The Big Knife

This film belongs in a special category that involves a play that was based on Hollywood and then turned into a film that was rejected by Hollywood. That may sound confusing, but basically Clifford Odets (a famous playwright) came to Hollywood in order to make some big bucks (like several other “serious” writers have done before him and have done since) and became disenchanted with the lengths studios would go in order to ensure success and therefore big profits. So as one of his parting gifts from the studio system was to make this play and have it on Broadway.

Many of the characters in this film are based on at least a few characters. The big studio executive cried like Louis B. Mayer was famous for, but he also resembled Columbia’s main head at the time (one of the reasons that Columbia decided to not distribute the film). The main character, a famous but frivolous actor with a dirty secret, was based on several actors but mainly it was about John Huston. Supposedly John Huston had a similar event happen to him and Louis B. Mayer paid off a gossip columnist in order to prevent from running it. Of course instead of killing himself (spoiler!), Huston went on to be a big director. But did he make the films he wanted to make or did the studio force him to make these films for payment of his debt?

Although I feel like this film does not bring anything new to the age old tale that Hollywood is corrupt, the performances are pretty great. These actors are not afraid to yell, scream, cry (even if it is fake) and wiggle while on the screen. That is rare when you see a play adapted for the screen. Usually when the play calls for really dramatic, theaterical performances, the subsequent adaptation to film will have the directions reversed. Actors will whisper instead of yell. They will try to express themselves through their facial expressions instead of the words. The words, they don’t mean anything compared to the visual appearance, the look of the film. However it is apparent from the beginning that this was a play that was being adapted. The director doesn’t try to stage in a lot of places, do fancy camera work or give the actors outlandish things to do while in this confining space. He lets the words carry themselves. The actors do the same thing.

One of my favorite examples of it is Ida Lupino. Although she seems to be typified as this wife who no matter what is going to be loyal to the man she married, Ida brings a sense of independence to the choosing. She expresses the words with such care that she seems to mean everything that she has said. She only wants her husband’s happiness. However that isn’t true. She wants to be happy too. She wants everything to back to the time when Charles (the actor) was this idealistic, naive man. When he wanted to do nothing but the greatest of art forms and not pander to what the studio wanted. She wanted him to be like her in real life. Ida Lupino is an interesting figure in cinema history. Not only is she a great actress that pulls off depth with even the shallowest of characters (see this film), but she was only the second woman to ever be admitted to the Director’s Guild. She made several films that she financed herself. She was an independent director, producer, and actress before that was popular and seemingly impossible. She was pretty cool.

The other actors, notably Jack Palance and Rod Steiger, are also pretty good in this film. Although I probably would have liked to see the original cast on stage more, I do recommend this film if you are interested in the dirty side of Hollywood, adaptations from theater to film, or if you are interested by Ida Lupino.

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