Charles Castle (Jack Palance) has it all. With fame, talent and devastating looks, he is the studios biggest star. But when disillusionment sets in and the actor wants to quit Tinseltown, he finds himself in battle with inexorable studio boss Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger). Reluctant to lose his hottest property, he is about to show Charles Castle just how ruthless Hollywood can be, as in a series of explosive showdowns, a murderous cover-up is revealed and Charles finds himself trapped by the dark secrets of his own past.
There's No Business Like Show Business...
- The Big Knife review by Count Otto Black
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Robert Aldrich was a fearless maverick director who made films about unusual or controversial subjects, often involving protagonists who weren't the conventional clean-cut heroes you'd expect in those simpler, more innocent days (he's best known nowadays for co-writing the script of "A Fistful Of Dollars"). This is no exception - a movie made in Hollywood about how vile Hollywood studio bosses are. And when the opening credits show the main character literally cracking up, you know this probably won't be a comedy and there may not be a happy ending.
Jack Palance was nearly always typecast as a villain, but here he gets to play an anti-hero, a weak, selfish, rather unpleasant man who is nevertheless trying to be as good as he can be, and he's obviously enjoying the chance to be something more complex than a sneering psychopath and giving it everything he's got. The only problem is that he's still Jack Palance, and he can't help looking the way he does, outer space cheekbones and all. Which means that when Rod Steiger is obliged to come across as an infinitely nastier and scarier person than Jack Palance while Jack Palance is right there in the room, Rod, never the most subtle of actors, turns the overacting dial up to 11 and becomes so excessive that you can't believe they let this guy walk around without a strait-jacket and a muzzle like Hannibal Lecter.
This level of melodrama sometimes gets in the way of the viewer's suspension of disbelief. The basic plot - Hollywood actors may want to give it all up, including their vast fees, and regain their artistic integrity by appearing in highbrow stage plays and never making another popular film, but the studios mercilessly blackmail them into grinding out lousy movies forever - is a bit hard to swallow, and some of the supporting cast could have been better, especially the dreadful Jewish stereotype. And although in many ways it foreshadows "Sweet Smell Of Success" by a couple of years, it doesn't come anywhere near the heights of that film or its two magnificent central performances. Still, it's an interestingly dark and offbeat work that was very unusual for its time, and it's nice to see Jack Palance doing something less predictable than playing the bad guy from "Shane" yet again. By the way, the title is purely symbolic - big knives appear nowhere in the film.