Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday Matinee At The Movies - The Big Knife

Turner Classic Movies has the film The Big Knife in its current rotation of programming. Made in 1955, starring Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Jean Hagen, and Shelley Winters. It was based on play by Clifford Odets. The Production Design was done by William Glagslow, who did work mainly in the genre of film noir, and also had a huge body of design work for early television. His most well known art direction is for What Ever Happened To Baby Jane.
Jack Palance and Shelley Winters
Bosley Crowther in his 1955 NY Times review
called Shelly Winters and Jean Hagen "two addlepated tramps"

The Big Knife is shot in black and white. It was shot in nine days, for a crazy cheap budget of $450K. No one wanted to make it, or star in it because it was a scathing story of the corrupt movie business and studio system. Robert Aldrich was the director.
Jack Palance plays Charlie, a successful leading man who cheats on his wife played by Ida Lupino. It's time for him to renew his contract, and he wants out of the nilhilistic atmosphere of making movies in Hollywood. He has alot of angst. Rod Steiger plays the studio boss who doesn't want to lose his money maker, and blackmails Charlie by threatening to expose Charlie's tawdry deeds.
The whole film was mainly shot on one set, a wonderful modern living room set. Since they had to shoot so fast, William Glagslow made all the walls able to be moved and removed, so the camera set ups could change rapidly. Since the living room is on camera so long, you really get to study this iconic and fabulous mid century modern decor.
As usual, there are few images of this fabulous set, which of course plays another character. All the trappings of Charlie's success are represented in this house. In fact, when he refuses to sign his new contract, the studio boss has a tantrum and a tirade telling Charlie he will lose everything, including his posh house and furnishings and all the paintings, everything taken away down to the bare walls.
So I have gathered a few images to show you some similar things in the set design. If anyone out there has any images of the set, perhaps you'd be good enough to share them.
One piece of furniture that prominently played, was a double side couch, a kind of mid century modern Tete a Tete. In fact it was featured in one of the movie posters.

Mid Century Modern Tete A Tete

I couldn't find an example of anything like the one in the movie, but I found a few other interesting examples.

Below: Knoll Tete a Tete

Mid 19th Century Tete A Tete

There was also a second couch in the set design
A strange homey check print

There was a wonderful harlequin accent wall in the movie, something like this one from a vintage decorating book.
The entrance hall had a Sputnik chandelier and a black and white tile floor.

There was a sunken bar. In case some of you have never seen one, I found this image from a present day home for sale in Tennessee.

Charlie loved his painting collection, and was very proud of it. In fact he talked to a clown painting quite alot, spilling his guts out to it. It looked very much like this Georges Rouault painting.

There were a ton of great accessories in the set design. Over size lamps, a Buddha, an antique Chinese Horse, all the accoutrement's and trappings of the new Hollywood class of wealthy movie people trying on the veneer of sophisticated acquisition.

The movie has the pace of a play, and at times it gets overwrought and a little shrill. This was the time of The Black List, so it makes sense that fear and loathing play so prominently in this dark interpretation of Hollywood in 1955.
I hope you can catch it, and I hope you enjoy the set set design as much as I did.


Ladygrande (Texas Marie) said...

I saw that movie....very strange...

Visual Vamp said...

Yes it is strange isn't it!
I stayed with it because of the decor!
Jack Palance has such a difficult look. Sometimes Patrick Swayze reminds me of Jack Palance - I always th0ought if they did a bio-pick about Palance, Patrick would be perfect casting.
But I did love seeing Jean Hagen and Shelly Winters as tarts, and I have always loved Ida Lupino both as an actress and as one of the first women directors in Hollywood.