Cast & Crew
Movie star Charlie Castle is being pressured by studio owner Stanley Shriner Hoff to sign another seven-year contract, even though both Charlie and his estranged wife Marion are leery of the long-term commitment. The formerly idealistic Charlie is also weary of the exploitive films that Hoff produces, although he does enjoy his huge popularity. One morning, while Charlie is exercising with his trainer, Nicky Feeney, studio publicist Buddy Bliss stops by Charlie's Bel Air mansion to warn him that gossip columnist Patty Benedict will arrive soon. The powerful, acid-tongued Patty questions him about his separation from Marion, and although Marion is living at their beach house with their young son Billy, Charlie denies that they are separated. Patty then comments on Hoff having re-hired Buddy after he served ten months in jail for killing a child in a hit-and-run accident, in which Charlie had been implicated before Buddy confessed. Patty threatens to rake up the story again unless Charlie gives her the inside "scoop" on his marriage, but Charlie tells her to leave. As Patty is warning Charlie that he is being foolish, she is interrupted by Marion, who was in the house without Charlie's knowledge. Marion tells Patty to mind her own business, after which a frantic Buddy chases after Patty. Charlie chastises Marion for annoying Patty, and Marion complains that she is sick of the insincerity of their lives. Charlie asks Marion to come home, but Marion, unable to endure Charlie's infidelities, drinking and brooding, refuses. She also reveals that author Hank Teagle, one of Charlie's oldest friends, has proposed to her. Marion warns Charlie that although she did not accept Hank's proposal, she will never return to him if he signs Hoff's new contract, as she believes that the movie business has destroyed his integrity. Charlie protests, as he knows that Hoff will never let his biggest star go. Charlie admits to having made a mistake "that night," and Marion, who still loves her husband, states that she should have been more supportive. Urging Charlie to fight, Marion agrees to move back in and goes to pack. Charlie is then visited by his agent, Nat Danziger. Although Charlie tells Nat that he will lose his family if he signs the contract, Nat assures him that Marion will understand, and warns him that Hoff and his right-hand man, Smiley Coy, are coming. When Smiley and the tyrannical Hoff arrive, Charlie tells them he is reluctant to sign. Hoff offers Charlie a vacation but is rebuffed, and so menacingly reminds Charlie of the times he has fixed problems for him, including a "certain night in this very living room." Charlie pleads with Hoff, but finally, worn down by his threats, signs the contract. After the three men leave, Marion calls, but hangs up when Charlie confesses that he gave in. A few days later, Buddy's alcoholic, sluttish wife Connie comes to Charlie's and reveals she knows that Charlie was the drunken driver who killed the child, and that Hoff arranged for Buddy to confess to prevent Charlie's career from being ruined. Although Charlie, who treasures Buddy's friendship, asks Connie to leave, she follows him upstairs when he retires. A few days later, Charlie visits Marion and asks her to attend a dinner party he is hosting for Buddy. Marion agrees to attend with Hank, and that night, after Buddy and Connie leave, Charlie and Hank reminisce about their young, idealistic days in New York. Charlie and Hank quarrel over Hank's proposal to Marion, and after Hank departs with Marion, he tells her that she has to decide which man she really wants. Charlie then prepares for bed but is interrupted by Smiley, who tells him that Dixie Evans, a studio contract player who was with Charlie on the night of the accident, has been talking about it. Smiley urges Charlie to be nice to Dixie, who worships him, and so Charlie invites her over. Dixie is thrilled to see Charlie, but complains bitterly about the studio using her to entertain visiting exhibitors rather than giving her a real break as an actress. Charlie asks Dixie not to talk about the accident, as it could hurt him, but Dixie assures him that she only wants to make the studio heads as miserable as they have made her. Their conversation is interrupted by Marion, and Dixie quickly leaves. Marion assumes that she interrupted an incipient affair, although Charlie pleads his innocence. The couple begins quarreling again, and Charlie rages that he can no longer stand Marion's judgmental attitude, and instead needs her to love him as he is. Relenting, Marion stays the night. A few days later, when Charlie returns home from posing for publicity stills at the studio, Smiley is waiting for him. Smiley informs him that Hoff had summoned Dixie to his office, and that when she finally arrived, drunk, an enraged Hoff beat her. Dixie then left for a bar, and Smiley asks Charlie to lure Dixie to her apartment, where "doctored" gin has been prepared. Charlie is then to return to the studio, which will provide him with the alibi of having been posing for stills all day. Charlie is horrified that Smiley proposes murdering Dixie, who has continued to needle Hoff about the accident. When Marion comes downstairs, Charlie asks her to summon Nat, while he calls Hoff, demanding that he come over. When the men arrive, they tell Charlie that he misunderstood Smiley's intentions, but Charlie accuses Hoff of soliciting murder. Despite her shock at learning that Dixie was with Charlie during the accident, Marion supports him. Smiley suggests that the only other way to "take care of" Dixie is for Charlie to marry her, and states that he has taped proof of Marion having a love affair with Hank. Smiley brings in the recordings, but Charlie, believing in Marion, breaks the records in half. Charlie orders Hoff and Smiley to leave, and when Hoff merely laughs, Charlie rushes toward him. Fearing that Charlie is going to hit him, Hoff covers his face, and a scornful Charlie slaps his head. Humiliated, Hoff screams that he will reveal the truth about Charlie's accident and that Charlie will be ruined. After Smiley and Hoff leave, Marion and Charlie comfort each other and call Hank, who they believe can offer them advice. Suddenly, Buddy rushes in and tearfully reveals that Connie told him about her affair with Charlie. Buddy spits in Charlie's face and leaves, after which a quiet Charlie pledges Marion that she will have a better future. While Charlie is upstairs taking a bath, Smiley returns and informs Marion that Dixie was run over by a city bus after she left the bar. Marion is castigating Smiley for his behavior when they notice water seeping through the ceiling. Hank arrives as Nicky, Smiley and Russell, the butler, break down the bathroom door and discover that Charlie has committed suicide by slashing his wrists. Smiley calls the studio to issue a press release that Charlie died of a heart attack, but Hank, determined not to let his friend's anguish be covered up, states that he will tell the press the truth.
Miss Shelley Winters
Jack R. Berne
Edward G. Boyle
Louis H. Hippe
The Big Knife
The tone of the entire film is set in the opening shot of The Big Knife accompanied by a portentous voiceover by Richard Boone stating, "This is Bel Air. Lush, luxurious retreat of the wealthy and powerful. If you work in the motion picture industry and are successful, this is where you will probably make your home. Failure is not permitted here." Regarding his true intentions, director Robert Aldrich stated (in The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edward T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller) that he did not feel The Big Knife was "exactly anti-Hollywood, for that would make it too sectional. To me it can apply to any sphere of business, or the arts, where man's natural liberty or expression is squelched by unworthy, incompetent, tyrannical leaders or bosses, many of whom are not deserving of their powers."
On the Broadway stage, John Garfield played Charlie Castle, which was ironic considering that Odets modeled his protagonist on Garfield (the actor died of a heart attack in 1952, reportedly the result of his harassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee). For the film version, Aldrich wanted Burt Lancaster for the lead role but when he declined the offer, the part went to Jack Palance. The film was modestly budgeted with a tight sixteen day shooting schedule and it was Aldrich's first attempt to film a stage play (His other stage-to-film adaptations include Attack! (1956) and The Killing of Sister George, 1968). The use of long takes by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo adds greatly to the film's claustrophobic tension and the mingling of fictitious names with real ones (Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, William Wyler and others) throughout the dialogue gives The Big Knife a candid, almost documentary-like quality at times.
Shelley Winters, cast in a supporting role as Dixie, Hoff's ill-fated personal secretary, prepared for her role by hanging out during breakfast hours at Schwab's where she interviewed numerous call girls about her character. In her autobiography, Shelley: The Middle of My Century, the actress recalled, "When I described the role I was researching and Dixie's courage and cunning and the way she was victimized by being told she was a starlet and then used as if she was a prostitute, they understood what I was trying to put on the screen. Then they began to tell me their sad, funny and terrifying stories." Winters also consulted acting coach Lee Strasberg about her performance, flying to New York City one weekend for advice and then returning to Los Angeles early Monday morning for her big scene in the film. "The assistant director...began to bawl me out for being late. Robert Aldrich was standing in the darkness, away from the lighted set, and he had been watching me rehearse. He yelled, 'I don't know what Shelley did on Saturday or Sunday, but leave her alone now. This scene will be the pivot of the film.' And so it was. Lee had helped me be funny and brave and at the same time communicate "nameless dread," that feeling of trying to function without knowing where or how your doom is going to strike...The Big Knife was my personal salute to the angry and gifted, great, sad and sweet John Garfield. It was also my personal tribute to my many friends who had been so brave, facing that truly un-American HUAC Committee."
While The Big Knife was never positioned as a commercial film for the masses, it still failed to find an appreciative audience at the time of its release in the U.S. It was, however, championed by French film critics, awarded honors at the 1955 Venice Film Festival, and has since amassed a cult audience due to its highly stylized nature and the excellent ensemble cast, though some feel that Rod Steiger's hyperactive histrionics go beyond the borders of camp. It was actually the casting of Palance, however, that Aldrich identified as the major flaw. Most viewers refused to accept him as "a guy who could or could not decide to take $5,000 per week. We failed to communicate to the mass audience...that it was not primarily a monetary problem; it was a problem of internal integrity." The average moviegoer still saw Castle's dilemma as a no-brainer. In the words of Aldrich's own father, "If a guy has to take or not to take $5,000 per week, what the hell is the problem?"
Producer/Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: James Poe, based on the play by Clifford Odets
Art Direction: William Glasgow
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Editing: Michael Luciano
Music: Frank De Vol
Cast: Jack Palance (Charlie Castle), Ida Lupino (Marion Castle), Wendell Corey (Smiley Coy), Rod Steiger (Stanley Hoff), Shelley Winters (Dixie Evans), Jean Hagen (Mrs. Connie Bliss), Ilka Chase (Miss Patty Benedict), Everett Sloane (Nat Danziger), Wesley Addy (Horatio 'Hank' Teagle), Richard Boone (Narrator).
BW-113m. Closed captioning.
By Jeff Stafford
The Big Knife
The Big Knife (DVD)
The dependency on one main set in The Big Knife is no doubt largely because of its Broadway stage source, but it is also a part of a long line of other Hollywood productions that stuck to one or two sets, like Twelve Angry Men (1957) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962). The influence of television can be seen in this trend, but regardless of the reasons, the style denies flowery cinematic technique while giving favor to more classic dramatic elements like the script and the acting, all of which are in full force in The Big Knife.
Palance gives an angry, vulnerable, and pitiful performance as the movie star on the edge. Ida Lupino, Jean Hagen, and Shelley Winters are also excellent, as are Wendell Corey and Everett Sloane. But the scenery is chewed up and spat out by a vicious Rod Steiger, playing the studio chief Stanley Hoff, who's propensity for weeping bears a striking resemblance to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. And given the Hoff studio's power in covering up contracted stars' unsavory actions, the parallels to Metro are even more suspicious.
The central conflict between Palance and Steiger is structured like a boxing match between two heavyweights. We're introduced to Palance sparring with a loyal underling, who will later be rubbing down the star. The first round of contract negotiations between Palance and Steiger is blocked like a boxing match, with Corey and Sloane acting as the two fighters' ring team. Of course, in place of punches, Palance and Steiger use thespian histrionics, with Steiger winning the first match by a knock out. Aldrich's sly comment on the brutality of the Hollywood star machine could have been taken too far, but he ends it with Palance and a circle of friends watching one of his pictures, a boxing movie.
This was not Aldrich's last foray into dark dramas. He would later go baroque with the Hollywood dramas Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968). To order THE BIG KNIFE, visit TCM Shopping.
by Scott McGee
The Big Knife (DVD)
TCM Remembers - Rod Steiger
ROD STEIGER, 1925 - 2002
From the docks of New York to the rural back roads of Mississippi to the war torn Russian steppes, Rod Steiger reveled in creating some of the most overpowering and difficult men on the screen. He could be a total scoundrel, embodying Machiavelli's idiom that "it's better to be feared than loved" in the movies. But as an actor he refused to be typecast and his wide range included characters who were secretly tormented (The Pawnbroker, 1965) or loners (Run of the Arrow, 1965) or eccentrics (The Loved One, 1965).
Along with Marlon Brando, Steiger helped bring the 'Method School' from the Group Theater and Actors Studio in New York to the screens of Hollywood. The Method technique, taught by Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, insisted on complete immersion into the character's psyche and resulted in intense, dramatic performances and performers. Steiger made his first significant screen appearance as Brando's older brother in On the Waterfront (1954). Their climatic scene together in a taxicab is one of the great moments in American cinema.
It was a short leap from playing a crooked lawyer in On the Waterfront to playing the shady boxing promoter in The Harder They Fall (1956). Based on the tragic tale of true-life fighter Primo Carnera, The Harder They Fall details the corruption behind the scenes of professional boxing bouts. Steiger is a fight manager named Nick Benko who enlists newspaperman Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart in his final screen appearance) to drum up publicity for a fixed prizefight. While the boxing scenes were often brutally realistic, the most powerful dramatic moments took place between Steiger and Bogart on the sidelines.
As mob boss Al Capone (1959), Steiger got to play another man you loved to hate. He vividly depicted the criminal from his swaggering early days to his pathetic demise from syphilis. In Doctor Zhivago (1965), Steiger was the only American in the international cast, playing the hateful and perverse Komarovsky. During the production of Dr. Zhivago, Steiger often found himself at odds with director David Lean. Schooled in the British tradition, Lean valued the integrity of the script and demanded that actors remain faithful to the script. Steiger, on the other hand, relied on improvisation and spontaneity. When kissing the lovely Lara (played by Julie Christie), Steiger jammed his tongue into Christie's mouth to produce the desired reaction - disgust. It worked! While it might not have been Lean's approach, it brought a grittier edge to the prestige production and made Komarovsky is a detestable but truly memorable figure.
Steiger dared audiences to dislike him. As the smalltown southern Sheriff Gillespie in In The Heat of the Night (1967), Steiger embodied all the prejudices and suspicions of a racist. When a black northern lawyer, played by Sidney Poitier, arrives on the crime scene, Gillespie is forced to recognize his fellow man as an equal despite skin color. Here, Steiger's character started as a bigot and developed into a better man. He finally claimed a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as Sheriff Gillespie.
Steiger was an actor's actor. A chameleon who didn't think twice about diving into challenging roles that others would shy away from. In the Private Screenings interview he did with host Robert Osborne he admitted that Paul Muni was one of his idols because of his total immersion into his roles. Steiger said, "I believe actors are supposed to create different human beings." And Steiger showed us a rich and diverse cross section of them.
by Jeremy Geltzer & Jeff Stafford
TCM Remembers - Rod Steiger
What do you think of women, kiddie?- Smiley Coy
Oh, there's room in the world for 'em.- Charlie Castle
Call her.- Smiley Coy
All right. Anything for my art.- Charlie Castle
I'll - break - you!- Stanley Hoff
The film begins with an offscreen narrator briefly describing Bel Air and introducing the character "Charlie Castle." The film's title refers to Charlie's emotional dilemma, and his feeling that he has a knife hanging over his head, which will fall no matter what he decides to do. Shelley Winters' cast credit reads: "And Miss Shelley Winters as Dixie Evens." Winters is the only actor credited with a character name in the onscreen credits. According to a April 24, 1955 New York Times article, the film's budget was to be $400,000, and the picture was to be shot in only two weeks. In the article, Robert Aldrich, who made his first independent production venture with The Big Knife, credited nine days of intense rehearsal, with Victoria Ward standing in for the then-absent Winters, Jean Hagen and Ilka Chase, as the reason for his ability to shoot the film so quickly on such a tight budget "without sacrifice of quality." A April 24, 1955 Los Angeles Times article reported that the film's budget was $423,000, $260,000 of which was alloted for the actors' salaries.
Although a March 23, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Ruth Roman had been cast in the picture, she does not appear in the released film. According to a May 12, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, in order to fit the main set, that of Charlie's living room, on the small stage at the Sutherland Studios, art director William Glasgow came up with a "combination of wild walls." The article reported that "as a result, the camera can be placed anywhere in a complete circle around the set, permitting shooting from any angle."
According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA Office was worried about the portrayal of adultery in the picture, as well as the "glorification" of Charlie's suicide. In a March 10, 1955 letter to Aldrich, PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock warned: "It was our feeling in reading this screenplay that The Big Knife very bitterly peels the hide off our industry. The conviction naturally arises that we do ourselves a great disservice in fouling our own nest, so to speak. The indictment of our industry is so specific and so unrelieved that it has the one-dimensional effect of labeling us all `phony.' Of course, if the finished picture should prove to be such an ambassador of ill will, then we would be faced with a serious public relations problem."
On April 1, 1955, Shurlock notified Aldrich again that the suicide could not be justified or glorified. Aldrich apparently intended to shoot the sequence two ways, but on April 18, 1955, the PCA notified him that the sequence would not be approved. On April 20, 1955, a version of the sequence was finally accepted, and eventually Aldrich sent the PCA a letter thanking them for their cooperation, as he had "expected a nasty fight" over the film's production.
The Big Knife, which received mixed reviews in the United States, was awarded The Silver Lion of St. Mark at the 1955 Venice Film Festival. Advertising for the picture emphasized that it was the only American production to win a medal at the festival that year. According to October 1955 Los Angeles Times andHollywood Reporter news items, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce protested the exhibition of the controversial film, which the chamber felt reflected badly on the motion picture industry. A committee organized for the protest issued a statement decrying the film as "a gross misrepresentation of the motion picture industry and its traditions of ethical and moral practices," according to the Hollywood Reporter item.
In his review of the picture, the Hollywood Reporter critic asserted: "The real standout is Rod Steiger, as the villanous producer who weeps with calculated hysteria to get his own way. This part seems to be modeled on a recognizable personality. I leave it to others to judge the fairness of taking the idosyncracies of a man (famed for his charities and public service) and grafting them on a murderer." The BHC review also commented: "Choice bits of Hollywood scandal have been woven into the plot, and the characters, while composites, have traits which are recognizable." Some modern sources allege that Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, was one of the studio chiefs on whom "Stanley Hoff" was based. Ilka Chase's character, "Patty Benedict," was most likely based on gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Although several contemporary reviews declared that the contract Charlie is pressured to sign is for fourteen years, it is clearly stated in the film that it is a seven-year-contract. In noting several "inconsistent" plot points, the Variety reviewer even complained: "Furthermore, there ain't no such animal, legally or professionally, as a '14-year contract'; California law limits any deal to seven annums."
Two teleplays based on Clifford Odets' play have been made. The first, starring Patrick McGoohan, aired in 1959, and the second, staring Peter Gallagher and Betsy Brantley, aired on PBS's American Playhouse series in July 1988.
Winner of the Silver Prize at the 1955 Venice Film Festival.
Released in United States 1955
Released in United States 1994
Released in United States Fall November 1955
Shown at the 1955 Venice Film Festival.
Released in United States 1955 (Shown at the 1955 Venice Film Festival.)
Released in United States 1994 (Shown in New York City (Walter Reade) as part of program "Apocalypse Anytime! The Films of Robert Aldrich" March 11 - April 8, 1994.)
Released in United States Fall November 1955