Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ace in the Hole (1951)

a.k.a. The Big Carnival

Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, Billy Wilder
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling

Black & White, 111 minutes

Grade: A+

It's hard to believe that a filmmaker of Billy Wilder's stature would have a film that has went largely unseen by the general public for over fifty years, but, unfortunately, it's true. Ace in the Hole, Wilder's follow up to Sunset Blvd., was a critical and commercial disaster when released in 1951, and since then it has found it's way to television only a few times. In 2002 it got a theatrical re-release, and finally, in July, it will make it's first appearance on home video courtesy of a royal treatment by The Criterion Collection. It has been worth the wait. Ace in the Hole is the harshest, most brutal, most uncompromising film ever released by Hollywood. It is every bit as memorable and accomplished as anything Wilder ever achieved, including Blvd. and Double Indemnity. To call it a masterpiece would be a gross understatement, it is simply one of the greatest films that I have ever seen, and I can't wait to watch it again.

With all the venom that Wilder spewed at Hollywood in Blvd., he outdoes himself here. His teeth are clenched, his fists are up, and he's out for blood but this time his target is mass media, as represented by newspaperman Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). We first meet this monstrous son of a bitch as he's driving through Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tatum stops by the local paper, The Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, to ask for a job. "How would you like to make $200,"he asks boss man Mr. Boot (Porter Hall) "I'm a $250 a day reporter, you can have me for $50." Tatum has been fired from eleven major newspapers, and he's proud of it. "If there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog," and you can be damn sure that he means it. Boot, against his better judgment, hires Tatum, for $60 a day no less, and after a year in such a Podunk little town, Tatum is starting to stir crazy. He throws a fit that he can't get chopped chicken liver and garlic pickles. He starts a rant about how much he misses New York, and he shouts at a coworker, a frail old lady, "You know who Yogi Berra is?" She replies, "Yogi? It's a sort of religion isn't it?" Mr. Boot, fed up with the griping, sends Tatum on a special, out of town assignment; to cover a rattlesnake hunt. Tatum accepts what he can get and, along with his photographer Herbie (Bob Arthur), makes his way out of town.

They decide to stop at a gas station, and after finding the place deserted, except for a lady muttering prayers in Spanish, the two begin to snoop around. A police siren blares down the highway and turns towards the Indian Cliff Dwellings. There is a man by the name of Leo Minosa (a heartbreaking Richard Benedict) caught under a pile of rocks 250 feet in, and Tatum sees stars. This is his big break, his Charles Lindbergh, his Floyd Collins, his Pulitzer Prize. He fearlessly heads into the dwellings, locates Minosa, and turns on the charm. Tatum promises Minosa that he'll do everything in his power to get him out, and Minosa believes him. Outside, however, Tatum manipulates everyone and everything, including local law enforcement and Minosa's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), to spin the story his way. He convinces the head engineer to alter his plans, keeping Minosa trapped for days longer than necessary. He essentially creates a circus, both figuratively and literally. Tourists and media groups pour in by the hundreds, and to capitalize on the spectacle, a carnival comes to town and sets up shop. Lorraine who, with her husband, owns the only gas station/restaurant for miles around is on to Tatum's scheme, but she doesn't mind. She hates her husband, and, due to his misfortune, is making money hand over fist, and after the frenzy comes to a halt, she plans to blow town and head for New York. Tatum talks up his co-conspirators, promising them riches and fame and all the great things that can come from this story. Herbie, skeptical at first, tells Tatum; "I don't like the looks of it, Chuck." Tatum, cocksure from birth, responds; "I don't either, fan. But I like the odds." It's too bad he forgot about the wild card, that ace in the hole, the one Wilder keeps up his sleeve until the astonishing third act when everything goes downhill, after all, as Tatum himself would say, "Good news is no news."

Wilder had a true knack for casting, it's apparent in all his work. Here, he achieves a miracle. Kirk Douglas, now mostly remembered because he is Spartacus, and because he's Michael's Dad, is phenomenal as Tatum. He's not even acting here, he is devouring scenes left and right. His performance is wild, manic, violent, and enthralling to watch. He doesn't just speak Wilder's trademark witty dialogue, he savors it, chews on it, lets it sit there until the right moment when he just cuts loose. Watch the look in his eyes, his enjoyment when he confronts the other big league reporters. They plead to Chuck, who most of them know personally, trying to get him to let them in on the scoop. "We're all buddies in the same boat," one of them shouts. "I'm in the boat, you're in the water," Chuck bites at him, "Now let's see you swim, buddies. Along with Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, this film calls for a complete reconsideration of Douglas' worth as an actor. Neglected for decades, Douglas' talent will be seen quite differently as this film finds more and more viewers over the years to come.

Wilder has always been a master of tone, and he continues that trend here. The film starts very funny, in a dark, sadistic sort of way, but Wilder slowly lets the humor drain from the proceedings. He doesn't yank the rug out, he just quietly tugs out, and one minute you look down and find your ass on a bare floor. He ditched longtime co-writer Charles Brackett before starting this film, but it's not a problem. The dialogue is as quotable as ever, the film moves at a breakneck speed, and his symbolism is nowhere near being subtle. He crams the film with every bitter idea that pops into his head (the rising admission prices day after day, the carnival trailers painted with the words S & M Amusement Services), and it's a blast to watch. This may be his most ambitious film, and his goals, and hatred, are reflected in Charles Lang, Jr.'s breathtaking cinematography that makes the most of the sun drenched vistas and the inner working of the cliff dwellings. The collaboration between the two results in this being Wilder's most confident work. There is a brutal, almost dirty feel to entire film, it gets in your gut and stays there.

Wilder often considered Ace in the Hole to be his greatest film, and he'll get no argument from me. As of this writing, I can think of few films that are as timely and relevant as this one. It feels fresh and contemporary, and not dated in the least. The decision to keep it underfoot for so many years will come as no surprise to anyone who watches it. It is a hateful film, brilliant in its mercilessness, and one gets the sense that Wilder had to know what was in store. Nonetheless, it took a considerable amount of gall for Wilder to make this film, and it's finally going to get the attention it deserves. Pick it up as soon as you can.


H. Stewart said...

Man, I'm so mad at myself for not seeing this during its theatrical run. I can't wait for the DVD, I hear such amazing things from everywhere.

I heard it was retitled The Big Carnival by the studio when it was first released, and audiences were confused, expecting a circus movie or something I suppose.

Clayton L. White said...

Yeah, it was released with the original title, and then when it bombed they changed it. Obviously it didn't help.