Billy Wilder and Kirk Douglas Make a Great Film Noir
Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) was a seminal film noir, and he went even darker with his 1951 movie Ace in the Hole, which is sometimes referred to by its alternate title of The Big Carnival. In Ace in the Hole, the protagonist is an unlikable antihero played by Kirk Douglas in what is arguably the best performance of his career. From beginning to end, the gritty film presents a bleak vision of human nature.
Douglas portrays Chuck Tatum, a ruthless, unscrupulous journalist who happens upon a man trapped in a cave-in. He exploits the situation by teaming up with the corrupt local sheriff and generates a media frenzy. Tatum's tabloid-style reporting arouses the morbid curiosity of the public, and thousands of people swarm to the site. Soon ice cream, balloons and souvenirs are being sold, and carnival rides are set up, including a Ferris wheel.
The brilliance of the movie is that Wilder and Douglas manage to utterly enthrall us with the character Chuck Tatum. It's not so much money Tatum's after as it is status. He wants to be at the top of his profession: he yearns to be a big-shot journalist in New York. Tatum's energy and capacity for work are enviable, but his disregard for morals and ethics is appalling.
Those Wilder Touches
Trying to get a job, Tatum tells a newspaper publisher in Albuquerque, "I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog." But New Mexico is the back of beyond as far as the ambitious Tatum is concerned, and he feels imprisoned there, referring to the state as a "sun-baked Siberia." He sees his opportunity to escape when a man named Leo Minosa gets trapped in a cave-in while removing relics from ancient Indian tombs.
The cave-in site is out in the boondocks in a county with the unlikely name of Los Barrios. Wilder shows us a live rattlesnake in a box and then the man who carries that reptile around with him. The owner of the poisonous pet is the shady local sheriff, who is up for reelection, and Tatum has no trouble enlisting him in a disgusting scheme to generate publicity. Soon the site is inundated with tourists, who enjoy carnival attractions supplied by The Great S&M Amusement Corp. and a musical group doing the hastily written song "We're Coming, Leo."
Although Tatum's news dispatches depict the trapped man's wife Lorraine (well-played by Jan Sterling) as heartbroken, she is actually sick to death of her husband and cheered up by her improved prospects for getting away from him. When Tatum urges her to attend a special mass being said for Leo, she responds with the film's most famous lines: "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons."
But the callous Lorraine recognizes that in Tatum she's met a kindred spirit, and she tells him, "I met a lot of hardboiled eggs in my life, but you — you're 20 minutes."
A Pair of Billy Wilder Interviews
The best extra on the Criterion Collection two-disc DVD set containing Ace in the Hole is the 58-minute interview of Billy Wilder titled "Portrait of a '60% Perfect' Man." The interview was conducted by film critic Michel Ciment and took place in 1980 when Wilder was about 74 years old. It starts off at Wilder's cluttered Santa Monica Boulevard office, where he keeps his six Oscar statuettes and a certificate for winning the top prize at Cannes for The Lost Weekend (1945). Wilder then drives to a high-rise building and goes up to his primary residence, where he shows Ciment his valuable art collection, which includes works by Picasso, Chagall, Kandinsky, Kirchner and Jawlensky. Finally, they conclude the interview at Wilder's beachfront cottage in Malibu.
Wilder talks briefly about his youth in Vienna, the excitement of living in Berlin during the Weimar era and his year in France before settling into a long discussion of his Hollywood years, beginning as a screenwriter, then becoming a director and finally a producer. He was one of the great raconteurs, and he has lots of fascinating things to say about his many movies and the famous stars he worked with, including Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, William Holden, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe.
Also on the DVD is a 1986 appearance Wilder made at the American Film Institute when he was about 80. For 24 minutes he reflects on his 50 years in film. He makes many interesting remarks, such as "I despise doing fancy-shmancy shots" and "I don't do cinema; I'm in movies."
A Worthwhile Scholarly Audio Commentary
The DVD provides a feature-length audio commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard, coauthor of Down Sunset Boulevard: The Films of Billy Wilder. Sinyard provides quite a bit of information about the production, stating that although Wilder generally preferred to shoot in the studio rather than on location, for Ace in the Hole he used a huge set he had constructed near Gallup, New Mexico.
Sinyard also points out that just after the close-up of Tatum's fist in Lorraine's hair, the viewer can infer that they have off-camera sex. In that context, he notes the sexual implications of the big drill pounding.
He supplies the information that the song "We're Coming, Leo" was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who also did "Buttons and Bows" and "Que Sera, Sera." Sinyard further observes that the lyrics of "We're Coming, Leo" have sexual connotations as well.
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