who could bring the energy and self-disgust to the part of the stage actor who'd 'sold out' to Hollywood (for actor read writer, Odets himself deserted Broadway for Hollywood and lived to regret it) and can't walk away without paying the price in scandal. Aldrich surrounded Palance with an almost perfect cast. Ida Lupino was seldom better as Marion, the wife in love with her husband's integrity as much as with the man himself, Wendell Corey, never much more than a Johnny-One-Note actor lucked into a part - press agent Smiley Coy - that called for that very one note in his repertoire, Jean Hagan and Shelley Winters handled the Hollywood 'tramps' as well as any of their contemporaries would have done and Rod Steiger was nothing if not memorable as Stanley Shriner Hoff an amalgam of any movie moguls you care to think of from Harry Cohn to Louis B. Mayer. It's a great script laced with highly quotable lines and full of that Odets pizzaz.
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The Realist, the Philistine and the Idealist....You figure it out.
horacekohanim20 July 2007
There is very much room for debate on The Big Knife. The casting of Palance and Steiger, good 'ol whinny Winters, the stage-related lack of locales, etc., etc. Each of these can be parsed to illuminate why the film works or doesn't. In a way that's a sign of a good film, one that has made bold choices, and risks it's essential qualities. I liked it. The thing that stood out for me though, was the seeming-multiple-endings. About three times I felt an ending, only to have another character enter, another scene. This may be Odets the writer, or Aldrich the director. In any case I loved Palance. I am a fan of his, and in a lead, a somewhat straight lead, his casting is inspired. I felt he was emotionally resonant, quickly rising and falling with the clipped Odets' poetics. I watched it last night on TCM, and Robert Osborne remarked in the opening that this was a film about "weird people, Hollywood types" (paraphrase). I think that poorly sells the story, limiting it's scope and personality. Palance as Charlie Castle is a wreck because of his life in Hollywood, sure, but he isn't weird for it. His close relationships with his trainer/masseur and his publicist, among others, highlights his isolation and need for loving contact. Which makes Ida Lupino, as his possibly-leaving wife Marion, and her dilemma such a good parallel to Charlie's wanting to leave Hollywood. And Rod Steiger....Over the top? Yes. But it a beautiful thing to watch. I love his commanding physical presence, his melodramatic crying, his hand-wringing. It may be scene-chewing and distracting to some, but again, it works within the story and the character. His psychological make up is so apparent, especially when he fears Castle will strike him, how he crosses his arms and tucks in. Ida Lupino, who looks like she could be Stockard Channing's mother, was strong and poised despite her rancorous life, and I appreciated her for it. Her character was winning because of the strength she debated having to exert. Again, a Hollywood consequence. Character actors, one and all, Smiley, Connie, Shelley Winter's wonkie Dixie, Hank (who could be Grey Davis' father), Nat (his slapping of Stanley Hoff's glass was awesome) , they all embody the inherent lack of stability in Hollywood. The message is clear, and the execution (pardon the pun), was dramatic and interesting.
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Tinseltown Rebellion
ferbs5416 July 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Released in November 1955, "The Big Knife" was, of course, hardly the first Hollywood film to throw a light on the town's seamy dark side. "What Price Hollywood?" (1932) had depicted the downward spiral of a Tinseltown director, "A Star Is Born" (1937) had given us an actor on an alcoholic slide, and "Sunset Blvd." (1950) had portrayed the destructive relationship between a former Hollywood actress and an aspiring screenwriter. In "The Star" (1952), viewers got another glimpse of an alcoholic has-been actor (effectively played by Bette Davis), while the 1954 version of "A Star Is Born" told its story with, arguably, even more punch and effectiveness. But none of those earlier films contained as much bitter cynicism, or as much caustic disdain of the studio system and its deleterious effects on an actor of integrity, as Robert Aldrich's "The Big Knife." Based on the 1949 stage play by Clifford Odets (Odets had already seen such plays as "Golden Boy," "Clash By Night" and "The Country Girl" adapted for the big screen), the picture pulls no punches in its depiction of a completely amoral studio system; one willing to stoop to any length--including blackmail, bribery and even murder--to ensure that those box office profits keep rolling in.

The film tells the story of a hugely successful Hollywood actor named Charlie Castle (nee Cass, and splendidly portrayed by 36-year-old Jack Palance). Over the course of a roughly two-week period, we get to know of the problems that have lately been tearing Charlie apart. His wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), is desirous of a divorce, especially if Charlie signs another seven-year contract with the Hoff-Federated Studio. That studio's head, megablowhard Stanley Hoff (a completely over-the-top Rod Steiger), is putting pressure on Charlie to sign, despite the fact that Charlie hates the quality of the studio's pictures. The wife of a studio flunky (Jean Hagen, who many will recall as the vocally challenged Lina Lamont in "Singin' In the Rain") is cornering Charlie into having an affair, while a former galpal of Charlie's, Dixie Evans (a small but fine performance here from Shelley Winters, who also appeared in such classic films as "Night of the Hunter" and "I Am a Camera" that same year), who has knowledge of an old Charlie Castle scandal, is now threatening to tell all. And perhaps most distressful, Hoff's right-hand man, Smiley Coy (the always dependable Wendell Corey), has come up with the perfect method of silencing Dixie for that, unfortunately, entails homicide! Is it any wonder, then, that poor Charlie--who, as our narrator tells us at the film's opening, is "a man who sold out his dreams but can't forget them"--seems to be on the verge of a mental collapse....

"The Big Knife" is the sort of film that plainly reveals its origins as a theatrical production. The entire picture--with the brief exceptions of a beach scene, a 60-second party sequence at a neighbor's house, and a short conversation at the studio--transpires in and around Charlie's Bel Air home, most especially in his sumptuous living room. Characters enter, interact with Charlie, depart, and are replaced by others. But despite the film's staginess, director Aldrich does a fine job at keeping things moving, and at eliciting wonderful performances from all his players. (Aldrich had quite a year in 1955 himself, what with this film and the future cult item "Kiss Me Deadly," which had been released in May.) Steiger, here in his third picture, and shortly after his memorable demonstration of acting ability in the previous year's "On the Waterfront," is an especial standout, investing his Stanley Hoff with borderline monomania as he alternately bellows at Castle and menacingly purrs lines such as "I'm going to have to take this very much amiss." A seething mass of self-made philistinism with a blonde dye job, the character surely does make some kind of impression on the viewer. And as for our antihero, Charlie, Palance might prove a revelation for some; a raving tough guy, sure, but one whose yearning for something better, whose disappointment with what the Hollywood dream machine has handed him, is clearly discernible in his tortured eyes. The film sports any number of hugely dramatic scenes (every single one of them, come to think of it) and an adult, literate script by James Poe (future husband of Barbara Steele, the lucky bastid!) featuring many quotable lines of priceless dialogue. I love it when Castle's agent, Nat (a very fine bit of acting here from Everett Sloane), tells Charlie, "Business and idealism...they don't mix." And when Marion's current beau, Hank (Wesley Addy), tells Castle that "half idealism is the peritonitis of the soul." Or howzabout this line, as Castle speaks of his current life: "This is all a bleak, bitter dream...a real dish of doves"? The entire film is like that, filled with impossibly sophisticated dialogue and tense confrontations. Ultimately, the picture leaves the viewer quite sad, and with virtually every character in a worse situation than when the film started. Just another couple of weeks in the Dream Factory! All told, "The Big Knife" (and I can only assume that the title refers to Hollywood itself, which certainly seems to cut and separate more effectively than any Henckels blade ever could) is a very impressive affair. My only complaint: the oftentimes intrusive musical punctuations by Frank de Vol, unnecessarily offering up a "bom-bom-bom" whenever someone says anything overly dramatic. Too bad a big knife of the Moviola variety couldn't have been used to excise these snippets from what is otherwise an exceptionally fine film....
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Dignity and integrity on one side, weakness on the other, worth seeing.
tmwest16 February 2010
A movie star is a money making machine, it is a big business, and the fear of something that would make the machine stop can become an obsession, and start ruling. Dignity and integrity on one side and weakness on the other.This is an ever present theme. Clifford Odets knew very well how to write about it and in this adaptation of his play, director Robert Aldrich was able not to make it like filmed theater, in great part due to the excellent cinematography of Ernest Laszlo. Jack Palance is Charlie Castle, the movie star , a torn man, driven by his fears. Ida Lupino is his wife Marion, trying to make him keep his integrity. Rod Steiger as Stanley Hoff, the movie mogul, gives an unforgettable performance. Shelley Winters is a drunk starlet, and Jean Hagen a sexy, unfaithful wife. The story builds up very well, great performances, a film worth seeing.
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dougdoepke27 August 2009
Too talky for some, too stage-bound for others, too strident for all, this is not a movie for everyone. Yet The Big Knife continues to fascinate at the same time it annoys. Maybe it's the savage depiction of Hollywood politics and the amoral glamour industry surrounding it. After all, neither blackmail nor murder is off-limits to ego-maniacal studio boss Stanley Hoff ( vintage Rod Steiger), while the human sharks swimming around him behave nothing like opening night at the Oscars. Maybe it's the sterling cast, featuring such 50's exotica as Steiger, Jack Palance, Wendell Corey, and Shelley Winters. In the end, of course, everyone gets to explode on screen except the ice cold Corey whose chronic bemusement proves ultimately more satanic than cynical. Whatever the reason, the result is an over-the-top cavalcade of unusual flair.

It's likely that producer-director Robert Aldrich targeted the film in behalf of blacklisted mentor Abraham Polonsky with whom he had collaborated on 1948's Force of Evil. After all, the year was 1955 and the all-powerful list could not be attacked directly, so what better vehicle than Clifford Odet's corrosive stage play adapted for all America to see. (Odets would do the same for Broadway in 1957's revealing Sweet Smell of Success.) It's fun to imagine how Aldrich's resulting indictment played in studio screening rooms where real reputations were at stake. Then too, much of the film's dirty laundry appears based on fact. The hit and run on Clark Gable's hushed-up 1933 episode; the Palance character on John Garfield's death at 39, listed officially as heart attack. It's hard to picture the producers ever believing such curdled fare would actually make money. Of course it didn't, angering many ticket-buyers with a title that seemed to imply real action instead of endless palaver. Still, this overheated exercise in shameless baroque remains an interesting oddity. A permanent record not only of individual styles, but of artistic protest amidst the throes of cultural repression.
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Slightly better than average melodrama
funkyfry20 November 2002
A charged, stage-bound melodrama, with Palance as a movie star in servitude to the studio boss (Steiger) who's blackmailing him. His wife (Lupino) won't agree to live with him until he's his own man again, which means not renewing his 7 year contract.

Palance does his best, but he's not the kind of actor who can show a character going through real transitions and hold the audience's attention for an entire film. Steiger is allowed to go over the top a few too many times, but Corey provides some of the film's best moments as his more ruthless, and at the same time gentlemanly, henchman. Sloane provides an unusual characterization as a somewhat sissified agent.

Ultimately, too cramped in its one room location (which may have been done deliberately to show the character's isolation from the world, but still produced a stagey effect that bind the film too tightly).
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For collectors only...
conono12 June 2007
Wow...overwrought, overacted, over-the-top melodrama trying ever-so-hard to be *about* something. But it's really not about much, despite the putative 'Corrupt-Hollywood' theme. Just a series of intermittently-entertaining, scenery-chewing set pieces in a Bel-Air living room.

A whole lot of talent wasted here--acting, writing, not so much directing. Fans of the film's several excellent actors will survive this viewing more readily than others. Everyone's finest chops--and then some--are on display, over and over, desperately in search of significance. Even the music is ridiculously overdone. "Pay attention! This is wrenching drama!" Only, it's not.

"The Big Knife" reminds me of nothing so much as a lame stage play where shouting and noisemaking take the place of genuine dramatic tension. This whole mess was generously forgotten in a couple years, thanks to 1957's vastly superior "Sweet Smell of Success" --check that one out instead.
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The Hollywood system
RanchoTuVu19 December 2005
A film about a studio blackmailing their biggest star (Jack Palance) into signing a long term contract. The situation gets brutal when he refuses and the studio boss (Rod Steiger) resorts to threats of blackmail over a past incident involving the accidental death of a child. Palance is at an artistic and emotional crisis point in his life, fed up with the kinds of pictures that the studio casts him in and close to losing his wife (Ida Lupino) who wants him to leave Hollywood all together and work in New York. Set largely in his Bel Aire mansion living room, various characters enter and exit, among them Jean Hagen as the lusty wife of one of his best friends, Shelley Winters as a very frustrated aspiring actress whose main use to the studio is as a call girl, Wendell Corey who plays the studio lawyer in one of this film's best roles, and Ilka Chase who plays a ruthless gossip columnist out to find out the truth about Ida and Jack after hearing rumors of their planned divorce. It has a soap opera quality to it like some of Sirk's work, and equals that director's talent in maintaining the pace and getting stellar performances from the actors, while building up to a stunning finish, and all along the way dropping one bombshell after another.
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"Failure is not Permitted here"....
tim-764-2918568 May 2012
Bel Air. The well-manicured area of LA where the successful actors, producers and directors in Hollywood live. So says the opening voice- over.

Jack Palance, not the obvious choice for a leading man (& director Robert Aldrich's lame excuse for the film's box office failure) has never been better, nor has he had such a meaty role. His portrayal of pent-up anger and frustration is powerful yet still believable.

He's the washed up star who's unravelling at the seams, wrestling with a dark secret and Rod Steiger, complete with blonde hairdo as his studio manager who is out to keep a lid on bad publicity at all costs. He will stop at nothing at getting a new contract signed.

Ida Lupino is also extremely fine as Charles Castle's (Palance) wife. Their marriage is on the rocks and she pleads that Charles takes the rest that he desperately needs and to not sign. She won't go back to him otherwise. There's good support from tease Shelley Winters and as Charles' agent, Everett Sloane plus Wendell Corey as a ruthless producer.

Much of the action takes place in the Castle's vast living room, nodding to the theatrics of the original play by Clifford Odets.

This is a slow-burning, quite talky, intelligent character-led and well scripted study of Hollywood's mechanics - its layers of people. Not as flashy or melodramatic as some and certainly not as well known, but still directed with surety and skill. Today's viewer will have to adjust to the pace and style but that's easy and the rewards to those attuned can be high.

There's enough depth to the material for a second viewing, which helps bring out the characters even more vividly.
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Not Enough of That Aldrich Style
evanston_dad2 April 2008
This rather over-heated Clifford Odets play gets the screen treatment by pulp specialist director Robert Aldrich.

Jack Palance plays Charles Castle, a sex symbol movie star who's blackmailed into re-signing a seven-year contract with his sleazy producer/director, Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger). Charlie's wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), wants her husband back, and tries to persuade him to refuse. The wife (Jean Hagen) of his agent comes on to him; a floozy studio bit player (Shelley Winters) wants him too. Everybody has something on him and tries to use it to get him to do what he/she wants. The film is a bitter and caustic expose of the Hollywood studio system as it existed in 1955, and how selling yourself to the bigwigs was akin to selling your soul to the devil.

The film is too talky by far, and it's marred by sub-par acting, especially from Palance himself, who isn't right for the role, and Steiger, who's absolutely atrocious, screaming his way through an unwatchably mannered performance. Aldrich does his best to lend some visual variety to what is essentially a one-set movie, but it feels restricted. While it's satisfyingly sordid, it doesn't have the fascinating depravity so prominent in Aldrich's other 1955 release, "Kiss Me Deadly."

Grade: B
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telegonus30 December 2007
The Robert Aldrich movie adaptation of Clifford Odets' play, The Big Knife, has been praised to the skies for its boldness in attacking the Hollywood studio system in its prime, criticized for being badly written, with stereotyped people going through the motions, and for lacking any real depth or insight. I've watched the film a few times, and I must say that it does not improve with each viewing, not a good sign. The second time around everything plays as it did before, only now one knows the ending. There are few ancillary pleasure along the way, as the production is cheap looking and appears to have filmed in someone's house and backyard.

As to the story, just about everything revolves around the anguish of movie star Charlie Castle, a man who gave up a promising career as a serious actor on stage to become a big name in Hollywood, and who wants to bail out of his studio contract. The studio has different ideas. There are women in Charlie's life; a dark secret in his past that his bosses know about and use against him. Poor Charlie is trapped,--in a six figure job he despises! (Now it would be millions.) We should all be so unfortunate. He's a hard guy to sympathize with, made worse by the casting of the charmless Jack Palance in the role, who seems to be suffering from a splitting migraine for the entirety of the picture.

Director Aldrich keeps his camera close to his characters, to the extent that one feels trapped in the same room with them. He might have pulled back a bit, given us more reactions shots, not focused so intensely on each player in his Big Moments. It's like he's encouraging them to ham it up, and most of them do. Rod Steiger playing a caricature of a studio chief is like, well, Rod Steiger playing a caricature of a studio chief. There are no surprises with him. Nor do Ida Lupino or Shelley Winters fare better in their roles. Wendell Corey, who had a way of savoring his lines, has some good moments, but the lines he delivers are ghastly. At least he didn't go over the top, as most of the rest of the cast did.

Why watch this movie? Because it's watchable. The major players are all talented, interesting even when they're not at their best. We also get a nice glimpse of the Eisenhower years, when conformity ruled and people weren't supposed to speak out on matters of great importance, especially when of a highly personal nature. Pleasant chitchat was the norm. Not in this movie. Since people sound off on all manner of issues these days the film hasn't got the shock value it had back when it was first released. With the Hollywood studio system long gone, the movie has lost its relevance. To many younger viewers Charlie's angst probably comes across as much ado about nothing. For this reason, however, the picture is important. Artists took themselves seriously back in the day. Irony wasn't hip yet. Charlie's predicament is heartbreaking to him, even if it doesn't make much sense to the viewer. Since he was a classically trained actor he felt like he was betraying himself, selling his soul to the money men of Hollywood. "Selling wha?", a younger person might ask. People are different today. There's no longer the huge alternate universe of high art to oppose the popular art of Hollywood and the mass media. They've gobbled everything up. The gobbling up of talent is the point of the movie, and also why it seems so dated. Art was a serious matter back in the 50's, in a way that it isn't anymore. For this reason alone the movie is worth watching.
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A Star Is Bored
wes-connors20 January 2013
Idealistic film star Jack Palance (as Charles "Charlie" Castle) doesn't want to sign a new contract with his studio. Instead, he'd like to patch up a failing marriage with Ida Lupino (as Marion). But tyrannical movie mogul Rod Steiger (as Stanley Shriner Hoff) won't take no for an answer. He reminds Mr. Palance about a scandalous incident covered-up by the studio, and demands the actor sign. Shady henchman Wendell Corey (as Smiley Coy) and Hollywood types hang around Palance's Bel Air estate while we wait for a decision...

This was a 1949 Broadway play written by Clifford Odets and directed by Lee Strasberg for John Garfield. Unfortunately, Mr. Garfield died of a heart attack in 1952 at age 39, or he might have starred in this film. At one point, the main character is provided with a phony "heart attack" story...

There is a hint of Garfield in Palance's manner; possibly, the director and/or star saw Garfield in the play, or Mr. Odets influenced the proceedings. Film director Robert Aldrich makes this a fine acting ensemble piece, and everyone does well in that regard. Most memorable of the lot is probably Mr. Steiger, who takes a bite out of ruthless studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn. Relying mostly on camera angles, close-ups and music cues; "The Big Knife" does not, however, reach full potential as cinematic art.

******** The Big Knife (8/55) Robert Aldrich ~ Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Wendell Corey
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A restrained, almost dull, Aldrich film with terrific acting? Weirdly so.
secondtake18 September 2010
The Big Knife (1955)

You always expect something edgy and a hair impolite with a Robert Aldrich film, from his over-the-top film noir cult classic "Detour" to the bizarre and gripping "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" It's almost as though his rich upbringing and rejection of a nice political life made him a fearless renegade. Give him credit. He cracked the Hollywood doldrums of the 1950s and early 60s like few other directors (Kubrick comes to mind as a big budget parallel).

So you can get a lot out of "The Big Knife" in understanding Aldrich. And you can really enjoy a superb set of performances, mainly by Ida Lupino as the leading man's wife, and by Everett Sloan in an aging version of his usual submissive chumminess. Rod Steiger is there, powerful and a bit overacted, if you can overact in an Aldrich movie, and the headliner, Jack Palance, does his best at being a leading man, and is pretty fine, especially since his role is as a Hollywood actor with flaws.

Throw in some really crisp cinematography by Ernest Lazlo, one of the best of his generation. Sometimes the camera will take on an angle that rocks you slightly, as when it is looking up from the floor at Palance on the massage table, with his agent towering overhead. More subtle is Lazlo's fluid long takes, or even fluid short takes, where the camera just makes sense of a scene not by framing it right (which is expected) but by moving it during the take. Once you notice it, you appreciate more and more how the interior of this house (the set for the whole movie) is made dimensional and alive.

I say all this up front because the movie struggles against the story and writing despite all this. It's a play adapted to the screen, but rather literally, with the one main set for all the shooting. And it talks a lot. I don't see this working even on a stage, where you want and get dialog. Here it's almost deadening. Not that it quite is ever boring, but it tries too hard, and it pulls a couple of sensational twists out as it goes, with another sensational twist at the end. On top of all that is just a level of credibility. None of these Hollywood businessmen strike you as quite right, and what they say or do is all caricature.

Not that we expect a movie, especially an Aldrich movie, to be believable. But there has to be some compensating excitement. This one, with a great noir title but no real noir qualities, never quite flies. It's worth watching if you like Lupino or Aldrich in particular, and it has moments of real intensity, but that might not be enough in the big picture.
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days of big studios, huge egos, blackmail...
MarieGabrielle14 September 2009
Clifford Odets covers it all here, with some memorable performances by Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Wendell Corey as studio PR and bag man "Smiley Coy". Jack Palance as the principal character, a troubled leading man Charlie "Cas" Castle, who is trying to maintain vestiges of his ethics and values in a soul-less profession. Also a few good cameos with Shelley Winters as the scandal scapegoat, and an annoying histrionic performance with a drunk Jean Hagen attempting to seduce Palance.

Lupino is Castle's estranged wife, who wants him back if he will not sell his soul to the studio. There are some memorable scenes with her as the grounded spouse, seeing Castle destroyed by the system, and trying to pull him out of the mire. Hollywood in those times was something not easily detached from, as Castle is a major star and studio head "Uncle Hoff". Rod Steiger excels here in that role as narcissistic tyrant Hof. His monologue regarding his wife, her illnesses and survival of the fittest in Hollywood is indelible, and rings true.

Lupino and Steiger alone can dominate the scenery, as she glowers at him while he is lecturing Castle. While a bit talky at times, the subject of stardom and Hollywood of those times is intriguing. As Marilyn Monroe once said, ..."Hollywood is a town where they give you a million for your body and a nickel for your soul"... Classic. 9/10.
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"Pictures with guts"
Steffi_P16 May 2010
With the mood of cynicism that permeated the motion picture industry in the years after the war, Hollywood itself sometimes became its own target. With the decline of the studio system and the rise of the independent producer, this was inevitable. Pictures like Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful veiled their attacks, were somewhat playful in their satire, and in any case chose relatively soft victims. The Big Knife however is flagrant and visceral, and put its producer-director Robert Aldrich in the studio bad books for several years to come.

Even before The Big Knife went into production, it was hard to get either backers or cast willing to be associated with it. Aldrich eventually took on a supporting actor to play a lead role. But Jack Palance is no second-fiddle player. For his looks and demeanour he was usually cast in tough baddie roles, but here he gets to show his considerable dramatic range. He continually mixes his emotions with exceptional skill – an example being when he snaps angrily at Everett Sloane, showing a hint of vulnerability beneath the surface that is both believable and faintly poignant. This is one of his most impressive performances and he is more than able to carry the picture.

The rest of the cast, while similarly not the most glamorous of choices, are a real box of gems nonetheless. Opposite Palance we have Ida Lupino, not an outstanding actress, but always one who radiated great intelligence and dignity. This is by far the best I have I have ever seen from her, and her character's relationship with Palance's is truly touching. Also at his very best is Wendell Corey, a man who tended to play blandly obnoxious types, as he does here, but capable of demonstrating real humanity and depth when it was required. Rod Steiger's performance is, at first glance, a little too surreal and theatrical for a straight drama, but as the picture wears on it seems somehow appropriate for the one absolutely despicable villain to be some kind of bizarre caricature. In any case, he is good fun to watch.

The question is begged, if The Big Knife was such a bugbear to the Hollywood establishment, and has such an iconic cast, why has it not been championed by latter-day hipster film geeks? The answer is simple: The Big Knife simply isn't that good. Robert Aldrich was a skilled director of dynamic action flicks, and it's clear he now truly wanted to raise his game and make serious dramatic pictures. But good as his intentions are he's out of his depth. He simply doesn't understand the kind of manipulation needed to make a stage play work on the screen, without it seeming like an endless string of talking, and for all his movement of the camera the narrative still remains dull and static.

The production is also scuppered by two seemingly minor factors. First, the set decoration is far too cluttered, and while Aldrich makes some good use of bringing props into view at opportune moments, there is simply too much business there and it upstages the actors. Secondly there is that score by Frank DeVol, which clearly thinks it is modern and innovative, but is frankly annoying, especially since the poor mixing makes it sound as if DeVol's drumming is actually supposed to be taking place on the set, and you expect a guy with a snare to suddenly walk into the frame. When you see how badly it is done here, you can appreciate why the Academy gives awards for such "boring" categories as Art Direction and Sound. The ironic thing is, had a major studio dared to pick up The Big Knife and got a better production team to work on it, they could probably have done a fairly decent job.
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Great Cast of Actors
whpratt115 June 2007
The Big Knife was a Broadway Play starring John Garfield and when John passed away, Hollywood made this story into a film in which Jack Palance played the role of (Charles Castle) along with Ida Lupino, (Marion Castle) who plays Charles's wife who also have a young son. Charles has been a successful actor and made many films in Hollywood and really wants to quit the movie industry and get back together with his wife and child who he has been separated from. However, Rod Steiger,(Stanley Shriner Hoff) is a famous Director and Producer who wants Charles to sign a seven ( 7 ) year contract and will not take no for an answer. Stanley does everything possible to make Charlie see his way and uses all kinds of strong arm tactics which creates a real drama. Great film and great acting by the entire cast. Enjoy
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A Big Yawn
Vornoff-318 June 2003
It is extremely rare that I see a movie from 1955 that I don't love. Noir, JDs, Sci-fi, Drive-Ins; I dig it all the most. Robert Aldrich is a director who has done plenty of excellent work, and most of this cast has fine performances under their belt. So what went wrong?

When I used to work in the Independent Film world, we used to talk about something called "actors' movies." Actors' movies are movies that are unwatchable to anyone but other actors. Actors like "actors' movies" because they get to see ACTing - which is to say completely over-the-top melodrama. Actors love to be given the chance to totally let loose "give it all they've got" and they get a great satisfaction from watching other actors do so. In many interviews with actors they say "he was a great director, he never interfered with me in any way." Actually that's the opposite of good directing, because the whole POINT of having a director on the set is to keep the actors from making fools of themselves (which, given the chance, they will always do).

Apparently Robert Aldrich forgot that on this project. Or maybe he was ill. Or maybe he thought there was no hope for saving the script in the first place, so what the heck? Whatever the case, here is an example of a lesser-known movie that is best forgotten. The characters gesticulate, pontificate and generally ham it up all the way through. One thing I can say is realistic: it's set in Hollywood and everyone acts like their petty problems are the most important thing in the world. Doesn't make it fun to watch, but it is realistic. What isn't realistic is that a producer so desperate to keep his star under contract is going to go out of his way to antagonize him in almost every conceivable way - including requiring him to engage in illegal activity. But this and other plot contradictions merely carry along the melodrama, increasing the opportunity for hand-wringing and shouted accusations.

I did manage to get to the end of this film, which makes it no worse than a "3" out of 10 in my book. But, why test your own endurance when there is so much else available to rent?
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