By Jake Rutkowski.
There are few time capsules more compelling to me than works in which Golden Age Hollywood peels back the curtain on its own sordid affairs. What normally proceeds is melodrama in the throes of self-aggrandizement, tempered by winking metatext that points to the absurdity of it all. It’s a familiar if narrow sub-genre, perhaps better established through its lasting impact than what limited primary sources, namely Sunset Boulevard (1950) and a handful of film noir pieces set in seedy Los Angeles, set the standard. The phenomenon has rippled out such that it’s fairly easy to conjure later examples that carry the torch, from Kenneth Anger’s scandalous and specious Hollywood Babylon to the Coen Brothers’ latest, Hail, Caesar! (2016).
Robert Aldrich is no stranger to this canon himself, having directed such sleazy reflections on LA and its culture industry as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), and The Big Knife (also 1955), the latter of which has just seen a Blu-ray home release from Arrow Academy/MVD. An adaptation of the 1949 Clifford Odets play by the same name, The Big Knife tracks a straight enough story: ensconced in the well-appointed suburban hamlets of 1950s Beverly Hills, A-list actor Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) broods as he’s besieged by gossip columnists, fame-hungry women, an estranged wife, and aggressive studio heads. Scenery chewing and tragedies abound, as one might expect from a stage adaptation of this stripe. Beyond a glib admission that the film literalizes the term “stagey” at times (there’s an excerpt on YouTube entitled “One of the most overdone, overwrought scenes in movie history” with 2.1 thousand views), I was captivated by this bit of meta-cinema and the way it finds a sentimental core in Aldrich’s oeuvre of hellbent cynicism. It raises big questions of voyeurism, studio control, and genre specificity in a burgeoning medium, but what pushes The Big Knife beyond ho hum navel-gazing is the mastery with which Aldrich and his cast explore the creases and shadows of their rich but limited space.
One challenge that The Big Knife faces head-on in its design is the tension between the seductive appeal of Beverly Hills and the oppressive power structures therein. After an atypically minimalist Saul Bass title sequence that uses Palance’s razor sharp face frenetically grimacing in high contrast, we are thrust into a hurly burly establishing montage of homes in quick zooms and Dutch angles. We crane in from the chaos on Charlie sparring in his backyard in preparation for his next role, an omnipotent spectator, bearing down on this actor’s life because it is our God-given right to observe his every waking moment. In some regard, these opening minutes approach invasive entertainment gossip culture with the same puckish antagonism as the Bugs Bunny short “A Hare Grows in Brooklyn,” a send-up of the actor profile newsreel that predates Odets’ play by two years. I always enjoyed this “man behind the rabbit” cartoon biography, and The Big Knife taps into its playfulness, however briefly. Charlie has his own columnist sparring partner in Patty Benedict (Ilka Chase), who badgers him into choosing between giving more details on his looming divorce or dishing on the night his best friend was arrested for a hit-and-run. It’s here that the tone turns away from a breezy and good-natured ribbing of Hollywood’s vanity and begins digging into the anxiety that permeates the zippy social schedules and carefree confidence of the star machine. Punchiness gives way to a languishing despair and it’s suddenly evident that Charlie’s spacious home, where we spend most of the rest of film, is a false paradise. Here’s where the art direction of William Glasgow and set decoration of Edward G. Boyle really shine. They create a home that’s all angles and shadows, Mid-century modern by way of Robert Weine. As Charlie faces and fails each gauntlet thrown in front of him, a lascivious hanger-on (Jean Hagen) here, an overbearing pair of extortionist producers (Rod Steiger and Wendell Corey) there, his domestic space begins to feel less like an oasis and more like a suffocating trap. And this is where Aldrich and his longtime cinematographer Ernest Laszlo go in for the kill.
As Charlie’s week moves along, it becomes clear that we won’t be seeing much of his life outside of the house. Aside from a brief interlude at the beach house where his wife and son have been staying, Charlie doesn’t leave his home for any sustained period of time until about an hour and some change into the film. This stasis is of course another holdover from the stage, so what’s a production team to do? For one, recognize that the claustrophobia of Charlie’s situation is part of the point, pinning him down in blocking schemes behind wet bars and in odd seating arrangements, and bringing a heavy use of key lighting that casts imposing silhouettes on the walls. Even in the open air on a massage table in his backyard, Charlie’s personal space is dominated, as he speaks with his agent who looms over him in a surreal low angle. Palance’s performance does not betray this trapped atmosphere, bringing a cagey energy of fluttering hands and manic outbursts. It’s hard now to think of him sneering that thin contorted sneer anywhere but on a plain out by the Tetons, but the uncanniness of seeing him writhe his way through ambivalence and sentimental longing underscores the paradox of watching a man spiral out of control in a tightly monitored environment. James Poe’s adapted screenplay recognizes the vacillations of this jungle cat energy, alternating nicknames for Charlie between “tiger” from his wife Marion (Ida Lupino), and “kitty” from studio man Smiley (Corey). The camera slithers around this domestic wilderness in tracking shots and slow-gliding zooms, and moves sharply with its actors as though on a motion-sensor, adding to the sense of surveillance. Aldrich’s creative solutions for exploring the limited breadth of a suburban setting call attention to the specter that hovers ever-so quietly at the edges of The Big Knife: television.
Charlie is a Broadway ex-pat who openly laments the quality of the filmmakers he has to work with, pining for names like Wilder, Wyler, and Kazan. He’s stuck with Hoff (Steiger), a B-level producer who keeps his talent under lock and key with blackmail. As a means of escape, Charlie mulls the prospect of working in television, only to write off the medium. The actor’s idealism is at the core of the story’s turmoil, and his artistic integrity proves fateful. Jean Hagen’s performance as a gleefully anarchic temptress determined to stir up trouble for Charlie adds contextual depth to this theme. Hagen would have been known to audiences as the housewife opposite Danny Thomas on the television sitcom Make Room for Daddy at the time that The Big Knife was released. That was a markedly different and self-serious role, one that saw her holding the domestic space together rather than tearing it apart. Her advances then, in addition to throwing a wrench in the actual plot of the film (she’s just as determined as Hoff to use Charlie’s secrets to coercive ends), provide an intertextual layer to the temptations driving our protagonist. This point is hit gently in a behind-the-scenes featurette that drums up excitement for the production, the most rewarding special feature on this Blu-ray release. The segment aired on television with some fanfare, as the narrator boasts that this is the first time TV cameras have ever recorded on a Hollywood soundstage (a hard claim to verify but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt). So in all, the film and its marketing provide an interesting data-point in the history of how television was both courted and vilified by its silver screen competitors. A novelist character (Wesley Addy) may capture the story’s moral arc in dialogue, but it’s television that places the film in a distinct vein of material history.
The Hollywood of The Big Knife is an invasive, deleterious prison of the mind and body. A panopticon designed and built by guard and inmate alike, but the little guy always loses anyway. Hoff brings an out-of-place and morally impotent bombast into Charlie’s home, and if Steiger can be accused of over-acting I think it’s only fair to say that this is what the character calls for. He’s all grandiose artifice, a skittering lizard posing as a great big gator (to use the film’s parlance), but that hardly matters. No matter how pathetic or obvious his shtick may be, he still owns his actors. He feels up Charlie’s new robe without hesitation when we first meet him, admiring the luxuries afforded by his contract. He explicitly tells his star, “I need your body, not your goodwill.” His unfettered access and manipulation highlights the unique isolation of an actor in 1955. Around this same time, the Screen Actors Guild became nothing more than a McCarthyite watchdog organization, stamping out any signs of a politics that did not suit their right wing benefactors. Marion even notes the death of Charlie’s ideology in the face of fame, pointing out that he “used to believe in the New Deal.” While this may call to mind the current climate of sports organizations cracking down on their employees’ political agitation, there’s an even clearer modern analogue in the film that points to its timelessness. I watched The Big Knife, by happenstance, on the morning that the New York Times dropped its exposé on modern Hollywood’s “open secret,” the decades of super-producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault and coercion. So when Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters) details the particular injustices of an actress’s life in a drunken ramble, delivered with all of her verve and spite and maudlin romantic hope, I was floored. The funny thing about open secrets is that none of this is new, but to have the eternity of it all compressed into a tiny moment was to have the power and the frailty of all cinematic history reified in black-and-white. It’s hard to walk away from a viewing like that without feeling like the film gets at something like the Truth. The final shot, a hazy iris that zooms out on a tableau of despair, echoes across decades of injustice. While any day would have been the right day to watch The Big Knife, there’s no time like the present.
Jake Rutkowski holds an MA in English from Rutgers University in Camden, where he studied genre semantics and the African-American hero in Western films of the 1970s. He helps program the Reel East Film Festival and regularly covers film at Identity Theory and Cutting to Continuity.