This post is my entry in the 2016 CMBA Fall Blogathon 'Hollywood on Hollywood.' Check out all the posts here.
If any film could cure me of my obsession with classic Hollywood, The Big Knife might be it. Made in 1955 by veteran director Robert Aldrich, it pulls out every imaginable stop on the way to creating a portrait of a Hollywood that is completely corrupt, a place which around every turn is Lucifer himself, and in which only the strongest can survive. Of course, this wasn’t entirely Aldrich’s vision, but first that of Clifford Odets, famed playwright who spent time in Hollywood and formed, shall we say, a not-so-flattering opinion of its inner workings, which formed the basis of his play of the same name. Three years earlier, Hollywood lost one of its brighter stars, actor John Garfield; his untimely death of a heart ailment at age 39 was widely believed to be related to his anguish resulting from his Hollywood blacklisting. Ironically, Garfield was the one who had taken on the role of the main character in the initial Broadway run of Odets’ play in 1949. As a Hollywood casualty, Garfield was, for those making the film, top of mind during the creative process.
|Clifford Odets, www.broadway.com|
Odets in the late 1940s had already had a successful run as an acclaimed actor and playwright (Golden Boy; Awake and Sing!) in New York. In those early years he was a member of the Group Theater, a progressive cohort including director Lee Strasburg, then spent nearly a decade in Hollywood, writing for film and for television. As someone who was sensitive to the tug-of-war between the human spirit and Hollywood, he himself felt he ‘sold out’ to the system, and began to suffer periods of creative lapse. His play about the devastating effects of ‘pressure’ from the Hollywood star factory ‘The Big Knife’ was observed to be a very loose autobiographical portrait. Its main character, star actor heartthrob Charlie Castle, finds himself at a career crossroads at the opening; his marriage is in trouble and he has been unhappy in his roles provided by his home studio, where he’s under contract. His recent contract is up and he’s under pressure from the studio head, Marcus Hoff, to sign another multi-year deal. His wife has issued an ultimatum – sign and she leaves with their young son. For its part, the studio holds a powerful weapon in a criminal secret of a Castle misdeed they kept quiet from the public. The story takes place within Castle's own luxurious Beverly Hills home, with comings and goings of his wife, agent, studio boss Hoff and wing man Coy, friend Buddy Bliss and his wife, herself a sometime lover of Charlie, a fading starlet, also fatefully involved with Charlie, a famed gossip columnist, and a couple of personal assistants. In just a few days, Castle goes from mere anxiety to desperation and depression, as he buckles under and fights various pressures and makes fateful decisions.
|John Garfield. www.ibdb.com|
At the time Garfield took the lead role in this play on Broadway, he was already facing pressure in Hollywood for his alleged but unsubstantiated Communist affiliations, and he had left Warner Bros. Studios and formed his own production company. His long association with Odets in the Group Theater led to his casting as Charlie Castle, which was directed by Strasburg. A couple of years later he was blacklisted for refusing to name names during his testimony at the hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and while desperately trying to gain control of a faltering career, he died in New York in 1952. His participation in a show that was a condemnation of Hollywood likely did not help his standing there. The play received mixed reviews – the positive ones were mostly due to Garfield’s performance. For his part, Odets found himself criticized by those that felt his portrayal of Hollywood over-the-top harsh. He was quoted as saying: “I have nothing against Hollywood per se. I do have something against a large set-up which destroys people and eats them up. I chose Hollywood as the setting for The Big Knife because I know it.” The play ran for 108 performances.
|Robert Aldrich, imdb.com|
In 1955, when maverick director Aldrich decided to adapt the play to film, Garfield was already dead. Aldrich, who hammered out a productive career in Hollywood as a director or assistant director in a variety of genres, earlier had joined on with Garfield’s production company endeavors in the 1940s, sharing his progressive values and the desire to hold off the power of the big studio system. Aldrich’s directorial career took off with Westerns Apache and Vera Cruz, and he decided to form his own production company ‘The Associates and Aldrich’. He made the lauded Kiss Me Deadly, which was part noir and part nuclear apocalyptic warning. Then came The Big Knife, which no doubt would not have been made by any major studio. Aldrich had a hand in adapting the play for the screen, and the screenwriting credit went to James Poe; the result stayed generally faithful to the play.
|John Garfield and Shelley Winters |
in He Ran All The Way (from imdb.com)
In place of Garfield was Jack Palance as Charlie Castle. While perhaps not an obvious choice, Palance cut an imposing and handsome figure. Ida Lupino, already a director in her own right, was cast as Marion Castle. Lupino had been close to Garfield, and was personally persuaded to take on the role by Aldrich. After reviewing the script, she wrote to Aldrich saying some of her lines were such that she envisioned herself saying them to Garfield. Playing the studio head, Stanley (changed from Marcus) Hoff was Rod Steiger. Also in the cast were Jean Hagen, Wendell Corey, Everett Sloane, and Wesley Addy. In a small but critical role as starlet Dixie Evans was Shelley Winters, a close associate of Garfield, who starred with him in his last film He Ran All The Way. Winters dedicated her performance to him. Efficiently shot by Aldrich’s company on a $423,000 budget and within about two weeks, upon release by United Artists it didn’t win a large audience, nor did it expect to.
|Ida Lupino and Jack Palance in The Big Knife|
This cynicism coming through the film is not subtle. The character of studio head Hoff, is portrayed by Steiger is an egomaniac who indulges a dangerous temper, beats up young starlets, and condones murder in the name of keeping the studio reputation intact. Steiger’s performance has been criticized, and he definitely takes the opportunity to satirize the figure of the tyrannical studio head by his bluster. At one point, Castle says to him, “The embroidery of your speech is completely out of proportion to anything you have to say.” Steiger even reminded me, in some of his line readings, of Marlon Brando’s mob boss Don Corleone in The Godfather. I wonder if Steiger influenced Brando in any way for this later film. Considering the two actors had associations with the ‘method’ system of acting (coming out of the Group Theater tradition) and had worked together in On The Waterfront, I suspect this is possible. Regardless, Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn took this portrayal personally and made life difficult for Aldrich afterward.
|Rod Steiger throwing a tantrum in The Big Knife|
Other characters are 'typed' and exaggerated as well. There is the portrayal of the ‘studio fixer’ in the character of Coy, played icily by Wendell Corey, willing to do the studio dirty work. Innocent young starlets are pushed into prostitution on behalf of the studio, and agents are sniveling, powerless small men. There is even the character of the ruthless gossip columnist, who hounds stars and threatens them just to get the scoop. The portrayal of ‘Patty Benedict’ by Ilka Chase, although infused with some dignity, was likely a dig at Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons, who wielded considerable power in Hollywood. Perhaps not surprisingly, the script takes the opportunity to praise the Group Theater & Mercury Theater in contrast to studio politics.
|Shelley Winters tied up in a telephone line on the dance floor|
The film makes good use of style -- the set design looks sterile but appropriate as the interior of a home for a star in the 1950s, and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo plays in black-and-white with odd camera angles and sudden close-ups to keep the audience feeling uncomfortable. The sound design employed effects such as snare drum rolls at critical times to ratchet up the tension. The script itself included some cynicism through sarcasm, nowhere more evident than in the opening voice-over narration: “Failure is not permitted here.” The juxtaposition of upbeat music with the ominous language, both here and in the final scene, underscore this cynical attitude.
|Jack Palance and Everett Sloane|
|From the opening credits, Jack Palance behind a web|
As a film, The Big Knife will never have the popularity or audience of a Sunset Boulevard, for example; it’s too dark, too unrelenting, and in some ways, too preachy. The film takes pains to show Hollywood as a house of horrors – not a place that can’t be escaped, but rather one that requires extraordinary character and will to do so. All involved were acutely aware of, and some grieving, the premature loss of John Garfield. The additional pressure of the blacklist and the postwar cultural angst made for added challenge, and made life difficult for stars like Garfield who worked to maintain integrity. The message that Hollywood isn’t just about glitz and glamour, or even art, is an important one, even as we classic film enthusiasts in the 21st century find tremendous enjoyment from the products of the studio system.
Donati, William, Ida Lupino, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 1996.Miller, Gabriel, Clifford Odets, Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1989.
Lund, Carson, Essay on Robert Aldrich for the Harvard Film Archive, 2016: http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2016junaug/aldrich.html
Murray, Edward, Clifford Odets, the Thirties and After, Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York, 1968.
Odets, Clifford, The Big Knife, Random House, New York, 1949.
Odets, Clifford, The Big Knife, Random House, New York, 1949.
Stafford, Jeff. tcm.com online article The Big Knife. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/15874/The-Big-Knife/articles.html
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