Sunday, 3 November 2013

Before Network, there was Ace In The Hole

The Film:
Ace in the Hole (1951)

When one thinks of the cinema of Billy Wilder, several titles jump to the tip of the tongue: The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Stalag 17...

Less well-known (and not as appreciated at the time it was released) was Ace in the Hole. Thanks to Randy Roberts for suggesting it when the question of neglected quality films was raised on the Film Guinea Pig Twitter account.
The review:

In early 1925 cave explorer Floyd Collins found himself trapped in a crawlway in a Kentucky shaft. He died 18 days later before rescuers could reach him but his ordeal created a sensation as newspapers and the still infant media of radio covered his situation around the clock. His was, after all, a "human interest story".

The true story of Collins is on the mind of Wilder's fictional Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) when an opportunity arises that may present the latter's meal ticket out of the boonies of the journalism world. Tatum arrived a year earlier in Albuquerque (a far less interesting version than Walter White's) after being fired by all the big city rags to the north. Chuck, who inhales story telling excitement with the same gusto as when tipping back the bottle, is professionally suffocating in Hicksville. He can pay the bills but he's really waiting for a headline grabbing tale that will reestablish his career. His boss almost mockingly sends him and a photographer to cover a mundane out of town rattlesnake hunt.

Along the way they come across a rural diner/gas station whose owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has been caught inside an abandoned mine shaft after a rockslide. Leo's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) doesn't seem too involved with her hubby's situation until the wheels start turning in Chuck's head. Citing the coverage surrounding the Collins affair, Tatum muscles in and takes over the "rescue" of poor Leo. Despite being initially disliked (for good reason) by all who meet him, Lorraine, the local sheriff, the attending doctor, and the rescue engineer all find self-serving reasons for going along with the reporter's plan. Convinced Minosa can survive for at least a week, they opt for a more time-consuming drilling procedure. The rescue will take days instead of hours, allowing Chuck to stretch out the "human interest story"  he is selling to the wire services. The locale becomes a tourist and media circus in no time and everyone, except poor (and now slowly dying) Leo, rake in the monetary and publicity benefits. But, in the end....well, you know what they say about the best laid plans, right?

Some have suggested that if Ace in the Hole were being remade today, the film would have concluded with Chuck Tatum becoming an astounding success, retailing "news" stories as he saw fit for the political right...or  left...or whatever made a splash. Perhaps the audiences in 1951 just saw this satirical dramedy as being too over the top, too cynical, even for Wilder. Or perhaps things just struck too close to the bone. If art, by some definitions, makes the not-so-obvious into something obvious, Ace in the Hole made the obvious too unending, too multifaceted, too much of a mirror being held up to almost everyone's face. (European sensibilities were struck a little differently - the film won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival.)

Today, we can just look at this movie and wonder why more of our contemporary filmmakers don't display the true brashness of Wilder (who, btw, was himself a journalist in a previous life). Some directors are  graphic in depicting what people do - Wilder goes beyond the skin's surface in showing the opportunistic and gawking, rubber-necking nature in all of us. 

The fact that a movie with an almost total absence of likeable characters can keep the viewer riveted to the end is a testament to the strength of the execution of the material. Douglas slices the ham thick (as per usual) but is never less than fascinating in a role which leaves you shaking your head at the character's audacity, while in awe of his ringleader skills in running the human circus before your eyes. How he "befriends" the trapped man and still manages to look him in the eye is something to behold. And how he doesn't really have to twist arms to have others come around to his way of thinking is eery but sadly convincing.

Safe to say my enthusiasm for Ace In The Hole has come across here. This film was a wine that may have been opened before it's time but how amazingly (and fittingly) it has aged.

I say this film tastes - EXCITING.

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