Noir-vember Day Eight: The Big Knife (1955) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Noir-vember Day Eight: The Big Knife (1955)

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Danny LIKECharles Castle is a man who gave up on his dreams but can't forget them.

So says the opening narration for The Big Knife, a different kind of film noir, keeping the damned hero and the unrelenting California sun and relocating it from the rainy streets of LA to the starlight soaked lawns of Bel Air. Castle is a big action star, played by Jack Palance with the swagger of Clark Gable and the smirk of Errol Flynn, whose marriage is dissolving at the threat of a new, extended contract with the studio.

His wife is Marion (played by Ida Lupino aching with gravitas) is long suffering. She sees her husband suffer through b-picture after b-picture and through dumb starlets and confident studio men. Their relationship is contentious and slightly poisonous; she wants to leave him, but is so certain of the good beneath the demons that she just can't. She issues an ultimatum for her doting husband to reject the contract or reject her.

The single room setting of the film ratchets up the terse arguments.

If only it were so simple. The studio head arrives at Castle's house with the contract and a few secrets he's willing to expose if Castle doesn't capitulate. You see, there was a car accident about a year ago that involved a drunk driver and a dead child... and a certain movie studio may have helped cover up the real culprit.

Castle signs the contract, and soon he's embroiled in lies, secrets, and doing whatever it may take to keep his neck clean and his wife by his side. There's a lot of heartfelt wrangling in this movie, as Castle deals with guilt and the stress of stardom and the wholly noble desire to take his wife and run away at full speed.

And while Palance is good in his weighty role, Rod Steiger is better. The studio boss he plays, Shriner Hoff, holds onto everyone's fates with a smug grin, and Steiger takes this opportunity to play every tempo of menace he can manage. Hoff is such a sadistic tyrannical madman with such incredibly nuanced eccentricities that it's almost frightening to consider that the character is supposedly a mishmash of real life studio heads at the time.

Elsewhere in the cast, Lupino as Marion is excellent about avoiding the necessary melodrama and making her character sympathetic and sweet. Usually when one sees a woman unable to resist such an unabashedly vile form of masculinity as her husband represents. While it seems however unlikely that Castle is truly as good as she claims he is, it's undeniable that she believes he is truly that good no matter what lunacy he becomes engaged in.

Steiger as the maniacal studio head steals the show from everyone.

Because of the film's mostly-single room setting (we got to a party for a minute, a back lot for two), a lot of it feels reminiscent of Kurosawa's High and Low. While it lacks the films early tension as Director Robert Aldrich clumsily disperses it with wide shots and bland lighting, it at least stays consistent to its core narrative. While High and Low is about a man choosing to destroy his own life for that of another, The Big Knife is about a man who's already destroyed his own life and must decide when the cost of his guilt becomes too much.

The Big Knife is a movie about a man who's seen as larger than life, and about the people around him who try and make him equal to that image. In the end, when it all comes down to it, Charles Castle didn't give up on his dream, it simply became a nightmare.

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Posted by Danny

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  1. It may interest you to know that Rod Steiger was close friends with James Dean right around the time he shot this film, and in the final days of Dean’s life, he handed Steiger a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s “Death In The Afternoon” with anything pertaining to a bullfighter’s demise in the ring underlined by Dean’s pen numerous times. It’s also intensely resonant, if not downright chilling, to realize that the initial first showing of “The Big Knife” took place at The Venice Film Festival in Italy on September 10, 1955, a mere 20 days before Dean died.

    Knowing this, the film suddenly leaves the realm of dated melodrama, and cuts much deeper in ways than anyone may have previously realized.

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