The Big Knife is a sensational depiction of the movie business along the lines of Sunset Boulevard. But while Nora Desmond delusionally vied to force her way back into the movie business that left her behind, The Big Knife‘s protagonist will do whatever it takes to be left alone by its ruthless power brokers. Based on Clifford Odets’ abrasive play and directed by Richard Aldrich, The Big Knife has a lot of great things going for it, including a terrific cast and wonderfully contrasting lead character, but ultimately it’s way over the top and meanders too much to really have the fatalistic impact it seems to be going for.
This week at the Hardboiled Hangover, we’re taking a look at some films based on the books of Mickey Spillane – the prolific pulp maestro of sex and carnage. During his time on earth, Spillane (1918 – 2006) sold tens of millions of books, most notably his Mike Hammer series. A private detective who was fueled by rage and moral righteousness, Hammer was a misanthrope who preferred beating confessions out of riff raff rather than questioning them. Spillane put the hard back in hardboiled, with Mike Hammer as his literary tool for vengeance. He certainly wasn’t going for deep insights into the human condition. Mickey wrote to get paid and his books were all about instant gratification of the two-fisted sort.
In Harry Essex’s I, the Jury, Mike Hammer is a dim-witted, primitive goof who punches his way out of a whodunnit. The next film to feature the private dick stepped it up a notch, portraying Hammer as a crass neanderthal who not only uses his fists instead of wit, he’s a pure sadist. Despite having the meanest of mean bastards as a protagonist, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is a landmark film of the classic noir period’s twilight years. It’s a satirical look at Mickey Spillane’s creation, while also miraculously blending hardboiled noir with apocalyptic science fiction. The mystery at the heart of the film unfurls against a violent maze of Red Scare paranoia and features one of the greatest MacGuffins of all time – one of white hot nuclear fire.