The Big Knife

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The Big Knife
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Aldrich
Produced byRobert Aldrich
Screenplay byJames Poe
Based onThe Big Knife
by Clifford Odets
StarringJack Palance
Ida Lupino
Wendell Corey
Jean Hagen
Rod Steiger
Shelley Winters
Narrated byRichard Boone
Music byFrank De Vol
CinematographyErnest Laszlo
Edited byMichael Luciano
The Associates
Aldrich Company
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • November 25, 1955 (1955-11-25) (United States)
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$460,000[1] or $400,000[2]
Box office$1,250,000[3][2]
220,066 admissions (France)[4]

The Big Knife is a 1955 film noir directed and produced by Robert Aldrich from a screenplay by James Poe based on the 1949 play by Clifford Odets. The film stars Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Jean Hagen, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, Ilka Chase, and Everett Sloane.[5]


Charlie Castle, a very successful Hollywood actor, lives in a huge home. But his wife Marion is on the verge of leaving him, which he refuses to confirm to influential gossip columnist Patty Benedict.

On his wife's advice, Castle is adamantly refusing to renew his contract, which enrages Stanley Shriner Hoff, his powerful studio boss. Castle wants to be free from the studio's grip on his life and career.

Hoff and his right-hand man Smiley Coy have knowledge of a hit-and-run accident in which Castle was involved and threaten to use this information against him. Hoff is willing to do anything to make the actor sign a seven-year renewal.

Castle's soul is tortured. He wants to win back his idealistic wife, who has been proposed to by Hank Teagle, a writer. And he longs to do more inspiring work than the schlock films Hoff makes him do, pleading with his needy agent Nat to help him be free. But the studio chief's blackmail works and Charlie signs the new contract.

Feeling sorry for himself, the darker side of his nature causes Castle to have a fling with Connie, the flirtatious wife of his friend Buddy Bliss, who had taken the blame for Charlie's car accident.

When a struggling starlet named Dixie Evans threatens to reveal what she knows about the crash, Hoff and Smiley decide to have her silenced permanently. They try to involve Castle in their sinister plot and even extort Charlie's wife, secretly recording her conversations with the new man in her life. That is the last straw for Castle, who finally defies the ruthless men who employ him.

However, having betrayed a friend, lost the woman he loves and sacrificed his integrity, Charlie can no longer live with himself. He has a hot bath drawn, gets into it and ends his own life.



In March 1955 Aldrich signed a contract with Clifford Odets to make the film. A script by James Poe had already been written and Jack Palance set to star. The film was made for Aldrich's own company.[6]

Aldrich said he was "terribly ambivalent about the Hoff character". When he made the film many old time tycoons were still in power.

We'd had twenty years of petty dictators running the industry, during which time everybody worked and everybody got paid, maybe not enough, but they weren't on relief. Seventeen years later you wonder if the industry is really more healthy in terms of creativity. Are we making more or better pictures without that central control? But when everybody worked under those guys, they hated them. So we took the drumroll from Nuremberg and put it under the Hoff character's entrances and exits. It wasn't too subtle... The Hoff crying came from Mayer, who is reported to have been able to cry at the drop of an option. But the big rebuff that Odets suffered was at the hands of Columbia, so there was more of Cohn in the original play than there was of Mayer.[7]

Aldrich later said he wished he and the writer had cut down Clifford Odets' play. "At the time, I thought that kind of theatrical flavoring was extraordinary. I'm afraid neither Jim Poe nor I were tough enough in editing some of Odets' phrases as we should have been."[7]


Critical response[edit]

New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, was disappointed and believed the storyline lacked credibility. He wrote:

Actually, it looks as though The Big Knife originally was written and aimed as an angry, vituperative incident of the personal and professional morals of Hollywood. This is the clear implication of what is presented on the screen... But the simple fact is that Mr. Odets—and James Poe, who wrote the screen adaptation—were more disposed to extreme emotionalism than to actuality and good sense. They picture a group of sordid people jawing at one another violently. But their drama arrives at a defeatist climax. And this viewer, for one, was not convinced.[8]

Film critic Jeff Stafford analyzed some of the film's elements, and wrote:

[Of the previous Hollywood-exposé dramas] none...can match the negative depiction of the movie business and its power brokers offered in The Big Knife...The use of long takes by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo adds greatly to the film's claustrophobic tension and the mingling of fictitious names with real ones (Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, William Wyler and others) throughout the dialogue gives The Big Knife a candid, almost documentary-like quality at times.[9]

Box Office[edit]

Aldrich later claimed that although the film cost $400,000 and made over $1 million it lost him money because the distributor took the profits.[2]




  • Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion, Robert Aldrich; 1955

Stage play[edit]

The Big Knife premiered on Broadway at the National Theatre on February 24, 1949 and closed on May 28, 1949 after 109 performances. Directed by Lee Strasberg, the play starred John Garfield as Charles Castle.[10] The first Broadway revival opened at the American Airlines Theatre on April 16, 2013, produced by Roundabout Theatre Company, directed by Doug Hughes and starring Bobby Cannavale and Richard Kind.[11]


The Big Knife was released to DVD by MGM Home Video on April 1, 2003 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alain Silver and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995 p 242
  2. ^ a b c Aldrich, Robert (2004). Robert Aldrich : interviews. University Press of Mississippi. p. 12.
  3. ^ Alain Silver and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995 p 14
  4. ^ French box office results for Robert Aldrich films at Box Office Story
  5. ^ The Big Knife on IMDb .
  6. ^ BY WAY OF REPORT ' The Big Knife' Aimed At Screen -- AddendaBy A. H. WEILER. New York Times13 Mar 1955: X5.
  7. ^ a b mr. film noir stays at the table Silver, Alain. Film Comment; New York Vol. 8, Iss. 1, (Spring 1972): 14-23.
  8. ^ Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times, film review, November 9, 1955. Last accessed: February 20, 2008.
  9. ^ Stafford, Jeff. Turner Movie Classics, film review and analysis, 2008. Last accessed: February 20, 2008.
  10. ^ "The Big Knife Listing", accessed June 16, 2012
  11. ^ Gioia, Michael and Jones, Kenneth. "Roundabout Revival of Clifford Odets' 'The Big Knife' Ends Broadway Engagement June 2", June 2, 2013

External links[edit]