Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Big Knife

"The Big Knife" (Robert Aldrich, 1958)

"Odets, where is thy sting?" George S. Kaufman

How much you like this movie depends on how much you like Clifford Odets and his writing.

Me, not so much.

Odets has always grated on me, his writing seeming like a creative writing parody of Tennesee Williams. He's of the "cookie made out of arsenic" school, where every metaphor is tortured and every character is an overwrought drama-queen, pontificating in the most flowery way possible their transparently obvious thoughts, often at the top of their lungs. Their world comes down to good and bad, the bad being moustache twirling scene-stealers and the good down-trodden martyrs. It's a theater-world as realistic as a proscenium arch and as subtle as projecting to the back of the house.

The Big Knife" is no better. An "exposé" of Hollywood corruption written in the '40's, but filmed in 1955—a decade saturated with industry self-loathing—the film suffers from its over the top theatricality. Robert Aldrich has never been the most tasteful of directors, but his stylishness with dreck has never been questioned. He can make chopped liver look like foie gras (even though it still tastes like chopped liver). Directing "The Big Knife"* (the year after directing the brutal, but terrific "Kiss Me Deadly")" he barely leaves the ornate living room of screen idol Charlie Castle, nee Charlie Cass (Jack Palance), well-payed but agonizing over signing a seven-year contract with a studio that might not be artistically fulfilling. At the time of the signing, he's artistically throwing himself into a boxing picture, so already his motivations are suspect. Mrs. Castle (Ida Lupino), recently separated from Castle, doesn't want him to sign (they're separated for Castle's philandering—what does she care?).

The reason Charlie's even considering signing is the hit-and-run accident that the studio has covered up to keep Castle's reputation with the public spot-less. And studio chief Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger) is only too willing to spill the beans if Castle doesn't co-operate and limits his work to his studio. As a signing bonus the studio just might eliminate the only witness to the case (Shelley Winters).

Odets prided himself on being of the "Kitchen Sink" school, but here he expects you to feel sorry for the plight of the privileged boo-hooing through their silk handkerchiefs rather than tissue paper. By the time of writing "The Big Knife," Odets was making good money, so maybe it was more artistically fulfilling to write about his contemporaries "in the biz," than take on the troubles of Ma and Pa Average. He also has no problems with Charlie being a perpetual lech and philanderer, but "a sell-out?" Horrors! One might ask
Frances Farmer her opinion of his choices.

John Garfield, who was Odets' stage mouth-piece, played Castle on Broadway in 1949. But the role is beyond Jack Palance—he didn't yet have the polish to play (or be) a Hollywood leading-man, so he mostly just seethes and heaves himself around the room. Ida Lupino, one of the best actresses around, is reduced to soap opera sop work here. The only actors who seem able to cope with Odets' purple prose are Winters with a force of cluelessness and Steiger, who just powers his way through like a bull—no hesitations, no apologies, which works well for the character—a studio mogul of the Louis B. Mayer/Harry Cohn ferocity.

The final act of the film is a mess of theatrical hysteria and misdirection that compresses a lot of story and reactions off-screen, while a running narrative informs us (or rather misinforms) about what all that hub-bub is upstairs. Perhaps Aldrich rushed through it to cut through the giggle factor, but the material is lumpen at any speed. You need a bigger knife than this movie's got to make it play.

* I keep seeing "The Big Knife" being referred to as a film noir. Nah. Sure, it's got a gritty title, and it's filmed in black and white, and the souls are sordid and Aldrich directed noirs--but, this is as much a film noir as "The Oscar" is!

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