Hollywood loves making movies about Hollywood. Usually, they are fawning tales about the magic of the movies, or about how some great artist fought against censorship or HUAC or some other such thing. Biopics usually show some warts of the artist but mostly show them in glowing lights. My favorites are movies that demonstrate just how difficult it is to make a movie. Sometimes, just every once in a while, a movie will depict the dark underbelly of Hollywood. How it chews up young starlets and spits them out when they no longer sell tickets, or how it demands constant artistic compromise, or how major stars, directors, or studio heads are absolutely terrible people.
The Big Knife is one such movie. It is also a complicated, sometimes difficult film.
Jack Palance stars as Charlie Castle, a big star who has made a string of very successful, if artistically questionable, films. He’s an idealist, meaning he wants to make great art and movies that mean something, but he compromised himself years ago by signing with Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger) who makes terrible movies that make a lot of money. Charlie’s contract is up and Hoff wants him to sign on for another seven years.
Charlie’s estranged wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), begs him to not sign. While success has brought Charlie a very nice house and plenty of luxury, it has also given him lots of alcohol and too many girls. It has destroyed his soul. He understands this and seems to want out, but he also likes those luxuries. His love for Marion gives him the courage to confront Hoff, but the studio head has dirt on the actor. It seems some years ago he was involved in a hit-and-run accident that killed a young boy. A young starlet, Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters), was also with him. Studio fixer Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey) managed to keep Charlie’s name out of it and convinced someone else to take the blame.
So Charlie signs the contract and sets up our movie. I feel like Charlie lost his soul a long time ago. If he were alone, he’d happily make whatever movies Hoff wanted him to and spend his time partying and enjoying life. But he loves Marion and wants to make her happy. Well, most of the time. There is a wonderful scene in which the wife of one of his friends comes over. She tries to seduce him. He pushes back. She tries some more. He pushes back harder. Until he doesn’t. That’s how Charlie operates. He’s not an outright villain like Hoff or Smiley. He’s a decent guy, but he’s weak.
It is a brilliant performance from Jack Palance. He’s sensitive but tough. He’s roaring like a lion one moment, then meek as a mouse in another. There is a physicality to it. Early scenes emphasize his strength. We see him with his shirt off, sweaty from a workout. He paces back and forth across the living room of his home (based upon a play, the film rarely leaves this one setting). But then later, over and over again, he’ll fall prostrate, sometimes kneeling before Hoff, or balled up in tears.
I love that the film never lets Charlie off the hook. We naturally respond to Palance as a charismatic actor and to Charlie as the lead character in his own story. But this isn’t a redemption song. We see Charlie’s many flaws. He seems to genuinely want to change his ways, but again he’s weak. His love for Marion only takes him so far. He’s both tragic and incredibly flawed.
I love Ida Lupino but she seems miscast here. Or maybe I just didn’t like the character. This is a woman disgusted enough with Charlie’s behavior that she’s taken their child and left him. She’s even allowed another man close enough that he’s proposed to her. But she keeps coming back. We never really see what draws her back to him, why she keeps loving him.
Rod Steiger owns every scene he’s in. He’s full of bluster and power. Apparently, he was based upon Columbia studio head Harry Cohn with bits and pieces of MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer. Shelley Winters is just in one scene but she completely nails it. I didn’t love Wendell Corey as Smiley. He plays the fixer almost emotionlessly, but there is no bite to it. The character ought to be stone cold but he just feels weightless.
The whole film seems just slightly off like it’s not quite hitting what it’s aiming for. Clearly, it is a critique of the old studio system, and Hoff certainly comes off as a cold-hearted bastard, but it isn’t exactly chewing up Charlie and spitting him out. He made plenty of bad choices on his own. Maybe that’s the point, the whole thing is ugly and broken. The film is a little like that, too. If it were more entertaining and more interesting to watch, it would be a true classic. As it is, it is really quite good, but not quite top-tier.
MGM presents The Big Knife in an extremely bare-bones Blu-ray. They provide no information on the transfer and there are no extras.