Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Everett Sloane talks to Jack Palance

THE BIG KNIFE (1955). Producer/director: Robert Aldrich. Screenplay by James Poe from the play by Clifford Odets.

Movie star Charles Castle (Jack Palance) was involved in a hit and run that killed a child, but his p.r. man, Buddy (Paul Langton), took the rap for him. Charles' wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), who is separated from him, swears she'll divorce him if he re-signs with Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), who probably helped engineer the deception. Now there's a new complication: Castle had a woman with him in the car that night, Dixie Evans (Shelly Winters), and she's drunkenly shooting her mouth off everywhere she goes. Now Hoff and his associate Smiley (Wendell Corey), want to take care of Dixie -- permanently ... The Big Knife might have worked on the stage, and the Odets original was undoubtedly better than this half-baked adaptation, but the film sinks almost from the get-go. The chief problem is the epic miscasting of Jack Palance. Charlie might have evoked some sympathy in the viewer if he was played by a man who could get across his essential weakness and confusion, but Palance seems incapable of ever displaying the slightest trace of vulnerability. It gives the actor his presence and strength, but he's just all wrong for this picture. His scenes with Ida Lupino are stagey and over-rehearsed and just don't work at all -- both of them are busy "acting" instead of being. We're constantly being told of how wonderful Castle is and of his supposed integrity, but all we see is a corrupt, self-absorbed individual who allowed another man to take responsibility for his actions, slept with the man's wife, and acts like a dickhead throughout. When he protests at the idea of "silencing" Dixie, it's hard to believe that he would object -- he's the last one to take a high moral stance. It's up to the supporting cast to give the film whatever limited stature it has. Rod Steiger has some ferociously effective scenes as Stanley [some might think he's merely showing off]; Wendell Corey underplays beautifully as the slimy Smily; Everett Sloane is as solid as ever as Charles' agent; and Paul Langton has a beautifully and powerfully delivered speech to Castle at the end of the film that is one of the most memorable bits in the movie. As for the women, Ilka Chase offers a dead-on portrait of an oily, if stereotypical, gossip columnist, Shelley Winters is so-so as Dixie, and Jean Hagen fails to impress as Buddy's sluttish wife, Connie. Wesley Addy has a nice turn as the writer Hank Teagle. Oddly, a confrontation between Dixie and Hoff that might have been quite cinematic and dynamic is mentioned but not shown, but the film isn't "opened" up very much. It's hard to like or enjoy a movie in which virtually every character is either unpleasant or annoying. Robert Aldrich was the wrong director for this, as well. For a worthwhile Odets adaptation, see Clash By Night.

Verdict: A fairly embarrassing mess of Hollywood pseudo-profundity with horribly miscast leads. **.

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