The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Big Knife

Clifford Odets had a curious, and tragic, Hollywood career.  Younger critics may know him less for his Hollywood product than for the savage parody of him assayed by the Coen Brothers in Barton Fink; there, they focused on the highfalutin young socialist-realist that he was, and not the embittered cynic he became — that, presumably, will be the subject of the long-rumored and possibly imminent Old Fink.  But the real-life Odets, though he bore some resemblance to the self-absorbed, fussy intellectual portrayed by John Turturro — trumpeting the glories of the theater of the common man while ignoring or deriding the actual common men he met in daily life — was also a figure of great talent, nobility, sincerity, and sensitivity.  He was a socialist playwright of great power when the times demanded it, and when he went off to make money in Hollywood, he emerged not unscathed but also not untalented.  His dealings with the crass, image-conscious, money-gobbling movie elite broke him, and he came out of the experience with one of the most jaundiced eyes for the motion picture business since Nathanael West.

The bile and scorn that bubbled inside him in his post-Hollywood days finds its purest expression in the verbal poison of 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, but it is there in natal form in Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife, made only a few years before.  It’s a transitional work, with just a tiny flicker of warmth in its ashen soul.  Its story centers on Charlie Castle, a Hollywood mega-star played with overly physical angst by Jack Palance; Palance wants to reconcile with his wife, a morally upstanding intellectual played by the wonderful Ida Lupino, so she and their child will come back and live with him in his huge Beverly Hills mansion.  Lupino still has feelings for Palance, who we learn was once an idealistic young lefty in the New York theater scene, but she refuses to come home if he re-ups his contract with the studio run by ruthless, egomaniacal schlock-meister Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger).  Further complicating things are the fact that Lupino is being courted by an old writer friend of Palance’s, played by Wesley Addy, and that Palance has some career-ending dirt on Castle that he intends to use to force him to sign the contract.

Odets’ embers of idealism find expression mostly in Lupino’s and Addy’s characters; at times, Addy, who lectures Palance about the perils of being a sell-out and soured idealism that is “the perionitis of the soul”, sounds like Odets speaking directly to the audience — or perhaps directly to himself.  That level of hooty dialogue is what makes the script seem like such a transitional work; it’s clearly full of vitriolic bitterness that makes it far removed from the noble class consciousness of his younger works, but it’s got just enough hope left in it to make it distinct from the sheer, world-leveling nastiness that would rear up in Sweet Smell of Success.  Though it’s a step removed from Odets (the screenplay was actually adapted from his play by James Poe), you can see the various ages of his work emerge from scene to scene.  Addy’s high-toned lectures about the average man are straight out of the Golden Boy years; every malevolent bloviation out of Steiger’s mouth is from the darkness of his later life; and when Lupino goes through a laundry list of real-world directors who, unlike Steiger’s character, are making vital and important films about real issues, it’s hard not to see a still-optimistic Odets ticking off the names of people he wishes would hire him.

This ad other scenes, in fact, are what make The Big Knife curiously redolent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris — not just in the presence of Palance, or in Lupino’s what-a-giveaway condemnation of the “contempt” in which Steiger holds everyone, but in the burning just-under-the-radar hatred for the entire studio system and its attendant convulsions and compromises.  The anti-show business show business memoir and the anti-Hollywood Hollywood picture are grand old traditions, and The Big Knife makes a heroic effort and carving itself a place in that tradition, wedged right in between the noir masterpieces of Sunset Blvd. and Sweet Smell.  It’s certainly not for lack of trying that it doesn’t often get mentioned among the great works of the genre.

What lets the air out of the whole thing can’t be laid completely at the feet of poor Odets, badly as he fares at times.  Some of the dialogue here is enjoyably nasty, but other bits are as full of hot wind as a zeppelin; likewise, the action of the film is a double-edged sword, with the overall stagey nature of the film slowing it down at times, but working in its favor in others.  Aldrich does his best to make good use of the camera (which he does in a few gorgeous shots, like an early scene were Palance spars with his personal trainer and some terrific medium-closeups where the faces of his oppressors loom like posters of Mao over Palance’s supine body).  The cinematography, which more than anything places The Big Knife in the noir idiom, is by Ernest Laszlo, who does a pretty astounding job.  The plot bogs down the longer a scene goes on, but early on, it’s almost bleak enough to read as a rehearsal for something even darker, a sort of proto-version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  

No, The Big Knifes fatal flaw is its casting, which should serve as a useful reminder that Method acting wasn’t all Brandos and Deans.  All too often, it was Palances and Steigers, who, in their every scene together, flake off enough shaved ham to fill a million chicken Kievs.  Palance (who never misses a chance to show his chest, bare his fangs, or make a menacing fist) subscribes throughout to the theory that emotional angst should always be expressed physically, and doubles over so much during scenes of great personal torment that it’s amazing nobody ever offers him a glass of Pepto.  Steiger is an absolute loon; he was only 30 years old when he made the movie, but he plays the role of a man twenty years older with the bluster of a man sixty years older.  He affects a blatantly prop-ish hearing aid and bellows every line like an air raid siren, intoning “CHAAAAAAAARLES, I SOLEMNLY ABJURE  REALISM” as if the lives of his loved ones depend on him playing to the back row of the theater.  Noir fixture Wendell Corey plays his flunky (named Smiley Coy, a name straight out of a Steve Ditko Mr. A comic) with a bit more grounded menace, but every time he delivers a line, he has to bounce it off Palance, who reacts by throwing himself against the nearest piece of furniture as if his bones have just been removed.  Lupino and Everett Sloane play with some restraint and dignity, but the latter just gets to make a lot of sad faces, and the former is given some of Odets’ most soft-baked dialogue.

All the parboiled pork being generated by Palance and Steiger don’t entirely sink The Big Knife, which is well worth seeing not only as a study of Odets’ career but as a decent example of showbiz noir.  It’s also plenty gorgeous thanks to Aldrich and Laszlo, and Frank DeVol’s thrumming jazz score is more worth listening to than a lot of the dialogue.  It’s a mid-level noir, though, at best, and it serves as a sterling example of the powers of a major writer of the period at both his greatest strength and his lowest ebb, from moment to moment, in the same picture.

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