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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare gives THE BIG KNIFE (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1955) a touch-up

Released just in time for the public downfall of serial creep and molester Harvey Weinstein, Robert Aldrich's 1955 first "Horrors of Hollywood" movie is given a Blu-ray release by Arrow Academy.

I will immediately confess to never having liked the movie much, even as a fan of such neglected and important missing in action Aldrichs as Autumn Leaves (1956) or Hustle (1975) both of which deserve major re-issues in good prints and encodes - the chances of this with Hustle are sadly minimal as the film was archived with the dreaded CRI interneg which basically fades to dust. God only knows what useable elements are left for that film.

As Hollywood expose pictures go I prefer Aldrich's own adventures in Baroque scream queen fare like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) or his great lumbering meta-camp The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) with Kim Novak clunking around as a Dietrch/Garbo-esque figure, ever shadowed by her lezzo drug-addicted dresser played by the sublime Valentina Cortese, and best of all Peter Finch as Josef von Sternberg with a British Goyim accent. Who else could have concocted this folly but Aldrich?

Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, The Big Knife
Anyway the bigger problem today for me is the way Aldrich has staged and directed Clifford Odets' screenplay as anything other than a filmed play, with minimal degrees of 'outsiding" and even faintly dramatic POV montage or mise-en-scรจne. Odets was a writer who, to my mind always needed the most fluid and dynamically plastic of directors to move things, and us, to inject life into the endless speeches, and shape shift the narratives, which were often in need of entire States worth of Western Unions to handle the sheer volume of "messages".

I find it more surprising than anything that Aldrich adopted this approach in The Big Knife given his immense skill in, say, Attack (1956) where he dramatizes the complete breakdown and eruption into anarchy of a military troupe, staged within a cave hidden foxhole.

The same intensity and violence is evident in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) in which a Sartrean hell emerges from the collapse of the group in the outdoors, literally in the middle of a wide open empty desert after the plane crashes.

"Il Re de Prosciutto Assoluto"
Rod Steiger, The Big Knife
The Burbank soundstage rooms of the house in contrast set the scene for Cliffy's drama of venality, power and greed in Hollywood (it almost sounds like a comedy). As if to amplify the dramatic artificiality of the material Aldrich has taken to directing some of the actors to give the biggest performances of their careers to an imaginary balcony, possibly the Hollywood Bowl. Among the few showing restraint with what is admittedly choice material for ham and baloney, the sublime Ida Lupino and even Wendell Corey who again plays the mediocre spineless shit he was in real life. For the rest of it we have two Major Drama Queens to duchess across the screen in the form of Jack Palance and Rod Steiger, the latter surely King of Ham Assoluto. The platinum hair job he sports also seems to throw a dose of Weimar era Pabstian sadist who tortures small girls into the personality mix.

In either case he's more than matched by the normally super reliable Jack Palance who here affects a sort of high toned early Crawford twerp English accent, replete with Welles-ian mispronunciations (like the "t" in "apostle" etc) and strategic pauses of such monumental length they leave his fellow actors in the shot rock still with their arms swinging in the air. He has never given a worse performance, all one note in keeping with either highly perverse or actually zero direction from the maestro.

I know I am in a minority in not caring for the film but I will add salt to the wounds of the offended here by adding there is something very, very peculiar in the BD disc encode which Arrow has delivered us. Grain levels are so high and so enlarged they come at you like a sandstorm, all through the movie. I remember seeing this in 35mm during the SUFG 60s era and there is no way Ernest Laszlo's photography for the picture was anything other than tight, high contrast with fine grain for sharpness.

Arrow presents the picture in widescreen 1.85 which may be wrong or right, but it could possibly have been 1.66. In any case some shots look more than others like they have been optically zoomed and then masked to whatever the intended matte was for screening in the final print. This practice wasn't uncommon around the mid-fifties when there were still theatres, especially outside the USA who weren't equipped to do 1.85 or even Scope framing without hard matted reduction prints. In any case I guess the tech people at Arrow have had to make do with what they were given (by Fox in this case?) And their QC is always a very high standard indeed.


For the dedicated.


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