The Big Knife (1955)

Charles Castle (Jack Palance) has found great success in Hollywood, but to do so, he’s sacrificed his artistic integrity, taking whichever role would make him the most money.

Castle came to Hollywood with big dreams of making great films. He had morals, he saw acting as a craft. But he sold out. He’s tired of compromising himself as an artist, and he wants out of the studio so he can make films that mean something, with filmmakers like Kazan and Mankiewicz (who are name-dropped in the dialogue!).

Castle won’t get away from the system easily, though. His boss puts heavy pressure on him to stay with the studio, trying to manipulate him into re-signing his contract.

Robert Aldrich directs 1955’s The Big Knife, a satire on Hollywood’s lack of morals… and lack of true art. This film was written by James Poe from a play by Clifford Odets. Starring alongside Jack Palance (whose role was originally intended for John Garfield, according to IMDb) are Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey and Jean Hagen.

(Image via Taxi 11)
(Image via Taxi 11)

The Big Knife explores the pressures and failings of the studio system as well as the troubles of life in Hollywood in general — marriages plagued by infidelity, gossip-fueled media, alcoholism.

These are all themes that are common to films which Ida Lupino either appeared in or directed. She has a secondary role as Palance’s wife here, but she’s a strong asset to the film, as expected.

Palance is decent, too. If a quick internet search is any indication, a lot of people have criticized him in this film for not being “leading man” material or not being able to carry the film on his own. I do think Garfield would have been perfect for this role, but Palance, taking Garfield’s place due to his unfortunate death in 1952, is just fine in the role. I usually enjoy Palance’s performances and think he was a very capable actor.

The Big Knife certainly reads as a film based on a play. It’s quite wordy at times (and by “at times” I mean “most of the time.”) All of the action is contained within Castle’s home.

There are a couple of strong scenes which stop it from getting too dull, such as Castle’s first big confrontation with studio boss Hoff (who shares his own story of giving up a marriage in favor of his career). However, the pace is slow and the film does feel longer than it actually is due to its abundance of dialogue and staginess.

The film drags quite a bit and as a result I didn’t love it. I found myself tempted to skip forward a few times. However, the tension really grows in the final act, with things getting very overdramatic. This kind of makes up for the earlier lulls.

I expected more from The Big Knife due to its cast, and the cast does perform quite well. It isn’t a bad little melodrama, but I can’t say I’d recommend it highly. The score: 2/5

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