The Big Knife came off the flaming hot heels of Robert Aldrich’s post-apocalyptic noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly. Both films are quintessential Los Angeles films, but this is only one of the two that is a statement on the industry that runs that town—the film industry. It’s based on a scathing play by Clifford Odets, who is a fascinating figure in his own right and wrote one of the greatest noirs of them all, The Sweet Smell of Success.
Jack Palance in one of his greatest screen roles plays Charles Castle (what a name!) who has it all. He is one of the biggest stars in Tinsel Town, but his marriage is falling apart, and she will only stay with him if he renews his contract to Studio Boss Stanley Shriner Hoff. Hoff is played with deliciously evil glee by Rod Stieger. The Hoff has some career-damaging dirt on Castle, and he will do anything in his power to get him to sign on the dotted line. But will Castle be able to survive what will happen if it signs it?
When the film came out the US, critics found it implausible, but with hindsight, and knowing what went down at the time to silence people, to hide actors’ sexuality, and to carry out various other forms of spin by the studios, it now feels almost like a documentary that escaped the clutches of some executive who had it in a safe as collateral against a star under contract. This is helped by blending real-life names with fictitious ones, which gives the film an air of authenticity. It’s as damning an indictment of Hollywood as Sunset Blvd. or Mulholland Drive was, and I’m sure it will get a reappraisal by many with this re-release.
It’s undeniably stagey. It’s mostly set in one location, but it becomes cinematic through Aldrich’s direction and the photography by Ernest Laszlo, which gives it a sense of claustrophobia both in Aldrich’s internal and external world. Palance and Steiger have rarely been better, and the supporting cast includes Shelley Winters, Jean Hagan, Evert Sloane and Ida Lupino who was a noted director of film noir in her own right.
The disc is relatively light on extras, but it has a new commentary by film critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton. Perhaps most interestingly, it includes a documentary from 1972 with Saul Bass where he talks through his opening credits. It is a fascinating watch, even if he doesn’t discuss his work on The Big Knife or his much-celebrated work with Alfred Hitchcock, but he does discuss Seconds! The release is rounded off with the trailer in the first pressing, and a booklet with writings on the film by Sean Philips.