Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hollywood Eats the Soul

Marilyn Monroe described her hometown of Hollywood as “a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss, but fifty cents for your soul.” This cutting melodrama from 1955 confirms the actress’s rueful analysis of the film industry.

Based on a play by Clifford Odets, obviously embittered by his own experience writing for the Dream Factory, The Big Knife gives viewers a lurid look behind the curtain at what life is really like for those in the movie business. Director Robert Aldrich, adept at revealing the seamy underside of show business’s squeaky clean veneer in films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Killing of Sister George and The Legend of Lylah Clare, is clearly in his element here.

A movie idol indulges his appetites
Here is a Hollywood where stars’ vices are indulged and whims acceded to--then their weaknesses and peccadilloes are carefully exploited for maximum benefit to the bottom line.
Gossip, innuendo and scandal are used strategically by studios to protect their investments,
and cover stories and disinformation are manufactured at a greater pace than the motion picture commodity itself. Illusion creates perception, and perception is reality in the hall of mirrors known as Hollywood.

Jack Palance as Charlie Castle

In The Big Knife, movie star Charlie Castle’s soul has been stained, his talent wasted and his marriage nearly destroyed under his seven-year slave contract at Hoff Federated Studios. When it comes time to sign on for another seven years of indentured servitude, he hesitates. But the industry’s well-oiled machine literally chews him up and tears him to shreds when he tries to buck the system.

With his unconventionally handsome features and tall, well-muscled physique, he-man Method actor Jack Palance is well cast as conflicted matinee idol Charlie Castle. Palance, usually most at home playing a menacing bad guy (Sudden Fear, Panic in the Streets), reveals raw and real vulnerability as the wounded idealist faced with a horrifying reality.

Ida Lupino as Marian Castle

Film noir heroine Ida Lupino (Out of the Fog), approaching the then-career-halting age of 40, enjoys one of her last roles as a leading lady (before enjoying a second career behind the camera as a film director), displaying a quiet strength as the dissolute movie hero’s long-suffering wife Marian.

A strong supporting cast brings to life a host of juicy archetypal roles. The great Rod Steiger is the personification of narcissistic evil as the domineering studio head Stanley Hoff. Wendell Corey (Harriet Craig) is perfect as the grim-faced studio henchman “Smiley” McCoy, as is Ilka Chase as a vicious and demanding gossip columnist, a la Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons. Everett Sloane is effective as Castle’s sympathetic but ultimately impotent agent. The versatile Jean Hagen (in a 180º turn from dizzy Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain) scores in her scenes as a slutty, amoral Beverly Hills housewife; her nymphomaniacal character might have been drawn by Harold Robbins, Joyce Haber or Jackie Collins.

Cuckold Buddy Bliss (Paul Langton) and wife Connie (Jean Hagen)

Rod Steiger as Stanley Shriner Hoff

Wendell Corey as Smiley McCoy
Charlie and Nat (Everett Sloane)

Shelley Winters (inexplicably billed as Miss Shelley Winters) makes the most of her one-scene cameo as Dixie Evans, a vengeful, addle-pated and overripe starlet who threatens to blow the lid off a scandalous Hoff Federated cover-up. Making Dixie the dumbest of dumb blondes, just a bit long in the tooth and a tad too voluptuous, seems to be a not-too-subtle poke at Winters’s real-life friend Marilyn Monroe, who was waging a battle royale with her own studio around this time.

(Miss) Shelley Winters as Dixie Evans

Though the Odets play has been opened up to include short scenes at Castle’s Malibu beach house, the Hoff Studio and a nearby Bel Air cocktail party, this is mostly a filmed stage play, but director Aldrich keeps the action moving with his talented cast and always-inventive camera work. Aldrich’s final tableau of Marian sobbing “Help” as the camera pulls up and back from the scene foreshadows the last shot of The Killing of Sister George a dozen years later.  

This voyeuristic peek at Hollywood’s dark side is as sizzling and relevant today as it was 50 years ago. I don’t usually recommend remakes, but an updated version of this conspiracy-driven tale set in the present day and starring a Tom Cruise or even a Mel Gibson, would be fascinating to watch.  


Ken Anderson said...

Hi Chris
Kind of odd how we're so often on the same wavelength...this time with the Aldrich/Shelley Winters angle.
This movie is new to me. I've never seen it, read nothing about it, and don't even recall running across it even briefly on TCM.
The notion of seeing Jack Palance as something other than menacing is certainly appealing, as is a brief cameo by Shelley Winters, who I always think of as being so wonderful in small doses (Phone Call from a Stranger, Lolita).

And what a cast! I love Jean Hagen, and Ida Lupino is growing on me. Maybe this will turn out to be a new favorite. And I'll have you to thank.
Happy you've been so prolific of late, love your posts!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken - this is indeed a more recent discovery for me too and one of Aldrich's lesser-known films...I did first see it on TCM a couple of years ago, then immediately bought the dvd. I've watched it more than a few times since. I guess he made this one a year or so before he first worked with Crawford in Autumn Leaves.

If you see this one, you'll no doubt notice the director's signature touches on many aspects of the film...and it's thematically in his oeuvre, too, and filmed in a crisp black and white...

I think you'll love Palance and Lupino, Hagen, Steiger and the rest. And yes, I agree--Shelley Winters is like a rare condiment...most effective in smaller doses. That's why she is the epitome of the SUPPORTING actress...

Hope you'll get a chance to see this and that you will love it half as much as I do.

rico said...

Hey Chris-
I've only seen this once, need to see it again...especially since I just watched TCM's airing of the insane Aldrich-directed "Lylah Clare"!

From what I've read, Odets based his "star" male character on John Garfield, who became a star in Odets' "Golden Boy." Garfield died of a heart attack before 40. Some attribute it to the stress of being labelled Red and suffering career-wise.

But the incident of a covered up hit and run...there's always been gossip of Clark Gable involved with a drinking and driving fatality...and that "Papa" Louis B. Mayer hushed it up. If so, don't think LB didn't use that as leverage come contract renewal time!

Great cast, ripe dialogue, must see again!


angelman66 said...

Hi Rico - verrry interesting, especially the Gable anecdote which I never heard before...makes sense! Howard Strickland (whom I believe Smiley McCoy is based upon) was the no-nonsense head of publicity for MGM and involved in many a cover-up...including the mysterious death of Harlow's first husband Paul Bern.

The Stanley Hoff character played by Rod Steiger has elements of both Papa Mayer (MGM) and Harry Cohn (Columbia)...The characters in Big Knife make fun of the fact that Hoff uses crocodile tears as a last resort when he wants to manipulate his employees...something Louis B. Mayer was famous for. Judy Garland always called Mayer the best actor on the lot...

Thanks as always for stopping by!