Sunday, 22 January 2012

knife edge of hysteria

Further to my previous comments about great B&W photography in Bela Tarr's MFL, the excellent work of Ernest Laszlo (another Hungarian, this time a long-term Hollywood emigré) in The Big Knife, 1955, is to be cherished. Robert Aldrich's terrific drama, which I saw in student days and had not seen since, seems better now than it ever did. Aldrich, once affectionately termed by French critics 'le gros Bob', was one of the very best Hollywood directors, specialising in gritty if not brutal movies about survival against the odds. Working mainly within the system, Aldrich produced some genre classics - war, westerns, noirs etc - including some of my absolute favourites in those fields: Attack, Apache, The Last Sunset, Ulzana's Raid, The Grissom Gang, Emperor Of The North, and the quite superb Kiss Me Deadly. You'd expect no less from a man who'd worked with Welles, while the physicality, the brilliantly expressive, almost expressionist, camera angles, the almost if not quite OTT performances, all seem perfectly right in these films' contexts.

As for The Big Knife itself, it features a matchless cast: the inimitable Jack Palance in one of his finest and most gripping dramatic roles; well supported by Ida Lupino, Shelley Winters, Everett Sloane, Wendell Corey, and Jean Hagen (she of "Aah jest caint stann um" fame in Singing In The Rain). And of course, there's Rod Steiger with a strange haircut and a deaf-aid, ranting and raving away as a studio mogul who's an unholy mix of Messrs Mayer and Cohn… Yet his "hammy outrageousness" (Time Out) somehow works when set against Palance's obdurate intensity.

Here's fear and loathing in LA, via the flawed but often brilliant Clifford Odets! His "wordy and stagebound script" was nonetheless considered (also by Time Out) "intellligent and literate", and it seems in hindsight a rather accurate depiction of Fifties America, cold war paranoia and all.

Early last year we saw a stage production of Odets's first success, Waiting For Lefty, and this Thirties piece seemed both curiously timely and dated. The powerful verbal gifts (along with the accompanying torrential verbosity) retained much of their force, while most of the occasional sentimental blemishes could be overlooked: Odets's socialism, like his heart, was in the right, or rather the left, place. Alas, by the end of the McCarthy era, Odets had sold out and become an extremely well-rewarded Hollywood hack, albeit one of the best around: see also Sweet Smell Of Success, an equally fine, equally hysterical film scripted by him a couple of years after TBK.

Unfortunately, just like Aldrich himself, whose later output declined and became slickly commercial (remember The Dirty Dozen and what happened to the later careers of Mesdames Davis and Crawford?) Odets went for the easy money flowing down the mainstream. But he remained, according to Jean Renoir, a decent, warm and very generous friend. In My Life And My Films (1974) Renoir writes movingly of their friendship and Odets's last days. He praises Odets's only foray into directing - the very odd None But The Lonely Heart, which starred an absurdly OTT Cary Grant plus dreadful cockney (not even Bristolian!) accent. This praise was, one feels, down to Renoir's own comradeship and innate generosity, rather than a true reflection of an interesting failure: surely NBTLH is not, as anyone who's seen this muddled piece will agree, any sort of "masterpiece"? Still those were times of exaggeration, days of hysteria and suspicion, when friendship accorded to outsiders, foreigners and exiles in Hollywood was in short supply. Renoir simply notes that Odets was "like everyone representative of his period… a victim of the anti-communist obsession". The paranoia and blame of that time are in impressive and riveting evidence in The Big Knife.


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