Thursday, October 14, 2010

Movie recommendation: Ace in the Hole

[Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) confronts Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas): “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you — you’re twenty minutes.”]

Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was a commercial flop when released as The Big Carnival in 1951. It’s easy to understand why: the film presents a world almost wholly corrupted by the desire for power, prestige, and spectacle. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, a once-prominent newspaper reporter now working in the “Siberia,” as he calls it, of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (released one year earlier), Tatum longs to return to the world in which he was a star. He finds the means to do so in the story of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who gets trapped in a cave while searching for Native American pottery. Tatum ventures into the cave and finds in the trapped man his ace in the hole, a story to be managed day by day, sold to the wire services, and parlayed into a return to big-city papers.

Wilder’s plotting is inspired: Minosa’s plight is a spectacle that offers very little to the eye. As in Greek tragedy, the horror happens in imagination, here with the assistance of Tatum’s reportage and his photographs of the trapped man. As Minosa languishes day after day and news of the rescue effort spreads, people begin to gather and a carnival spirit takes over, with campgrounds and entertainment and Ferris wheels. Sightseers drop from special trains and run to this theater of cruelty. No wonder that the trucks pulling in bear the name of The Great S & M Amusement Corp. While drawing upon a past newspaper exploit — the story of caver Floyd Collins (who’s mentioned in the film), Wilder has anticipated the more lurid spectacles of our media-saturated world. But reporters don’t make events happen: they just report them, or so Charles Tatum tells himself.

As good as Douglas is in this film, Jan Sterling is even better. Her character is reminiscent of Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (dir. Tay Garnett, 1946): Lorraine Minosa too is a frustrated wife stuck in a diner. Her cynicism and self-interest make her more than a match for Tatum, who is both attracted and repulsed by what he sees in her. Will anything develop between these two while Leo is stuck in the cave? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Ace in the Hole is available from the Criterion Collection, beautifully restored. I watched and wrote about this film in late July, before the Copiapó mining accident. I decided that I would post this review only if that story came to a happy ending, which it now has. Coverage of the miners’ ordeal, at least what I saw, seemed respectful and restrained — no Charles Tatums on the scene.

A los mineros: bienvenidos de nuevo, señores.

comments: 8

Geo-B said...

Funny, I too have been thinking of this movie in conjunction with the mine rescue, and imagining it must have irked the news organizations that the surfacing of the miners took 22 hours rather than a short dramatic scene which could have interrupted your regular programming.

I'm sure there will be some cracks and grievances which emerge in the coming days, but the cooperation and humanity of the miners has produced in me completely the opposite feeling I get when I read about looting in the aftermath of tornadoes and hurricanes.

Michael Leddy said...

Same here. Every day is a gift.

Elaine said...

I remember that movie! There was even a theme song--"Leo, Lee-oo, LEO... [something]down below us gropin' ..We're up above you hopin'..." It was pretty depressing.

I kept checking in on the miner rescue story--and the reporters themselves kept saying, "This just doesn't get old! Every miner is his own little story, and the emotions just come up again!" They themselves were amazed that they were still interested... which is a little sad, but perhaps instructive.

What a great day.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, it’s one of the darkest films I’ve seen.

My wife Elaine said that seeing the capsule come up was like seeing someone being born.

Geo-B said...

We're coming, we're coming Leo/Oh Leo don't despair/While you are in the cave-in hopin'/We are up above you gropin'/And we soon will make an openin' Leo./We're closer, we're closer Leo/And soon you'll breathe fresh air/While you are in the devil's prison/Keep the spark of life a fizzin'/We'll soon have you out of prison, Leo./Oh Leo, Leo, Leo, Leo.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for transcribing that, George.

Crritic! said...

This is right up on my list of "the great unwatched", one of the very few Billy Wilders I've never seen. It's impossible to get in my country and appears to have been out of circulation for many years. Criterion releases usually kick things along, so here's hoping.

Michael Leddy said...

Sean, if you have an all-region DVD player, you could get the Region 1 DVD from Amazon. The shipping from the States is pretty reasonable (much better than when I last looked into ordering UK Penguins from Canada).