18 September 2010 | secondtake
A restrained, almost dull, Aldrich film with terrific acting? Weirdly so.
The Big Knife (1955)
You always expect something edgy and a hair impolite with a Robert Aldrich film, from his over-the-top film noir cult classic "Detour" to the bizarre and gripping "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" It's almost as though his rich upbringing and rejection of a nice political life made him a fearless renegade. Give him credit. He cracked the Hollywood doldrums of the 1950s and early 60s like few other directors (Kubrick comes to mind as a big budget parallel).
So you can get a lot out of "The Big Knife" in understanding Aldrich. And you can really enjoy a superb set of performances, mainly by Ida Lupino as the leading man's wife, and by Everett Sloan in an aging version of his usual submissive chumminess. Rod Steiger is there, powerful and a bit overacted, if you can overact in an Aldrich movie, and the headliner, Jack Palance, does his best at being a leading man, and is pretty fine, especially since his role is as a Hollywood actor with flaws.
Throw in some really crisp cinematography by Ernest Lazlo, one of the best of his generation. Sometimes the camera will take on an angle that rocks you slightly, as when it is looking up from the floor at Palance on the massage table, with his agent towering overhead. More subtle is Lazlo's fluid long takes, or even fluid short takes, where the camera just makes sense of a scene not by framing it right (which is expected) but by moving it during the take. Once you notice it, you appreciate more and more how the interior of this house (the set for the whole movie) is made dimensional and alive.
I say all this up front because the movie struggles against the story and writing despite all this. It's a play adapted to the screen, but rather literally, with the one main set for all the shooting. And it talks a lot. I don't see this working even on a stage, where you want and get dialog. Here it's almost deadening. Not that it quite is ever boring, but it tries too hard, and it pulls a couple of sensational twists out as it goes, with another sensational twist at the end. On top of all that is just a level of credibility. None of these Hollywood businessmen strike you as quite right, and what they say or do is all caricature.
Not that we expect a movie, especially an Aldrich movie, to be believable. But there has to be some compensating excitement. This one, with a great noir title but no real noir qualities, never quite flies. It's worth watching if you like Lupino or Aldrich in particular, and it has moments of real intensity, but that might not be enough in the big picture.