In 1988 Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (“In
the Heat of the Night”, “The Poseidon Adventure”) got fed up with what he
called “the eel pit of Hollywood,” and moved to Thailand to start a new life. According
to the LA Times, he’d grown tired of
the power plays, the egos, the hypocrisy and the dictum that homage must be
paid to the box office. He left and never came back.
Hollywood has always had its dark side-- just read “Hollywood
Babylon.” Silliphant’s “eel pit” was never a more apt description than when, a
few years later in 2015, the film industry was rocked by WikiLeaks release of
some really nasty Sony emails that gave a glimpse into what powerful producers and
studio execs really thought of some of their stars. Scott Rudin called Angelina
Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat.” Clint Culpepper called Kevin Hart “a
whore,” and Amy Pascal said Leonardo DiCaprio was “despicable.” And the news
coming out of Hollywood these days is even worse. Allegations of sexual
harassment up to and including rape by powerful studio heads and A-list stars are
being revealed on an almost daily basis. Careers are ending faster than they
can yank the latest multi-million dollar “blockbuster” flop out of theaters.
And somebody or somebodies may go to jail.
Over the years there have been several attempts
to document Tinseltown’s seamy underbelly on film. Movies like “The bad and the
Beautiful,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “The Last Tycoon” gave it a try with
varying degrees of success. But without doubt the most scathing portrait of La
La Land ever put on film has to be Robert Aldrich’s “The Big Knife,” (1955).
This stark film, shot in black and white and 1.85:1 widescreen, is a searing depiction
of a “half-idealist” actor caught in the clutches of a powerful, merciless
studio boss who will stop at nothing, including blackmail and murder, to get
his way. Based on a stage play by Clifford Odets, the poet laureate of the
working man, and adapted for the screen by James Poe, “The Big Knife” tells the
story of screen star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), who is described in voice
over narration at the beginning of the film as “a man who sold his dreams but
can’t forget them.” He once had artistic aspirations as an actor, but through
his own weakness he succumbed to the lure of big money and became instead a
drunk, a womanizer, and the property of studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod
Forced to make some lousy pictures for Hoff, who
is content with making money and couldn’t care less about things like redeeming
social value or artistic integrity, Charlie sees a way out. His contract is
about to expire. Hoff wants him to sign up for seven more years, but Charlie’s
wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), insists he refuse to sign. She sees it as a matter
of survival. She has seen the steady corrosion of Charlie’s soul over the years
working for Hoff Pictures. She and Charlie have been temporarily separated on
and off for the last couple of years, but she tells him if he signs the new
contract she’ll leave for good.
Based on Odets’ stage play, most of the film
is confined to one set, the spacious play room of Charlie’s Bel Air mansion.
Aldrich and Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, using deep focus lenses, create a
claustrophobic atmosphere, shooting from low and high angles, with lamps and
chandeliers in the foreground, conveying the terrifying sensation of the walls
closing in on Charlie, as one character after another shows up to take away
another piece of his soul.
First is columnist Patty Benedict (Ilka
Chase), a barracuda who questions why Charlie has kept Buddy, his publicity man
on the payroll after he had served several months in prison for a drunk driving
hit and run that killed a child. Charlie tells her he’s been a friend for
years, and why dig that old news up? She also noses into the state of Charlie’s
marriage. When Marion appears (Charlie unaware she had entered the house), she
tells Benedict it’s none of her business. The columnist leaves in a huff and
warns Charlie she better not read about their break up in anybody else’s
column. Charlie scolds Marion for talking to Benedict that way, and when she
rebukes his obsequious, hypocritical act with her, he replies, in typical
Odets’ fashion: “I’m in the movie business. I can’t afford your acute attacks
“The Big Knife” is loaded with hard-hitting dialogue
that probably sounds over the top today, but in the context of the film, and in
the period in which it was made—a time when filmmakers and writers like Chayefsky,
Serling, and Inge were more concerned with moral value than writers are
today—it all works. When Charlie discusses his future with his agent Nat
Danziger (Everett Sloan), he considers the meager possibilities and concludes:
“Every way is a way to die.” Later in the story, when the walls get even closer,
he picks up a bottle and tells him “I’m getting sloshed in my own mud and
neon.” In a confrontation with Hoff and his hatchet man Smiley Coy (Wendell
Corey), who try to force him to sign the new contract, he tells them: “This is
all a bleak, bitter dream, a dish of doves. You throw this mess of naked
pigeons in my face. What am I to do?”
Further pressure comes from Buddy’s wife, a
tramp who throws herself at Charlie, cold and callous, heedless of the way it
will destroy their friendship. This betrayal becomes even more brutal when the
truth that he and Buddy share regarding the hit and run accident is revealed.
Finally, there is Shelly Winters as Dixie Evans, a starlet who knows too much
about the hit and run and is seen as a threat not only by Charlie, but more
importantly by Hoff and Smiley Coy. She’s the final straw that eventually
breaks Charlie’s back. As Dixie says: “First they louse you up and then they
call you a louse.”
Wesley Addey is on hand as (Horatio “Hank”
Teagle) a writer friend of Marion and Charlie’s, who calls Charlie a
half-idealist. “Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul,” he tells him.
But even that friendship is tainted by the fact that Hank has asked Marion to
leave Charlie and marry him. Every straw that Charlie gasps for only pulls him
down deeper. Wendell Corey perhaps best sums up Charlie’s character when he
calls him: “The warrior minstrel with the forlorn hope.”
The performances of all the cast members are first rate. Ida Lupino shines it what would be her last big dramatic role, after this becoming a highly successful director. Palance is intense, tough, and sensitive. We’re so used to him as the heavy, or as Curley in City Slickers, we forget he was also the original Mountain Rivera in Serling’s TV version of “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” The expression on his face at the end of the picture as he looks around the by now overly-familiar play room is somehow both angelic and tragic at the same time. Corey is slick and cool as Hoff’s right hand, and Rod Steiger, with his hair dyed snow white, is an erupting volcano, a monster spewing hate, power and control over those weak enough to be enslaved by the temptations he offers.
The Arrow Blu-ray disc presents “The Big Knife” in 1.85 aspect ratio transferred with just enough grain to give the picture a real film-like quality. The black and white cinematography is as harsh and unrelenting as the story. Extras include an informative audio commentary track with film critics Glenn Kenney and Nick Pinkerton, a featurette on Saul Bass who did the titles for the movie, the original theatrical trailer, and a short TV promo. “The Big Knife” is must viewing for anyone who cares about movies-- what they were and what they have become.