Dog Doesn’t Return Other Dog’s Calls

Perpendicular Palance, they call him.

I ran Robert Aldrich’s THE BIG KNIFE because I’ve been thinking seriously about Hollywood noir/Hollywood Gothic stuff. This predates his later hagsploitation pics, and the related but different THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLAIR (and I guess THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, with its Brit TV background, is a distant relative too), but has a few things in common, apart from the dry, pale presence of Wesley Addy. More on him later.

Jack Palance plays the lead, a movie star with a guilty secret (audaciously borrowed by author Clifford Odets from a persistent rumour about Clark Gable being a drunken, hit-and-run killer — which doesn’t seem to be true). Palance is no Crawford or Davis, but his characterisation is just as neurotic and tormented — he spends the movie posing, languishing, anguishing, seething (I love it when Palance breathes heavy).

Fiona had many questions about Palance. Where did Jack Palance come from? Is Jack Palance a good actor? Can Jack Palance act? What is with Jack Palance? All fair questions. I said YES to all of them.

Jack’s manly suffering — similar vein of masochistic machismo to Kirk Douglas — is the main show, but his swank home (it’s a one-set play) is regularly invaded by supporting hambones (he never locks the door) like Miss Shelley Winters (her actual screen credit here) and Rod Steiger, who come bearing entertainment. Steiger is cast as a baroque hallucination of Louis B. Mayer, afflicted with some of Odets’ most overwrought verbiage, a peroxide crew-cut, shades and a hearing aid. Also some startling homoerotic overtures towards the muscular Jack — at times he goes Full Joyboy. In a film so full of memorable entrances and exits it plays like thespian Whack-a-Mole, he gets one of the best, monologuing his way out the door, his ranting voice diminishing slowly into the distance until a new conversation breaks out on top of it… but Steiger keeps going until he’s vanished over some unseen horizon…

Fiona also liked his hushing an opponent with a gentle “Shshshshshshshshshshshsh” that abruptly explodes into a fulsome “shshSHUT UP!” And his defending a man’s character by citing his relationship with “such people as the late Al Jolson.” Threatened with violence, he hides behind his pudgy fists, fat head suddenly babylike, Trumpish in his pusillanimity.

The man he’s defending is Wendell Corey, readily decoded as studio fixer Eddie Mannix, and sensibly playing it subtle but reptilian, not trying to compete with the uberactors flanking him. He’s a man prepared to kill for the studio, and while the story doesn’t quite allow him to do so — something of a cop-out, but they had to show caution SOMEWHERE — Corey is genuinely chilling.

Also good work from Everett Sloane though he’s not as moving as the put-upon agent in IN A LONELY PLACE, the most moving Hollywood agent in cinema (the only one?). Who was that guy? Oh yeah, Art Smith. Get me Art Smith!

Miss Shelley.

Palance is also tormented by three women — his wife, Ida Lupino, who wants him to be virtuous, his friend’s slutty wife, Jean Hagen, who wants him to be wicked, and Winters, who knows his guilty secret and can’t be trusted to keep her mouth shut. He invites her over for a swim, which is a worrying portent — you know about Shelley’s bad luck with water, right? But instead of a NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/PLACE IN THE SUN/POSEIDON ADVENTURE watery grave, she’s felled by a convenient accident straight out of the LOLITA playbook.

That awkward moment when Wendell Corey won’t get out of your lampshade.

Jack checks if Wendell is still in there.

Oh, and there’s Wesley Addy, cast as a writer and serving as mouthpiece for Odets’ views, explaining the story’s themes and Palance’s character and generally dumbing the whole thing down. Good actor, but I wanted to kill him. He walks in on and damages a really powerful ending, and his dollarbook Freud actually muddies the motivation of the hero’s last act. If I could digitally lift him from the movie we’d really have something. I’d feel sorry for him, though, and would make it up to him by dropping him off in GONE WITH THE WIND, where he would get lots of surprised attention in his modern dress, and would spoil anything since it’s a wretched movie anyway.

Of course, putting himself into the movie in disguise is a way for Odets to protect himself from the certain knowledge that Palance’s character, the sell-out, the half-idealist, is him too. So the character, inelegantly conceived as he is, may be necessary for the piece to exist at all.

Oh, the music is also very bad — random eruptions by Frank DeVol. (Did Aldrich make a single movie where the music is enjoyable?)

Good movie. Better than the Bettes. Very sweaty.

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5 Responses to “Dog Doesn’t Return Other Dog’s Calls”

  1. It was Sirk who made Palance a star in “Sign of the Pagan.” But his greatest role was of course in Godard’s “Conempt”

  2. I love the English dub of Contempt for the translator character. In the French version, she translates everything JP says into French. In the dub, she simply repeats or rephrases him… so bizarre it’s in keeping with the Godardian vibe.

  3. chris schneider Says:

    Something so wonderfully “not nice” about Jean Hagen talking out of the side of her mouth. The original stage production had John Garfield in the Palance role — which apparently made the filming difficult for frequent Garfield co-star Lupino. The “Miss Shelley Winters” role was played by Joan McCracken of GOOD NEWS.

  4. Crikey re McCracken. Garfield might have been, in some ways, better than Palance — more sympathetic, if he’s even meant to be sympathetic (how many heroes have a killed kid in their backstory?). But most interesting of all would have been someone with more conventional movie star beauty. Lancaster?

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