A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)

Jan Sterling and Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole
Chuck Tatum: Kirk Douglas
Lorraine Minosa: Jan Sterling
Herbie Cook: Robert Arthur
Jacob Q. Boot: Porter Hall
Al Federber: Frank Cady
Leo Minosa: Richard Benedict
Sheriff Gus Kretzer: Ray Teal

Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Music: Hugo Friedhofer

Ace in the Hole has a reputation as one of Billy Wilder's most bitter and cynical films. But today, when media manipulation is such a commonplace topic of discourse, it seems a little shy of the mark: After all, the manipulation in the movie seems to be the work of one man, Chuck Tatum, who milks the story of a man trapped in a cave-in to rehabilitate his own career. Other media types, including the editor and publisher of the small Albuquerque paper Tatum uses to springboard back into the big time, seem more conscientious about telling the truth. As we've seen time and again, it's the audience (the ratings, the ad dollars) that drives the news, with the journalists often reluctantly following. Wilder's screenplay, written with Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, certainly blames them (or us) for the magnitude of Tatum's manipulation, but the focus on one unscrupulous reporter makes the media the primary evil. Maybe it's just because I've been following the Trump campaign this summer, and just watched the stunning eight-hour documentary about O.J. Simpson on ESPN, O.J.: Made in America, that I'm inclined to blame the great imbalance in what gets covered as news on the audience at least as much as on the reporters and editors who cater to their tastes. That said, Ace in the Hole is pretty effective movie-making -- so much so that it's surprising to learn that it was one of Wilder's biggest flops. It has some terrific lines, like the one from Lorraine, the trampy wife of the cave-in victim: When told by Tatum that she should go to church to keep up the appearance that she's still in love with her husband, she retorts, "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons." Porter Hall, one of Hollywood's great character actors, is wonderfully wry as the editor forced by Tatum into hiring him, and Robert Arthur, one of Hollywood's perennial juveniles, does good work as Herbie, the young reporter corrupted by Tatum's ambition. Sterling spent her long career typecast as a floozy, but that's probably because she did such a good job of it. Douglas is, as usual, intense, which has always made me feel a little ambivalent about him as an actor; I wish he would unclench occasionally, but I admire his willingness to take on such an unlikable role and make the character ... well, unlikable. He's the right actor for Wilder, who seems to be on the verge of trying to give Tatum a measure of redemption, but can't quite let himself do it.

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