Trying to classify The Big Knife as one particular film genre over another isn't an easy task. But then, there weren't too many movies in the 1950s which brought up the possibilities of Hollywood corruption and cover-ups to light. Nowadays ‒ especially in the wake of the once-powerful movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's fall from the limelight ‒ it's easier for the public to imagine the sort of depths studio executives would sink to. And that's precisely the sort of pickle The Big Knife's tormented protagonist Charlie Castle is up against in this 1955 "exposé" from the acclaimed director of Kiss Me Deadly and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Robert Aldrich.
Based on the 1949 stage play by Clifford Odets, the story opens with Charlie Castle (played to the top ‒ and just a bit over ‒ by the great Jack Palance) at a moral crossroads in life. A popular leading man in the film industry, Charlie stands to lose his beloved wife, Marion (Ida Lupino) and their son should he choose to renew his film contract. And though the solution to his problem appears like a simple fix, it isn't.
For you see, there's a black mark on Charlie's soul hailing from his hazy, alcohol-fueled past (the hooch flows freely in this one); one which his overlords ‒ studio executive Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger, at his sleaziest, scene-devouring best) and his deadpan partner in crime, Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey, who surely appreciated the amount of booze being served in the picture) ‒ hang over his head mercilessly. Faced with a no-win scenario which is coupled with an increasing number of bad decisions, Charlie eventually finds himself in an even worse situation: he will be permitted to gain his freedom, but he's going to have to help Hoff and Smiley permanently silence a mouthy minor actress (Shelley Winters) to do so.
Co-starring Jean Hagen as the slutty wife of Palance's personal assistant, Ilka Chase as a gossip columnist equipped with a few threats of her own, Everett Sloane as Jack's kindly (but spineless) agent, Wesley Addy, and a dynamic supporting part by underrated character actor Nick Dennis, The Big Knife returns to slice under your skin from Arrow Academy. Presented in a widescreen 1080p MPEG-4/AVC transfer, the image quality is a huge upgrade over the discontinued open matte MGM DVD, which featured some print damage. That said, Arrow Academy's release is missing about a minute of footage for some reason, and I heard a few flaws in the LPCM 2.0 Mono audio near the beginning.
But, as I said, the overall quality is still a major improvement over what we've seen (and heard) before. English (SDH) subtitles are included with this title, and Arrow Academy has also assembled a few extras for this one. First and most notably, there's an audio commentary by film critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton. Next up is a vintage television special interviewing iconic titlist Saul Bass (whose work is on display in the opening credits of The Big Knife), which is followed by a five-minute television promo recorded on-set during the time of shooting. Introduced by Palance, he quickly passes the baton to Ilka Chase. Lastly, there's the original theatrical trailer, which is presented in a windowboxed 1.37:1.
First pressings of The Big Knife also feature a collectible booklet featuring a newly-written essay on the film by Nathalie Morris. At the time of this publication, Arrow Academy is investigating the missing footage, and replacement discs should be available in the near future. So don't go putting this Big Knife away in the kitchen drawer just yet, kids.