Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Film Review: Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole."

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Hey it's not friday! Firday is Good friday so I'm doing my bit for Easter on Friday by running an original new essay, "Did Mark Invent the Empty Tomb?" Be sure and read it! Today I'm doing the film review that I would have done on Friday.

I mainly like to review old European films but I'm always looking for American films that hold their own in comparison to European art films. I don't expect them to have the ambiance: one candle power of light, dark and gritty, earthy squalor, but I expect them to have a serious great plot and to be creative and not corny in cinematography. Such is Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951). It's a fine film. It's not a great film. It's no Seventh Seal, but it is engaging, serious, well done, and just a hint of Hollywood corn but that's to be expected.


 IMBd page:

Cast overview, first billed only:
Kirk Douglas ...
Chuck Tatum
Jan Sterling ...
Robert Arthur ...
Herbie Cook (as Bob Arthur)
Porter Hall ...
Frank Cady ...
Al Federber
Richard Benedict ...
Leo Minosa
Ray Teal ...
Sheriff Gus Kretzer
Lewis Martin ...
John Berkes ...
Papa Minosa
Frances Dominguez ...
Mama Minosa
Gene Evans ...
Deputy Sheriff
Frank Jaquet ...
Sam Smollett
Harry Harvey ...
Dr. Hilton
Bob Bumpas ...
Radio Announcer
Geraldine Hall ...
Nellie Federber
notice it has Frank Cady, who played Sam Druker, one of the funniest characters on Green Acres (ran the general store--65 to 71) and played the same part on Petticoat Junction. (63-70) It's a small part in film. Mostly all he does is say "we were the first car here," several times. He's only in a couple of scenes but his Character (Al Federber)drives a 1951 Studebaker Champion, which is a big personal thrill. [1] Notice also Ray Teal who played Sheriff Roy Coffee on Bonanza (59-73).
Billy Wilder (June 22, 1906 – March 27, 2002) is best known for comedies ("The Apartment", "Some like it hot"), but he did some good drama's too ("Double Indemnity", "Lost Week End," "Sunset Boulevard."). This is one of his best dramas. It's not one of his better known films. It's not even listed on the usual list of his greats, but it should be. It's a real gem.
Kirk Douglas plays a washed up news paper reporter who had been a Pulitzer prize winner and worked at the top of the heap on ever major American Daily. He is not washed up, having been fired from every major American daily. He's trying to start again at the bottom at a small time newspaper and work his way back up with a big story. He finds himself in Albuquerque New Mexico. In 1951 New Mexico was pretty primitive. At that time they didn't have a single free way. After a few months he's bored out of his scull. He's been covering garden parties and drunks who busted up bars on Saturday night. Those the biggest stories they had to offer.

The editor assigns him and a photographer to cover a snake hunt in the desert. He's plotting to make the story bigger by swiping one of the snakes and doing stories on "no 6 still missing, will it turn up in your backyard?" The photographer is a young kid just out of journalism school who is thrilled to have  any job on any paper, and he's willing do anything the old veteran newsman says. They stop at a gas station and the kid goes in to the hotel that's attached to the gas station and there's no one around. It's the middle of the day the plays is open but deserted. He finds a woman in the back bedroom praying fervently in Spanish. She doesn't even recognize him there. The kids goes out to the car and reports back, as though he's just put out, there's no concept of a potential story. The old fire horse Newsman jumps out of the convertible without opening the door bolts into the place, right to the back bedroom. He's standing beside the woman who does not alter from her prayer so he knows something is wrong.
He and the kid drive onto the property down the little road in back and find a woman walking back to the main hotel and she tells them her husband is trapped under the mountain. So they go down there. There are Indian ruins, cliff dwellings, and they are collapsing. They are very dangerous to go in. The man had gone through caves behind the cliff dwelling and was digging for Indian things to sell. Little by little we learn he's doing this to get money to satisfy his wife, who married him thinking that a hotel and lots of land meant he was rich, and found he was land poor, hotel poor. gas station poor and now she is stuck in the middle of now where with no way out and hates it totally. She hates him totally. He loves her and wants her love and is willing to anything. On his latest expedition to find artifacts to make money to please her he was in a cave in and is trapped with big rocks on his legs. He's flat on this back. He's freezing becuase it's cold in the cave and he's got his back to the floor, and he's covered in dust making it hard to breath, no one else will go in because it's falling apart. At this point there's only his father, a couple of neighbors and a deputy sheriff, no one else knows about it. None fo them will go in because it's too dangerous.

The reporter agrees to take him the blanket and coffee. He talks to the guy, he learns about his trouble with his wife. He likes the guy. He likes the story better. He tells the kid how they are going to build the story into another Pulitzer prize winning extravaganza. He starts manipulating. The wife of the trapped man was about to split. She stays just long enough to wait on the costumers who start coming in becuase they read about it in the Albuquerque paper, after it was phoned in. She's amazed. More costumers in one day, come down to gawk, than she had in a month (including the Studebaker driving Federbers, who were the first car there). Suddenly she has more money than she's ever had at one time (she cleans out the register for herself). Douglas convinced her to stay, but now she wants to stay. She's making plans with Douglas to leave with him before her husband get's out and he's to take her to New York when he gets reinstated with the major paper there. He's kind of iffy about it because he likes the guy and doesn't like betraying his trust. He grows sick of this mercenary woman who clearly doesn't care if her husband lives or dies. But Douglas needs her to be based there and build the story and have control so he plays along. She sees this as her best time to get out, because she left before and Leo found her and brought her back. Now he wont be able to go after her. But now she sees the point in staying, to milk the customers.

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Eventually the story builds into a circus side show. There are thousands of cars. It's the being broadcast all over the world. People from eery major News Paper are there. This one guy from the Albuquerque paper (in 1951 that was truly "Podunk") he is in control because he's the guy who will go in and talk to the trapped man. All the other press is kept away form the story but he has the run of the place. There's a Ferris wheel, restrooms, all kinds of food venders. Since a couple of thousand people can't tear themselves away they need food, amusements and rest rooms. Douglas has wrangled a temporary job with the major New York Paper (fictional) and he's going to give them an exclusive and he has severed ties with Albuquerque. We also learn that the engineer who has gone in to get him is trying to borne in form top of the moutian. This is taking a couple of weeks. We find that this is because the reporter manipulated the guy into being overly cautious so that it would take longer and he can stretch out the story. People all over the world anxoiusly wiating for the next paper to learn all they can about the guy trapped under the moutain.

The problem is The guy is dying. He has double pneumonia from lying on his back in freezing cold cave and breathing all the fine dust that is being knocked down on him from the pounding of the guys trying drill down from the top. We learn from a miner who goes there that the direct route could be done safely and he could be gotten out  in  a couple of days, but the reporter poos poos that and chases the miner away. He uses cleaver cognitive dissonance to make the engineer feel committed to present course. Chuck Tatum is very slick more showman and snake oil salesman than reporter. In fact there's a conflict bewteen Tatum and the editor in Albuquerque over what kind of newsman to be. Tatum clearly belongs to the "anything for a story" school. 

Tatum learns that the trapped man (Leo Minosa) wants to get out and give his wife the anniversary present because he feels she really needs to feel that he can give her things. Douglas now realizes he will die. The doctor has gone in and seen him and tells him he may not last the night. Leo is wanting a priest. Douglas finds the present where Leo told him it was, tries to give it to the wife telling her it is from Leo. At first she thinks it's from Tatum then when she learns it's from Leo she doesn't want it. She laughs sat it. It's only a fox fur she scorns it, it's all he can afford. She's talking about how wonderful it will be when Tatum can buy her minks in New York. She's so sick of her by now he puts the fox around her neck and tries to chock her. Of cousre he's eaten up with guilt that he's murdered Leo. She is fighting for her breath she takes a letter opener that's basically a knife, and a big letter opener, and stabs him in the side. He's really wounded but he doesn't care. He leaves and get's in his car and drives to a near by little town and brings back a Priest. They go in, give the last rites he dies. Tatum is just torn up. He's crying. He goes up to the top the mountain and get's on the mike, tells everyone Leo died and just go. Get out. They all suddenly realize how carried they got and how over it is, they start streaming out. Tatum should have phoned in the story before he told anyone because that was the deal, he would get them the exclusive. He's so torn up the doesn't even care and he walks slowly back. By the time he get's back they have taken out his teletype and he's fired. The New York editor is angry becuase they where the last to get the story. The last we see of the wife she has missed the bus because she was packing and now she's walking down the higher by herself with a stream of cars around her, trying to get out and go.

Tatum is not done. He tells them he has the real story behind the story. He has to shout because the editor is shouting, he shouts, "He was murdered!" The editor becomes even more angry, this is more flim flam. The New York is the same kind of Newsman, he's so hard boiled he can't recognize that Tatum is not trying to make a story but to confess. The confession is cut off because the editor just wont listen. He thinks to go back to Albuquerque and confess to the readership of that paper. It's better than nothing. Yet his wound is still un treated, and it's taking its toll. He's beginning to have a hard time walking. He gets back to the old paper he comes in issuing orders about stop the presses he has the real story. They wont listen to him either because he doesn't work there anymore. He starts saying the same stuff he did when he first came. "I'm the great thousand dollar a day Pulitzer winner." He's trying to make same kind of pitch for his services he did before and he just drops dead in the middle of it. That's the end of he movie.

The confession was also mixed in with the impulse to do another big sensational story. At the end he's building it up again like the same kind of story. Even when he tires to do the right thing, even when tries to aswage his guilt and make the grand confession the confession becomes the story. He's not going to go tell a priest in private he wants to make the big scoup. His sense of truth is so jaded by the need to sensationalize that he can't even seperate his personal guilt from teh need for a big story. This is a fine film. It demonstrates the foibles of human frailty and captures people at their worst. It shows people at their best as well, those who cared about Leo and wanted to help him. The priest the doctor they braved the potential cave in in order to minster to him. Yet it is a Hollywood movie I find I have two criticisms, both related to what I hate about Hollywood movies. This touches upon why I prefer European and Japanese cinema.

First, it portrays the press as just a bunch of sensational yellow journalism mongers who can't think clearly. In that portrait presents many stereotypes of movies of that era, such as "His Girl Friday" (1940--Rosiland Russell and Carry Grant) and "Teacher's Pet" (1958-Doris Day and Clark Gable) for example. On the other hand some of those stereotypes had more of a place in reality in that age. The Albequerque editor is presented as the "good reporter" so they are not all like that. At one point in the discussion bewteen him and Tatum, the editor says he's been after exposing the Sherrif of that country for years, but Tatum has secured the guy's re-election, on purpose, so he can get cooperation to build the story. But this really is not enough. It's just tokenism to divert the very criticism I'm making.

Secondly, there's a element of corn. Stereotypes are Corny too, but I'm thinking of the way the end was rushed in. He just drops dead. It's mellow dramatic. There's no Denouement no sense of building to the resolution. Although I just see the writer arguing that dropping dead is less corny and more dramatic than some drawn out confession. While that is probalby true, perhaps a scene where the editor sums it all up the kid photographer or something.It doesn't have to be a corny death bed confusion to not be just dropping dead and ending the film. Don't let that poil the enjoyment. It's a fine film. it's a gem it's well wroth seeing.

[1] My father collected Studebakers. He loved them. We owned 9 of them in my life. We had 2 52 Champions. They were good cars, that big bilious fat kind of shape for the body, stick shift on the steering column so the shifting pattern must be learned side ways to the four on the floor. Studebaker was not at the top in terms of sales, although they did ok until management problems brought production to a halt in 1963 and they got out of the car busienss in 65. Even though they were on the street it's still rare to catch them in old tv shows and movies. The highest concentration of Studebaker can be found on the tv show "Mr.Ed" (61-66) the only show they ever sponsored.
 Be sure and read my essay "Did Mark Invent the empty tomb." I will publish that Friday.

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