Turner Classics is showing Clifford Odets’s THE BIG KNIFE starring Jack Palance as a tormented Hollywood star. The conventional word on this movie, made from an Odets play, is that it’s over-emotional, over the top, embarrassingly overheated, miscast and poor office slammed by critics.
All true, except that the casting is wonderful: Palance is a revelation and Rod Steiger fabulously, stratospherically over the top as a Harry Cohn/LBMayer. The Big Knife is a perfect gem of an utterly watchable imperfect work.
Even more interesting if you see it as an expiation, and plea for forgiveness, by Odets who became – with Elia Kazan’s close cooperation – a HUAC informer for which he never forgave himself. Odets, a brilliant and fiery writer who transformed American theatre in the 1930s, was a complicated guy, like his Palance character.
By sheer coincidence, I helped set up chairs at an anti-HUAC meeting in NY where Odets gave a keynote speech urging his audience not to surrender to the witch hunters. We stood on those chairs and applauded like crazy.
My memory may be faulty here but not by much: the very next morning or a few days later he ratted out his old friends to the Committee.
Once you know this, The Big Knife becomes even more fascinating.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.