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Big Knife, The (Blu-ray Review)

25 Sep, 2017 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Wendell Corey, Shelley Winters.

For a filmmaker who began by directing Edward G. Robinson in a presumed jockstrap courtesy of 1953’s Big Leaguer, Robert Aldrich had developed quite a baroque style by 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly and then the same year’s The Big Knife, which followed that Mike Hammer knuckle-buster less than six months later. Commercially speaking, Knife was the kind of movie a first-run palace brought in the week before Thanksgiving to ensure a run of something eccentric enough not to threaten some preferred safer choice for the holiday trade. This is what happened in my town: Billed above Columbia’s Teen-age Crime Wave, it played a week so that Good Morning, Miss Dove could run for the cranberry trade. Having seen the latter recently, I can report that Knife cuts that that dose of CinemaScope fudge to shreds.

Aldrich’s programming alternative isn’t a great or even totally successful film, but on a fascination/entertainment level, it takes a fairly substantial place in a good movie year. A maverick on all levels, RA’s inventive way of shooting interiors works well against a lot of Clifford Odets wind, this being an adaptation of a 1949 Odets play and Hollywood-based screed that had starred John Garfield (casting that had some soon-to-be creepy undertones). For this movie, the role of its morally under-the-gun male star went to Jack Palance, and this is one of the best Palance performances. In fact, with one conspicuous exception, the acting is strong all around: Ida Lupino as a suffering wife who still looks pretty good on the beach, Wendell Corey (getting a lot out of what he’s given) and — competing for the title of Blowsy Queen — Jean Hagen and “Miss” Shelley Winters (I have no explanation). The one terrible performance is also, one can argue, the most compellingly watchable. This is a peroxided Rod Steiger as a beyond-malevolent studio head holding Palance contract-hostage because the latter was responsible for a hushed-up vehicular homicide. If you add up the combined times that Errol Flynn and Tallulah Bankhead had sex in real life (not necessarily together, but who knows?), you might approximate the number of viewings I’m guessing that Frank Gorshin must have given this movie before locking in his unforgettable Steiger imitation.

Most of the action takes place in either a Palance rec room or living room that, as Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton point out in the most enjoyable voiceover commentary I’ve heard in a while, would still really cut it today with lovers of retro. Studio types, lackeys and leeches come in and out at will, as Palance finds himself unable to extricate himself from a whirlpool, much as Garfield couldn’t in the early ‘50s when heart problems and HUAC hacks combined to kill him at 39. The former’s turmoil is exacerbated because first-and-second-hand witnesses seem to abound, and worse, someone else took the jail-time fall (so valuable is Palance to Steiger’s studio). Sniffing around is a Hedda-like gossip columnist, ostensibly about the star’s splits-ville Lupino marriage, but it’s tough to believe she won’t figure out the truth. In perfect casting, this piranha is played by Ilka Chase, someone I used to see all the time as a panelist on TV’s “Masquerade Party” when I was a kid. She was one of those “I saw your new play, and it was lousy” types, so she must have been right at home here.

As hard-working Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver was first to point out, Arrow has slightly tainted this excellent release by failing to include an admittedly non-essential bit of about a minute’s duration (Palance-Lupino-Everett Sloane) at around the 95-minute mark — one that did show up on MGM’s 1.33:1 standard DVD, as opposed to the much more expressive and eye-friendly 1.85:1 seen here. Though I have no actual knowledge of this, the situation almost makes me wonder if there were two versions of the film from the get-go — much as there were, famously, two versions to the end of Kiss Me Deadly. As far as I know, the first time the untrimmed and now standard version of Deadly’s climactic ka-boom got wide public viewing occurred in the mid-’70s when Aldrich let us run his personal 35mm print for a showing at the AFI Theater. He literally had it in his garage, no kidding. Or at least that’s what he said.

Adapting Odets, presumably with Aldrich, is James Poe — who had some stellar credits that included They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a near-great film that Kino just brought out on an overdue Blu-ray itself. Ernest Laszlo shot Knife, just before Aldrich launched an almost career-long association with Joseph Biroc, though Laszlo did return for Ten Seconds to Hell and (!) 4 for Texas (now there’s a “making of” book or documentary if there ever was one). What else? For essays, BFI historian Nathalie Morris discusses the film and Gerald Peary takes on Odets (this is Arrow “doing the job”) — a spotty screen career for the Left-ie playwright, to be sure, though Sweet Smell of Success was still two years away. And again, the Kenny-Pinkerton commentary is so much instructive fun that it is basically a co-equal here with the film. Finally, there’s a half-hour portrait of titles maestro Saul Bass (this Aldrich assignment was an early work) that’s good, even though the illustrative clip quality needs to go under a surgical big knife itself. The featurette also gets off to a shaky start when the interviewer refers to The Man With the Golden Arm being from 1952 when it was ’55 — an eternity when it came to a ability to bring its subject matter to the screen. No matter. It made me want to see every one of the profiled films again.

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