Big Knife [1955]

After 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful skewered Hollywood with a scathing attempt at self-analysis, The Big Knife (1955) finished the job of exposing the slimy underbelly of the studio system. This high-gloss noir, cynical to the bone and altogether hysterical in its potboiler theatrics, is a deliriously entertaining mid-'50s melodrama, adapted from the play by Clifford Odets (who brought a similar brand of vitriol to Sweet Smell of Success) and starring Jack Palance in a role that transcended his trademark villainy. Palance is quite effective as rising star Charlie Castle, whose continued ascension in Hollywood depends on his willingness to renew a contract with studio bully Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), who treats Charlie like an indentured servant and, even worse, has plenty of dirt to hold against Charlie if he doesn't cooperate. Trapped between stardom and a desperate desire to reconcile with his neglected wife (Ida Lupino), Charlie's facing a no-win scenario, haunted by the indiscretions of his past. Palance's overwrought performance is perfectly keyed to director Robert Aldrich's typically histrionic approach; he's eclipsed only by Steiger, whose Method madness has rarely been as outrageous as this (his character was partially based on studio honcho Jack Warner). Set primarily in the well-appointed den of Charlie's Bel-Air manse, The Big Knife is stagy but stylish, with Charlie's home taking on the appearance of a gilded cage as his predicament intensifies. Add a stellar supporting cast, and you've got film noir at its finest--dark souls baking in the California sun. --Jeff Shannon

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