The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich / U.S., 1955):

With the world obliterated in Kiss Me Deadly, only Hollywood will do for Robert Aldrich’s post-apocalyptic terrain. A Bel Air mansion stands for the land where "failure is not permitted," wags and brutes and scapegoats parade through for a portrait of a psyche dissolved most harshly. The movie star (Jack Palance) is a bundle of raw nerves rattling inside a tough-guy husk, masculinity is a screen persona bought and paid for by studio contracts, all he wants is "to be able to go away." With the principled wife (Ida Lupino) there’s the poisoned marriage that refuses to die, with the agent (Everett Sloane) there are echoes of besieged idealism. The lavish living room is a padded cell for the increasingly unhinged actor, an agonized panther pacing a decorated cage, a circus ring. Wendell Corey’s blandly malevolent fixer, Ilka Chase’s prim scandalmonger, Shelley Winter’s blabbermouth starlet ("I’m a deductible item") and Jean Hagen bouncing on a couch with a backscratcher are some of the tightrope walkers and trapeze artists wandering in and out; Rod Steiger as the platinum studio ogre wielding General MacArthur’s pen is the monstrous showstopper. "Your words have hair on them!" Blackmail or blacklist, the dilemma of ignoble stardom in this heated roman à clef by Clifford Odets, "a real dish of doves." Aldrich saves the canted angles for the opening and closing, framing the proscenium from a deep-focus distance while patiently collecting material to be later detonated in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Legend of Lylah Clare. A Tinseltown exposé like a manicured hand clenched into a fist and rammed into the wall, with the Philistine’s ultimate victory turned into a literal black hole by the mournfully ascending camera. Truffaut in his review looked backwards and recognized Cocteau and Welles, Godard looked forward and saw Le Mépris. With Wesley Addy, Paul Langton and Nick Dennis. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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