Not a cheapo cast for this adaptation of a Clifford Odets play. We get Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, and Jack Palance. Lupino is Marion, the wife of Palance’s movie-star character Charles Castle; Steiger is studio boss Stanley Hoff, Wendell Corey is Stanley’s assistant, Smiley Coy. Nat (Everett Sloane) is Charles’ agent. There’s also Charlie’s sometimes lover Connie (Jean Hagen), gossip columnist Patty (Ilka Chase), writer Hank Teagle (Wesley Addy), Mickey (Nick Dennis), Dixie (Shelley Winters), and Connie’s husband, Buddy (Paul Langton).
Charles’ problem is that he wants to get better roles from the studio, but, thanks to their covering up a death that was his fault, the studio’s in the driver’s seat. “Charlie Castle is a guy who sold out his dreams, but he won’t forget them” He says, narrating his story. Patty starts out by talking about Charlie’s separation from his wife, and the infamous accident that he’s implicated in. She’s relentless.
Marion shows up. They have a tough time getting rid of Patty, trailing her clouds of righteousness. Anyway, Marion tells Charlie that Hank has proposed to her. On Charlie’s career she’s blunt that he shouldn’t take any role, like “one of those witless gin drinkers.” She admits they’ve both screwed up, but ought to try again. “We do love each other, don’t we?” he responds.
Nat comes around. They discuss the proposed contract, which sounds like a lame deal for Charlie. Nat tries to brush him back with “business and idealism don’t mix.” The clincher is “you sign, or you go to jail.” Then Stanley pops in with Smiley (Steiger looks so strange as a blond guy). Charlie just tells him forget the contract. He even says he wants to ditch Hollywood. Immediately, Stanley shoots back with a veiled threat, followed by more threats, without any dignifying veils. Stanley’s vocabulary is so stilted it’s almost funny. “Psychoanalysis! Psychoanalysis!” he laments in a labored analogy to Charlie’s predicament. Charlie signs.
“He twisted my leg like I was a ten-cent ragdoll.” Now he’s got to explain the selling-out to Marion; that’s a no-go, she hangs up on him. Connie sneaks onto the scene. She’s got a more tangible dagger to point his way; because it was her husband who took the rap for the fatal accident. Awkwardly, Buddy calls just as Connie is throwing herself all over Charlie.
Finally a scene change, as Charlie and Marion meet at the beach. That night, an asocial dinner at Charlie’s with Marion, the Bliss’s and Hank. Amazing giant movie screen. Charlie upbraids Hank for proposing to Marion. Charlie says, moodily “There’s only two ways to forget everything; either stick a pencil in your eye or get drunk.” Hank wants her to make up her mind. Smiley rolls in after everyone else leaves–they call up Dixie at the party next door.
Smiley basically says that Dixie has to die. What dirt does she have? Well, she’s been jibber-jabbering about the accident (she was in the car with him that fateful night). On the other hand, it’s hard not to pity her character “I’m a deductible item!” she wails, that is, she’s an ‘escort’ for the movie moguls. She leaves as soon as Marion shows. Now Charlie has to back fill to shore-up Marion’s feelings. Charlie pontificates with her like he’s playing a Shakespearean role.
Charlie’s at a photo shoot, and chats up Hank. Then, onto Smiley at Charlie’s. He relates how Stanley beat up Dixie–she’s threatening to tell-all about the fabled accident. Smiley tells Charlie to go the bar she’s at and more or less administer the death blow to her via a doctored drink. Charlie doesn’t want any part of it; he wants to tell Stanley about the plot. Stanley just won’t believe him. But Charlie’s persistent, finally Stanley gets it.
Now it’s Stanley’s turn to get bombastic–as he, Nat, Smiley, and Marion and Charlie argue over Dixie. Charlie scares Stanley in a visceral way; Stanley’s comeback is an avalanche of legal threats. Stanley, recovering his composure, stomps out; Smiley finishes up with “you’re through.” Finally, the couple’s alone, reconciling.
Unfortunately, Buddy shows up, steaming about how he was treated, and spits in Charlie’s face. Very disgustingly, Smiley slithers in to announce that he dealt with Dixie–she’s dead. Meanwhile, Charlie dies in the bathtub, an apparent suicide. Smiley swings into action, spin-doctoring everything.
Like most stage adaptations, The Big Knife is, well, stagey–talky, with limited sets and very abbreviated action (mostly consisting of hoisting drinks). The Big Knife is a great story, it’s just not necessarily that great as a movie. The acting is excellent: Steiger and Corey make such reptilian creeps; Palance shows pretty good range as a desperate guy, on the edge the entire time. He knows what he wants but doesn’t know how to get there.
Lupino doesn’t have all that much to do, but there’s already three others chewing up every scene to the core. Winters plays the sort of put-upon frumpy type that she excels at. We end up wanting the amoral slick characters to get their comeuppance, but, other than some verbal jabs and sneers from Mickey, they don’t end up getting dirty. The story is so intense, it sort of grows or coils around like the snake Dixie alludes to.
This in entertaining, and worth watching; but I can’t help thinking it probably works a bit better as a play. Farmermouse thought that Charlie’s pad was mid-century super hip, so he’ll give this seven cocktails. 7/10.