The Big Knife (1955)

110-111 or 120 mins | Drama | November 1955

Director:

Robert Aldrich

Producer:

Robert Aldrich

Cinematographer:

Ernest Laszlo

Editor:

Michael Luciano

Production Designer:

William Glasgow

Production Company:

Associates & Aldrich Co., Inc.
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HISTORY

The film begins with an offscreen narrator briefly describing Bel Air and introducing the character “Charlie Castle.” The film's title refers to Charlie's emotional dilemma, and his feeling that he has a knife hanging over his head, which will fall no matter what he decides to do. Shelley Winters' cast credit reads: "And Miss Shelley Winters as Dixie Evens." Winters is the only actor credited with a character name in the onscreen credits. According to a 24 Apr 1955 NYT article, the film’s budget was to be $400,000, and the picture was to be shot in only two weeks. In the article, Robert Aldrich, who made his first independent production venture with The Big Knife , credited nine days of intense rehearsal, with Victoria Ward standing in for the then-absent Winters, Jean Hagen and Ilka Chase, as the reason for his ability to shoot the film so quickly on such a tight budget “without sacrifice of quality.” A 24 Apr 1955 LAT article reported that the film’s budget was $423,000, $260,000 of which was alloted for the actors’ salaries.
       Although a 23 Mar 1955 HR news item stated that Ruth Roman had been cast in the picture, she does not appear in the released film. According to a 12 May 1955 HR news item, in order to fit the main set, that of Charlie’s living room, on the small stage at the Sutherland Studios, art director William Glasgow came up with a “combination of wild walls.” The article reported that “as a result, the camera can be placed anywhere in a complete circle around the set, permitting ... More Less

The film begins with an offscreen narrator briefly describing Bel Air and introducing the character “Charlie Castle.” The film's title refers to Charlie's emotional dilemma, and his feeling that he has a knife hanging over his head, which will fall no matter what he decides to do. Shelley Winters' cast credit reads: "And Miss Shelley Winters as Dixie Evens." Winters is the only actor credited with a character name in the onscreen credits. According to a 24 Apr 1955 NYT article, the film’s budget was to be $400,000, and the picture was to be shot in only two weeks. In the article, Robert Aldrich, who made his first independent production venture with The Big Knife , credited nine days of intense rehearsal, with Victoria Ward standing in for the then-absent Winters, Jean Hagen and Ilka Chase, as the reason for his ability to shoot the film so quickly on such a tight budget “without sacrifice of quality.” A 24 Apr 1955 LAT article reported that the film’s budget was $423,000, $260,000 of which was alloted for the actors’ salaries.
       Although a 23 Mar 1955 HR news item stated that Ruth Roman had been cast in the picture, she does not appear in the released film. According to a 12 May 1955 HR news item, in order to fit the main set, that of Charlie’s living room, on the small stage at the Sutherland Studios, art director William Glasgow came up with a “combination of wild walls.” The article reported that “as a result, the camera can be placed anywhere in a complete circle around the set, permitting shooting from any angle.”
       According to information in the film’s file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA Office was worried about the portrayal of adultery in the picture, as well as the “glorification” of Charlie’s suicide. In a 10 Mar 1955 letter to Aldrich, PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock warned: “It was our feeling in reading this screenplay that The Big Knife very bitterly peels the hide off our industry. The conviction naturally arises that we do ourselves a great disservice in fouling our own nest, so to speak. The indictment of our industry is so specific and so unrelieved that it has the one-dimensional effect of labeling us all ‘phony.’ Of course, if the finished picture should prove to be such an ambassador of ill will, then we would be faced with a serious public relations problem.”
       On 1 Apr 1955, Shurlock notified Aldrich again that the suicide could not be justified or glorified. Aldrich apparently intended to shoot the sequence two ways, but on 18 Apr 1955, the PCA notified him that the sequence would not be approved. On 20 Apr 1955, a version of the sequence was finally accepted, and eventually Aldrich sent the PCA a letter thanking them for their cooperation, as he had “expected a nasty fight” over the film’s production.
       The Big Knife , which received mixed reviews in the United States, was awarded The Silver Lion of St. Mark at the 1955 Venice Film Festival. Advertising for the picture emphasized that it was the only American production to win a medal at the festival that year. According to Oct 1955 LAT and HR news items, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce protested the exhibition of the controversial film, which the chamber felt reflected badly on the motion picture industry. A committee organized for the protest issued a statement decrying the film as “a gross misrepresentation of the motion picture industry and its traditions of ethical and moral practices,” according to the HR item.
       In his review of the picture, the HR critic asserted: “The real standout is Rod Steiger, as the villanous producer who weeps with calculated hysteria to get his own way. This part seems to be modeled on a recognizable personality. I leave it to others to judge the fairness of taking the idosyncracies of a man (famed for his charities and public service) and grafting them on a murderer.” The BHC review also commented: “Choice bits of Hollywood scandal have been woven into the plot, and the characters, while composites, have traits which are recognizable.” Some modern sources allege that Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, was one of the studio chiefs on whom “Stanley Hoff” was based. Ilka Chase's character, "Patty Benedict," was most likely based on gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Although several contemporary reviews declared that the contract Charlie is pressured to sign is for fourteen years, it is clearly stated in the film that it is a seven-year-contract. In noting several “inconsistent” plot points, the Var reviewer even complained: “Furthermore, there ain’t no such animal, legally or professionally, as a ’14-year contract’; California law limits any deal to seven annums.”
       Two teleplays based on Clifford Odets’ play have been made. The first, starring Patrick McGoohan, aired in 1959, and the second, staring Peter Gallagher and Betsy Brantley, aired on PBS’s American Playhouse series in Jul 1988. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
BHC
20 Oct 1955.
---
Box Office
24 Sep 1955.
---
Daily Variety
16 Sep 55
p. 3.
Film Daily
23 Sep 1955.
---
Hollywood Reporter
23 Mar 1955
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
15 Apr 1955
p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter
18 Apr 1955
p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Apr 1955
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Apr 1955
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Apr 1955
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
4 May 1955
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
6 May 1955
p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter
12 May 1955
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
16 Sep 1955
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Sep 1955
pp. 7-22.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Oct 1955
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Dec 1955
p. 1.
LAMirror-News
26 Oct 1955.
---
Los Angeles Times
24 Apr 1955.
---
Los Angeles Times
18 Sep 1955.
---
Los Angeles Times
26 Oct 1955.
---
Motion Picture Daily
20 Sep 1955.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
17 Sep 55
p. 593.
New York Times
13 Mar 1955.
---
New York Times
24 Apr 1955.
---
New York Times
6 Nov 1955.
---
New York Times
9 Nov 1955
p. 41.
New Yorker
19 Nov 1955.
---
Saturday Review
19 Nov 1955.
---
Variety
21 Sep 1955
p. 6.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Asst dir
PRODUCER
WRITER
Adpt for the screen by
PHOTOGRAPHY
Photog
Head grip
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Upholstered furniture by
Prop master
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
SOUND
VISUAL EFFECTS
Title and photog eff
Titles des
MAKEUP
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod supv
Asst to the prod
Casting supv
Scr supv
Dial coach
Transportation captain
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the play The Big Knife by Clifford Odets (New York, 24 Feb 1949).
DETAILS
Release Date:
November 1955
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: 25 October 1955
New York opening: 8 November 1955
Production Date:
25 April--early May 1955 at Sutherland Studios
Copyright Claimant:
Associates & Aldrich Co., Inc.
Copyright Date:
25 October 1955
Copyright Number:
LP5560
Physical Properties:
Sound
Glen Glenn Sound Co. Recording
Black and White
Widescreen/ratio
1.85:1
Duration(in mins):
110-111 or 120
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
17593
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Movie star Charlie Castle is being pressured by studio owner Stanley Shriner Hoff to sign another seven-year contract, even though both Charlie and his estranged wife Marion are leery of the long-term commitment. The formerly idealistic Charlie is also weary of the exploitive films that Hoff produces, although he does enjoy his huge popularity. One morning, while Charlie is exercising with his trainer, Nicky Feeney, studio publicist Buddy Bliss stops by Charlie’s Bel Air mansion to warn him that gossip columnist Patty Benedict will arrive soon. The powerful, acid-tongued Patty questions him about his separation from Marion, and although Marion is living at their beach house with their young son Billy, Charlie denies that they are separated. Patty then comments on Hoff having re-hired Buddy after he served ten months in jail for killing a child in a hit-and-run accident, in which Charlie had been implicated before Buddy confessed. Patty threatens to rake up the story again unless Charlie gives her the inside “scoop” on his marriage, but Charlie tells her to leave. As Patty is warning Charlie that he is being foolish, she is interrupted by Marion, who was in the house without Charlie’s knowledge. Marion tells Patty to mind her own business, after which a frantic Buddy chases after Patty. Charlie chastises Marion for annoying Patty, and Marion complains that she is sick of the insincerity of their lives. Charlie asks Marion to come home, but Marion, unable to endure Charlie’s infidelities, drinking and brooding, refuses. She also reveals that author Hank Teagle, one of Charlie’s oldest friends, has proposed to her. Marion warns Charlie that although she did not accept Hank’s proposal, she will never ... +


Movie star Charlie Castle is being pressured by studio owner Stanley Shriner Hoff to sign another seven-year contract, even though both Charlie and his estranged wife Marion are leery of the long-term commitment. The formerly idealistic Charlie is also weary of the exploitive films that Hoff produces, although he does enjoy his huge popularity. One morning, while Charlie is exercising with his trainer, Nicky Feeney, studio publicist Buddy Bliss stops by Charlie’s Bel Air mansion to warn him that gossip columnist Patty Benedict will arrive soon. The powerful, acid-tongued Patty questions him about his separation from Marion, and although Marion is living at their beach house with their young son Billy, Charlie denies that they are separated. Patty then comments on Hoff having re-hired Buddy after he served ten months in jail for killing a child in a hit-and-run accident, in which Charlie had been implicated before Buddy confessed. Patty threatens to rake up the story again unless Charlie gives her the inside “scoop” on his marriage, but Charlie tells her to leave. As Patty is warning Charlie that he is being foolish, she is interrupted by Marion, who was in the house without Charlie’s knowledge. Marion tells Patty to mind her own business, after which a frantic Buddy chases after Patty. Charlie chastises Marion for annoying Patty, and Marion complains that she is sick of the insincerity of their lives. Charlie asks Marion to come home, but Marion, unable to endure Charlie’s infidelities, drinking and brooding, refuses. She also reveals that author Hank Teagle, one of Charlie’s oldest friends, has proposed to her. Marion warns Charlie that although she did not accept Hank’s proposal, she will never return to him if he signs Hoff’s new contract, as she believes that the movie business has destroyed his integrity. Charlie protests, as he knows that Hoff will never let his biggest star go. Charlie admits to having made a mistake “that night,” and Marion, who still loves her husband, states that she should have been more supportive. Urging Charlie to fight, Marion agrees to move back in and goes to pack. Charlie is then visited by his agent, Nat Danziger. Although Charlie tells Nat that he will lose his family if he signs the contract, Nat assures him that Marion will understand, and warns him that Hoff and his right-hand man, Smiley Coy, are coming. When Smiley and the tyrannical Hoff arrive, Charlie tells them he is reluctant to sign. Hoff offers Charlie a vacation but is rebuffed, and so menacingly reminds Charlie of the times he has fixed problems for him, including a “certain night in this very living room.” Charlie pleads with Hoff, but finally, worn down by his threats, signs the contract. After the three men leave, Marion calls, but hangs up when Charlie confesses that he gave in. A few days later, Buddy’s alcoholic, sluttish wife Connie comes to Charlie’s and reveals she knows that Charlie was the drunken driver who killed the child, and that Hoff arranged for Buddy to confess to prevent Charlie’s career from being ruined. Although Charlie, who treasures Buddy’s friendship, asks Connie to leave, she follows him upstairs when he retires. A few days later, Charlie visits Marion and asks her to attend a dinner party he is hosting for Buddy. Marion agrees to attend with Hank, and that night, after Buddy and Connie leave, Charlie and Hank reminisce about their young, idealistic days in New York. Charlie and Hank quarrel over Hank’s proposal to Marion, and after Hank departs with Marion, he tells her that she has to decide which man she really wants. Charlie then prepares for bed but is interrupted by Smiley, who tells him that Dixie Evans, a studio contract player who was with Charlie on the night of the accident, has been talking about it. Smiley urges Charlie to be nice to Dixie, who worships him, and so Charlie invites her over. Dixie is thrilled to see Charlie, but complains bitterly about the studio using her to entertain visiting exhibitors rather than giving her a real break as an actress. Charlie asks Dixie not to talk about the accident, as it could hurt him, but Dixie assures him that she only wants to make the studio heads as miserable as they have made her. Their conversation is interrupted by Marion, and Dixie quickly leaves. Marion assumes that she interrupted an incipient affair, although Charlie pleads his innocence. The couple begins quarreling again, and Charlie rages that he can no longer stand Marion’s judgmental attitude, and instead needs her to love him as he is. Relenting, Marion stays the night. A few days later, when Charlie returns home from posing for publicity stills at the studio, Smiley is waiting for him. Smiley informs him that Hoff had summoned Dixie to his office, and that when she finally arrived, drunk, an enraged Hoff beat her. Dixie then left for a bar, and Smiley asks Charlie to lure Dixie to her apartment, where “doctored” gin has been prepared. Charlie is then to return to the studio, which will provide him with the alibi of having been posing for stills all day. Charlie is horrified that Smiley proposes murdering Dixie, who has continued to needle Hoff about the accident. When Marion comes downstairs, Charlie asks her to summon Nat, while he calls Hoff, demanding that he come over. When the men arrive, they tell Charlie that he misunderstood Smiley’s intentions, but Charlie accuses Hoff of soliciting murder. Despite her shock at learning that Dixie was with Charlie during the accident, Marion supports him. Smiley suggests that the only other way to “take care of” Dixie is for Charlie to marry her, and states that he has taped proof of Marion having a love affair with Hank. Smiley brings in the recordings, but Charlie, believing in Marion, breaks the records in half. Charlie orders Hoff and Smiley to leave, and when Hoff merely laughs, Charlie rushes toward him. Fearing that Charlie is going to hit him, Hoff covers his face, and a scornful Charlie slaps his head. Humiliated, Hoff screams that he will reveal the truth about Charlie’s accident and that Charlie will be ruined. After Smiley and Hoff leave, Marion and Charlie comfort each other and call Hank, who they believe can offer them advice. Suddenly, Buddy rushes in and tearfully reveals that Connie told him about her affair with Charlie. Buddy spits in Charlie’s face and leaves, after which a quiet Charlie pledges Marion that she will have a better future. While Charlie is upstairs taking a bath, Smiley returns and informs Marion that Dixie was run over by a city bus after she left the bar. Marion is castigating Smiley for his behavior when they notice water seeping through the ceiling. Hank arrives as Nicky, Smiley and Russell, the butler, break down the bathroom door and discover that Charlie has committed suicide by slashing his wrists. Smiley calls the studio to issue a press release that Charlie died of a heart attack, but Hank, determined not to let his friend’s anguish be covered up, states that he will tell the press the truth. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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