Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 19, 2023)
His follow-up to the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, director Robert Aldrich returned with 1955’s The Big Knife. Taken from Clifford Odets’ play, the film introduces us to movie star Charles Castle (Jack Palance).
To outsiders, Castle appears to enjoy a great life, but fissures emerge. Castle’s wife Marion (Ida Lupino) plans to divorce him unless he leaves Hollywood while studio chief Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger) threatens to blackmail him if he doesn’t renew his contract. These competing concerns send Castle into a spiral.
Given that I really liked Kiss Me Deadly, I went into Knife with high expectations – mostly. My hopes became hampered by the fact Knife boasts much less “name recognition” than does Deadly - while popular notoriety doesn’t guarantee quality, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume Deadly maintains a higher profile for a reason.
I think the reason for this discrepancy is the difference in quality between the two. While Deadly offers a taut thriller, Knife winds up as a meandering collection of monologues.
As noted at the start, Knife adapts Clifford Odets’ play, and its stage-bound origins seem obvious. Other than a couple of brief detours, the vast majority of the story takes place in one part of Castle’s house, and this restricted nature forces the movie to go down unnatural paths.
Essentially Knife consists of little more than sequences in which one Castle friend/associate after another comes to him and yammmers. Rather than integrate into the narrative, these scenes tend to feel like short speeches: the participants arrive, say their highly-scripted lines and leave.
It doesn’t help that the story never makes it all that clear what makes Castle’s life in Hollywood so miserable. He seems horribly unhappy but the narrative fails to give us a compelling rationale – because Hoff forced him to make some crappy movies? Boo-hoo – you’re breakin’ my heart!
That adds to other factors that mean Castle becomes a less than sympathetic lead – and also not one who ever seems especially interesting. The movie hints at an active internal life but this doesn’t develop in a convincing manner, and the various ways the story ratchets up the drama also lacks a real sense of believability.
Knife tends toward broad melodrama, and the actors overplay their parts. Some do worse than others – Steiger and Shelley Winters gobble scenery with abandon – but few seem appealing in their roles.
All of this makes Knife a real disappointment. Self-pitying and morose, the movie drags and never involves the viewer.