• Big Knife, The



    Released by: Arrow Video
    Released on: September 5th, 2017.
    Director: Robert Aldrich
    Cast: Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, Wendell Corey, Jean Hagen
    Year: 1955
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    The Movie:

    Made right after director Robert Aldrich had a hit with Kiss Me Deadly, 1955’s The Big Knife, based on the stage production written by Clifford Odets, starts with a striking opening sequence in which Saul Bass’ fantastic titles are juxtaposed against an image of a man holding his head, gripping his hair in what looks like frustration.

    We meet this man soon after this credits finish – his name is Charles Castle (Jack Palance) and he’s one of the hottest actors in Hollywood. His introductory scene sees him training with Nick (Nick Cravat) but it’s when a gossip reporter named Patty Benedict (Ilka Chase) shows up that we really figure out what’s going on. See, Charles’ marriage is reportedly on the rocks. Patty grills him, Charles’ friend Buddy Bliss (Paul Langton) tries to get rid of her, but it’s not until Marion Castle (Ida Lupino) actually shows up that she splits. When she does, Charles and Marion talk – they’ve been separated for a while now, she’s been living with their son at the beach house. Charles wants her back. After all, he’s only had ‘occasional’ other girls and while Marion loves him, she’s not sure about it.

    But there’s more to it than that. Charles is urged by his agent Nat Danziger (Everett Sloane) to sign a contract with big time producer Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger) – who just so happens to be on his way over with his assistant Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey). Marion doesn’t want Charles to do it, and he says to win her back, he’ll decline. That’s easier to say than to do, however, because when Hoff shows up, he makes it pretty clear that he’s not happy about this. As Hoff and Coy put more and more pressure on Charles, he succumbs to bad habits – he drinks too much, he fools around with Buddy’s pretty wife Connie (Jean Hagen) and it looks less and less likely that he’ll get Marion back. Even a talk with fellow star of the silver screen Dixie Evans (a special appearance from “Miss Shelley Winters”) fails to help. Things don’t look good for Charles, and they’re about to get a whole lot worse…

    The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, right? Charles means well. We never doubt his love for Marion and despite his many and obvious flaws, we even want to see them get back together and make a go of things. Palance, long before he became typecast as a villain, plays this part well, a consistently tortured soul who once made good movies but who has fallen for the lure of the money offered him for a slate of films he takes no pride in. He’s given himself over to loose women and booze, expecting his wife to stand idly by and take it. It doesn’t happen. Ida Lupino played strong female characters well and she does it again here. She’s hardly devoid of emotion but there are times when she literally and figuratively pushes her husband away – you can feel it from his point of view, and from hers. These characters are well written and very well acted. Equally impressive are the performances from the supporting cast. Seeing Palance go toe to toe with Rod Steiger in this picture is reason enough to want to see it – when Charles calls Hoff a lizard he literally hisses it in that way that only Palance could do, and while they come dangerously close to chewing the scenery here and there, it’s a kick to watch them work (apparently the tension that existed between the characters wasn’t too far off from how it was between the two actors). Shelly Winters’ appearance in the film is more of a cameo but she’s good here, as is Jean Hagen, perfect as the drunken floozy that Castle just can’t say no too. Throw in Wendell Corey as Hoff’s right hand man and great work from Everett Sloane and Nick Cravat and the cast all score full marks.

    As to the direction, Aldrich’s work here is very controlled. Almost the entirety of the film takes place inside Castle’s house, a tie to the story’s origins as a stage play, but it works. The camerawork isn’t particularly complex but there are occasionally some great compositions here – a fine example being an odd shot where Castle stares into a light shade while talking to his associate. The score is solid as well,
    Frank De Vol does great work here.

    Note: It’s been reported online through a few different sources that this version of The Big Knife is missing just over a minute of footage that was present in the MGM DVD. Having never seen this movie before, I can’t personally confirm is this is the case or not and the missing footage didn’t affect my enjoyment of the picture. Having said that, if the footage is missing (and there’s certainly no reason for those who have confirmed that it is to lie about it!) it would be nice to see the disc reissued with the material absent from this release.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    The AVC encoded 1080p high definition 1.85.1 widescreen transfer that looks excellent. Grain appears naturally throughout the movie as it should but there’s very little in the way of print damage here at all, the image is pretty much spotless. Blacks are nice and deep but avoid crush while whites are clean and bright with a nice grey scale in between. Detail is typically really strong here, texture as well, and there’s solid depth to the film throughout. The transfer is thankfully free of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement and there are no noticeable compression artifacts.

    The only audio option provided is an English language 24-bit LPCM Mono track but it too is quite solid. There are a few spots where some of the more hushed dialogue is a little too hushed but otherwise, no problems here. For the most part the performers are perfectly easy to understand and the score sounds quite good. There are no issues with any hiss or distortion to report. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.

    Extras start off with a commentary track from film critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton. Given the interesting back story to this picture, there’s lots for them to talk about here – how the movie was produced by Aldrich independently, various people that were attached to the movie at one point, how the big studios didn’t want to touch it and how it ruffled some pretty important feathers when it was released. Of course, there’s also talk of the performances from pretty much the entire cast with lots of information offered up about all of the principals. Plenty of insight into the direction, the cinematography, the scoring and the fairly singular location used for the shoot as well as its origins as a play. It’s an interesting track for an interesting film.

    Up next is a thirty-four minute long piece called Bass On Titles in which Saul Bass, the man who created The Big Knife’s startlingly awesome opening credits sequence, talks about his work doing just that for quite a few different films that he worked on throughout his career. Interestingly enough, Bass, who passed away in 1996, directed this piece by himself back in 1972. It might sound like a fairly niche piece on the surface but give it a shot – Bass was a genuinely interesting guy and a master at his craft responsible for some of the most iconic opening title sequences of his day.

    Outside of that there’s an interesting five minute television promo piece, the film’s original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection.

    Also included with the disc is an Illustrated insert booklet that contains credits for the feature and for the Blu-ray release along with some brief technical notes, a new essay on the film written by on the film by Nathalie Morris and an archival piece on the film taken from Sight & Sound Magazine. Arrow has also included some reversible sleeve art with some newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips on the front and some original one sheet art on the back.


    The Final Word:

    The Big Knife is more of a drama with some noirish elements worked in than a full blow film noir but that doesn’t diminish the film’s appeal at all. This is a gripping picture thanks to Aldrich’s tight, controlled direction and some flat out excellent performances from the entire cast. Arrow presents the film in beautiful shape, fine audio and a few choice supplements as well. Hopefully the missing footage issue is addressed soon…

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!






























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