THE BIG KNIFE (Robert Aldrich, 1955)

“Charlie Castle is a man who sold out his dreams but can’t forget them.”

The original star of Clifford Odets’s 1949 play The Big Knife was John Garfield; by the time that Robert Aldrich made his leaner, more muscular film of it Garfield was dead, having been hounded into his fatal 1952 heart attack, at age 39, by the reactionary U.S. witch hunt engineered by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Young Garfield had been Odets’s Broadway Golden Boy.
     Aldrich’s combustible film must make do with a Charlie Castle, as played by Jack Palance, that cannot hope to project the sensitivity and charisma, much less the beauty, of Jacob Julius Garfinkle. (The name-change was Hollywood’s first demand of Garfield; Palance’s birth name, by the way, was Volodymyr Palanyuk.) It remains, however, a stinging indictment of the ways in which Hollywood operates. Though a motion-picture star, Charlie can no longer call his soul his own. His studio head, who holds over Charlie’s head a secret from his past, owns Castle body and soul.
     Hollywood has meant for Charlie Castle the compromise of his idealism. Charlie: “All my life I’ve yearned for people to bring out the best in me.”
     Charlie Castle is hounded to his death—a suicide that the studio hopes to promote as a heart attack.
     Aldrich shot the heart-walloping film in two weeks. Most of it unfolds on a single set, the Castles’ living room. Palance is adequate, but two of the performances are memorable: Ida Lupino as wife Marion, who wants Charlie out of the business at least as much as he wants this, and Wendell Corey as Smiley Coy, studio head Stanley Hoff’s assistant, who at one point casually plots a starlet’s murder. Rod Steiger, television’s Marty, is thuggish as Hoff.

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