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Sound and Fury: Impotent Violence in Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955)

While even most casual film noir fans seem to be acquainted with Robert Aldrich’s nihilistic late, great entry in the canon, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a noir-tinged film he made later that year with much of the same creative team, The Big Knife (1955), is unfairly passed over. Perhaps a difficult undertaking for fans of faster paced, more hardboiled crime films, The Big Knife blends together film noir and melodrama and is largely set bound, as Aldrich adapted a play of the same name from the great, though also now largely ignored Clifford Odets. Replete with a histrionic and at time hair-raising performance from Jack Palance, The Big Knife will hopefully find some new life in an upcoming Blu-ray release from Arrow Films.

A major Hollywood star, Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), wants to retire in order to save his marriage with his wife Marion (Ida Lupino), but the studio boss, powerful and demanding Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), insists that Charlie renews his contract for another seven years. Though he initially refuses, Charlie soon gives in, much to the disgust of Marion, who can’t decide if she is going to stay or finally seek a divorce. Charlie can’t just walk away because he was involved in a drunk-driving accident where he killed a child. His friend, Buddy Bliss (Paul Langton), took the rap and the jail time, but Charlie’s secret is also known by Dixie (Shelley Winters), a wannabe actress. When she can’t keep her mouth shut, Hoff wants to have her permanently silenced and expects a horrified Charlie to take part.

Admittedly, The Big Knife is a smaller, less grandiose film than Kiss Me Deadly; as in the play, it primarily takes place on one set, in Charlie’s California home, and is expectedly dialogue-heavy. There is much less sex and no on-screen violence than something like Kiss Me Deadly, and yet The Big Knife is a deeply sleazy film with scene after scene of crumbling marriages, affairs, seduction-for-hire, sex as manipulation, manslaughter, attempted murder, cruel fate, and more. Like the earlier Sunset Boulevard, it exposes the corruption inherent in the Hollywood system—and in turn, the American dream.

The film actually has much in common with Sunset Boulevard, down to the extensive use of melodrama, the theatricality and over-stylization—in The Big Knife, even the character names are a bit silly—and both films center on a weak protagonist who effectively digs his own grave. Jack Palance, chewing scenery with gusto as only he can as Charlie Castle, is the soul of victimization and inaction. He insists that everything happens to him and he is powerless to change events and reshape the course his life has taken. In a sense, it is easy to be lulled and manipulated by this seeming passivity, but in reality Charlie killed a child while driving drunk and allowed his only real, loyal friend to go to prison on his account. And then, as the ultimate betrayal, he had an affair with his friend’s alcoholic wife.

Though Palance is enjoyable, he—and the character of Charlie—are outshone by the ensemble cast dominated by actresses. The great Ida Lupino is underused as an unhappy woman who can’t make up her mind. This marks something of a resurgence in Lupino’s acting career during this period, combined with a superior role in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps, as she had more or less taken a break to kick off a career in producing and directing. Just two years before, in 1953, she made the only real original period film noir directed by a woman with The Hitchhiker, but would soon turn to directing television, a medium she helped shape.

The real star of The Big Knife is perhaps Shelley Winters as Dixie Evans, shining yet again as a lonely, desperately sexual woman (similar to her performances in The Night of the Hunter, also from 1955, and Lolita, a few years later in 1962). She manages to out-Palance Jack Palance in the key scene where she explains that her position with the film studio is as little more than a glorified prostitute. In general, the film’s powerful female performance reminds me of another particularly nasty, if unconventional film noir, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), an expose on the corruption inherent in journalism, where women are particularly cruelty cast as manipulators and the manipulated. Aldrich covers a wide range of types in The Big Knife; in addition to Lupino and Winters, Jean Hagen (The Asphalt Jungle) appears as a seductress who manipulates Charlie, while Ilka Chase (Now, Voyager) is a gossip columnist with a mean streak.

I think Aldrich is often remembered for his male-focused ensemble films and brutal depictions of masculinity, as seen in Kiss Me Deadly, but also Vera Cruz (1954), The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and The Longest Yard (1974). But his fascinating, if troubled career—thanks to the intervention of McCarthyism and the Hollywood Black List—includes many powerful female-driven narratives, namely cult titles Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). But The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), another scathing satire of Hollywood, also fits into this mold, as does The Killing of Sister George (1968), also based on a play about an actor’s downfall.

Aldrich had previously worked as with Joseph Losey (as well as Chaplin, Renoir, and Ophuls, among others) and there’s something similar about their approach to political material; what could have been just a film noir-tinged tragedy on the surface becomes something slimy and sinister thanks to Aldrich and Odets (who also scripted the gutting The Sweet Smell of Success, among other things). The film’s nasty veneer is ultimately peeled back with the film’s surprise ending: (SPOILER) Charlie resigns himself to the fact that he will never leave the studio system and his wife will never divorce him but will always remain unhappy, among other unfortunate revelations that will soon become public. In response, Charlie locks himself in the bathroom and slashes his arms open, presumably with the titular “big knife.” Suicide was most definitely frowned upon by the Production Code, and I can’t help but read this final scene as Aldrich’s ultimate “fuck you” to a studio system he had come to loathe and frequently did battle against.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray of The Big Knife—out at the end of this month—includes a 2K restoration and some nice special features. There’s a limited booklet with an essay from Nathalie Morris, a featurette, “Bass on Titles,” about the legendary Saul Bass’s credits sequence, which is taken from a documentary on Bass (apparently made by him) from the ‘70s. My favorite addition is the commentary track from critics Glenn Kenny (The New York Times) and Nick Pinkerton (Film Comment), which will definitely help contextualize the film for anyone unfamiliar with this type of film noir-melodrama hybrid. I love this strange, cruel little film and I hope this release helps it find a new audience, though I think it will appeal to fans of David Lynch’s more narratively convention films like Blue Velvet, particularly through some subversive, even a bit surreal supporting roles, such as those from Wendell Corey (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Rear Window) as Smiley Coy, a black-hearted press agent who discusses a cold-blooded murder without directly putting anything into words, or Rod Steiger as a manipulative studio executive who also oddly resembles a Bond villain with his white-blonde hair, tan, dark suits and sunglasses, and inexplicable hearing aid. Though the story has its roots in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which is discussed throughout, The Big Knife ultimately focuses on the kind of squalid, pathetic protagonist whose final act provides a strange sense of relief and frustration all at once.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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