Sunday, January 31, 2010
The Big Knife
The 1950s produced a rash of sordid Hollywood insider tales—an offshoot of film noir’s knowing cynicism, perhaps. Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife, an adaptation of a Clifford Odets play, sits somewhere on the lower end of this mini-genre. His film lacks the camp grotesqueries that keep Sunset Boulevard compelling despite its sneering broadsides at slow-moving targets, and Aldrich can’t even touch on a more graceful, complex film like The Bad and the Beautiful, which implicates everyone in the whole corrupt system yet still exults in the joys of moviemaking. Instead, Aldrich settles for obvious villains and martyrs in this story of Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), a movie star yearning to escape Hollywood in order to salvage his marriage, but blackmailed into signing a new contract by the implacable studio (Rod Steiger, hamming it up as the studio boss, seems less modeled on Louis B. Mayer than Satan himself, browbeating people into signing away their souls). The Big Knife plods along like a medieval penitent, lashing away at the system that spawned it without understanding that self-abasement contains its own sin—namely, pride. Some aspects of the film’s attack on Hollywood still retain their sting, such as Shelley Winters’ excellent turn as an aspiring starlet kept by the studio as an unofficial call girl, but mostly the film lacks the perspective necessary to recognize the maudlin self-pity it has dressed up as tragedy.