Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The Big Knife addresses themes of the individual’s struggle to maintain personal integrity. Charlie Castle is, on the surface, a success. He is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, so successful that a studio is willing to negotiate an exclusive, long-term, and very lucrative contract with him. At the peak of his popularity, he lives in luxury and can hire people to pamper and promote him. However, despite all these trappings of success, internally he is suffering from moral decay. His wife is threatening to leave him. His obsessive drinking has caused the death of an innocent bystander and nearly led to his own imprisonment. He has betrayed one of his friends by allowing him to plead guilty to the crime Charlie committed; moreover, he has committed adultery with that same friend’s wife.
Charlie hates being trapped in the role he has been forced to play again and again, that of a tough, illiterate hood. At one time, he was known as a well-educated and accomplished stage actor. However, now his superficial, crass film character is beginning to reflect his own true moral character. Charlie despises what he has become, but he feels completely trapped.
In order to become a financial and popular success, Charlie has had to disavow his past, his true, idealistic self. He has permitted others to manipulate his character in exchange for riches and notoriety. He has permitted the Hollywood system to change his name (from Cass to Castle) and dictate to him the character he must play in all of his films as well as what sort of image to project offscreen—that of a happily married, generous, outgoing family man. In other words Charlie’s character, both private and public, is a lie.
(The entire section is 712 words.)
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