The Big Knife

Has anybody seen this 1955 film? Its a classic – about Hollywood corruption and very nearly didn’t get released. If you haven’t seen it, try and get hold of a copy.

Some of you may know I am a big fan of Jack Palance, who is the star of this modestly-budgeted film. Here he is at the pinnacle of his acting powers and there is some really stunning dialogue – sparkling like stardust in the ordure of Hollywood.

At times it is sluggish – overburdened with dialogue and lack of scene changes but at times it is almost Shakespearean in its witty sweep of ideas and perspectives. Tonight I will re-watch and pick out a few phrases to quote here. Okay I watched it again and here are some quotes:

Castle to Hoff: “Were you ever told that the embroidery of you speech was completely out of proportion to anything you ever had to say?”

Later in same argument:
Hoff (trying to persuade Castle that he should keep quiet about something bad which Hoff and Smiley are planning): “I built this studio! I, I with my bear hands! I rippped it out of the Earth! I built it up!”
Castle: “One more line of your phoney senatorial eloquence and I will cut you down – like firewood.”

Hoff: “I can’t go into battle with my hands tied. I have always been a simple man and I still make my breakfast on a roll, butter and a cup of coffee.”
Marion: “Mr Hoff. Can’t you stop speaking about yourself.”
Hoff (sneering): “Why does the woman have to be here?”
Castle: “The lady stays.”

Later in same argument:

Castle: “I am deliberately tampering with your modest ego Stanley because today I see what Stanley will do to protect the interests of Stanley Shriner Hoff Investments. Murder.”
Hoff: “This man buries himself with his mouth.”

Rod Steiger is great too as the domineering but cowardly ‘Hoff’.

The plot is waffer-thin because the ‘stage’ only once or twice briefly moves from the lounge of the Star’s plush modern house, but here it is: Charles Castle (Palance) is an established film-star and, as his wife (Ida Lupino, living apart and about to divorce him, he has to decide whether to renew his contract with studio Boss Stanley Shriner Hoff (Steiger). Bit-part players nudge him towards signing but he is torn. His wife doesn’t want him to resign a contract that basically ‘buys him’ and leaves no space for a wife, and anyway he doesn’t like Hoff and mistrusts him. On top of all this, one of his post-separation girlfriends (Shelley Winters) knows something about an accident he had years before – possibly involving the presence of another mistress in the car although this is never made clear) and unless he pays her more attention she will ruin his career. All this sends Castle careening towards a moment of possible self-destruction.

I was impressed too with Ida Lupino, not having really seen her before – she plays a sensitive and loyal wife who doesn’t want to lose her man but needs a life. Shelley Winters gets on her glad-rags to play the downtrodden ‘floozy-with-a-big-heart’ Dixie – a type of role she would later become famous for but a far cry from the psychotic mother in A Patch of Blue of ten years later, showing her acting range.

Steiger as the greedy Hoff, often crying aligator-tears to get his way, bullying Castle into signing the new contract, is great, but it’s Palance who totally steals the show. His breathy voice lends itself suprisingly well to the often intimate dialogue and his bulk (in the film Castle has starred in films about boxing) allows him to suggest threat, when with his wife without doing anything really other than leaning close to her. He cajoles, and mopes, attempting to win her back because he really deeply loves her. You quickly find yourself liking Castle’s character very much, even though he is lost, because he really only wants his wife back and to do good art. But the forces of Hollywood are against him.

In many ways the film is strangely contemporary – still: Castle and his wife collect art that he doesn’t understand but he knows that he likes it and as he stands in front of a modern painting of a clown he feels like he is staring in a mirror. The dialogue at times slumps into the fashion of the time with phrases like ‘cool-cat’ and ‘really gone’ cropping up, something I could do without, but it rises above this and what plot there is is passed about in the dialogue of the lead actors like a shuttlecock in a world championship final. Blink and you will miss it. In fact you really do need to watch this twice to catch all the gems.

Its a great parable about Hollywood corruption and a wonder it was ever made, let alone distributed. Watch it if you can.


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