Directed and produced by Robert Aldrich
A Hollywood actor (Jack Palance) has reached a crisis in his career. At the height of his popularity, he has sacrificed his professional integrity for fame and fortune, and now wants out. His wife (Ida Lupino) supports this decision, and will leave him if he doesn’t quit. His powerful studio boss (Rod Steiger) is pressuring him to sign a new contract, and will ruin him if he refuses. Will he stand up to one, or both, or will he crack under the strain?
This very rare example of Palance in a leading role shows both that he was competent, and that he was probably best in a supporting role. He gives a creditable performance, and is really the best thing in an otherwise sorry melodrama. It is based on a play by Clifford Odets and, despite Odets being one of the most prominent American playwrights of the twentieth century, reminded me of a university or high school work.
The script is filled with improbable lines and dialogue that would be found only on the stage. Almost every line could be spoken with half as many words and twice as much clarity. The characters were well-defined but without much subtlety.
The direction picks up where the script leaves off, and simply magnifies its problems. The comparison to a high school production becomes stronger, with yelling and crying taking the place of acting. Histrionics vie with overdone earnestness. Considering the fame and skill of the director, the placement and blocking of the actors is amateurish, Palance more than once facing away from the camera or even behind lampshades while talking.
As stated above, Palance did well, though he was badly miscast as a matinée idol. (John Garfield had filled the role during the play’s Broadway run, and would have been more credible.) The other actors are adequate in their roles, with the exception of Steiger, who gives an early example of the extreme over-acting for which he became infamous. It was like watching William Shatner on steroids. Everett Sloane, as Palance’s agent, was, in his own way, as hammy as Steiger. Lupino reacted rather than acted, though Wendell Corey, as Steiger’s henchman, did a good job.
The problem with The Big Knife stems, I think, from it being too personal. It appears, given Odets’s past, to be autobiographical in some ways. Odets had been a darling of the New York theatre crowd, the new talent, but had gone to Hollywood to write movie scripts. He imagined that he had sold out; Palance represented him in the film. Steiger was the studio boss for whom Odets worked, likely Louis B Mayer. Lupino was the wife who was almost Odets’s agent in dealings with the studio. The manifest emotions of the play may have been how Odets saw his relationship with Hollywood, or how he would have wanted it to be. He may have been too close to the subject to write a convincing, realistic depiction of the situation, and instead created a nightmarish interpretation.
Whether or not this view is accurate, The Big Knife is at different moments tiresome, annoying and unbelievable, but always unsatisfying.