Soap with bite: a new version of Odets's `Big Knife'

The Big Knife PBS, Wednesday 9-11 p.m. (check local listings). Writer: Kenneth Jupp, based on play by Clifford Odets. Producer/director: John Jacobs. Stars: Peter Gallagher, Betsy Brantley, Stubby Kaye, Nehemiah Persoff, Irene Worth. Clifford Odets wrote hard-edged sociological dramas that delved brutally but sensitively into the moral issues of the 1930s and '40s. In recent years, he has been called dated.

Well, ``The Big Knife,'' written in 1949, after Odets had completed a seven-year script-writing stint in Hollywood, is as relevant and contemporary today as it was 40 years ago.

The cast of characters has changed a bit, and the stakes have shifted, but the same focus on manufactured character, unrestrained greed, and self-serving, phony philosophy still exists. Odets's play reflected his disillusionment with the dishonesty and amorality of money-grubbing studio executives who often controlled the lives of their actor meal-tickets. One has only to see Broadway's current ``Speed-the-Plow,'' by David Mamet, to understand that Tinseltown has changed very little.

``The Big Knife'' concerns a studio-system star caught up in the protective arms of his studio after he causes the death of a child in a hit-and-run accident. His acquiescence to a series of false, immoral acts, all rationalized by his desire to keep his public persona intact in order to protect the studio's investment, results in a total breakdown in his personal life. His unbearable anguish inevitably results in a ``final act of faith.''

The role of the actor Charles Castle was created originally on Broadway by John Garfield, then re-created on screen by Jack Palance. Peter Gallagher, who portrays the actor in this version, comes across as just a bit too much of a good-looking model who might revel in the Hollywood milieu, rather than the tough, brooding New York type who would rebel against it, as the Odets script demands. However, within the framework of this soap-operaish production, he works well.

And make no mistake. This version of ``The Big Knife'' is soap opera - literate, glorious, well written, but soap nonetheless.

You have only to listen to the clich'ed music track, which destroys intimacy by underlining every script attempt at subtle nuance, to recognize that soap has won the day.

But look beyond the lush mood music and gushy photography, and you will still find a crisp, melancholy, unmerciful play by one of America's greatest playwrights.

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