aka THE BIG CARNIVAL
By way of expressive black & white cinematography and sometimes outright surreal situations, film noir is among the most stylized of genres, yet one of the most persistently realistic as it reflects the human condition. Filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak—all European émigrés—created many movies in the noir vein, typically with a palpable social consciousness. Billy Wilder was another such émigré. Though probably remembered best for timeless comedies such as SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT (1960), I prefer the cynical sense of continuity that binds ACE IN THE HOLE with his prior effort SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). In essence, the Paramount News team that gathers at the Desmond mansion at the conclusion of SUNSET BOULEVARD expands into an exploitative media net represented by Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) for ACE IN THE HOLE. Among the most egocentric of all noir lead characters, Chuck focuses on the restoration of his career as a big-time newspaper reporter, and dismisses the fragile existence of a helpless man. Directed with an assured purpose by Wilder, himself a reporter before he turned to screenwriting, ACE IN THE HOLE stands as a prophetic warning about the dangers of mass media and questions the distinctly American drive to put profits before people. Not only is the Wilder drama a top-tier film noir, it remains one of the most important Hollywood films of any genre.
I had planned to revisit Wilder's hauntingly pessimistic vision for some time, and the 102nd birthday of the film's star Kirk Douglas earlier this month provided the ideal occasion. The story begins with his out-of-work newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum being towed into Albuquerque, New Mexico. An experienced but supremely arrogant journalist who has worked in New York City and other major markets, he shows instant disdain for the locals with his first word to a Native American. Obviously not short of confidence, he busts into the local paper with borderline gangster bravado. As he makes his case for a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, he brags about being fired from 11 different publications. Chuck essentially bullies the managing editor Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) into hiring him, but the office's needlepoint portrait that states "Tell the Truth" hints at a coming conflict between Chuck's irrepressible ambition and his employer's steadfast ethics. Chuck is plotting a return to a large news organization, specifically one that was so foolish as to fire him, once a story comes along he can exploit for that purpose. "When they need you, they forgive and forget," explains Chuck.
As the plot unfurls, time passes while a frustrated Chuck awaits his big break. After a year's waiting, he shows nothing but impatient contempt for small-town life and its lack of interesting news to report. He is embarrassed to cover a story about a rattlesnake hunt, but in the process he stumbles upon what could be his ticket out of trivial small-town happenings. A local man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) in search of Native American artifacts finds himself trapped deep inside the dangerously brittle caverns of an imposing rock formation in Escudero. Chuck may not have a college education, but he has learned what brand of news sells printed media. "Bad news sells best because good news is no news," he asserts. Without hesitation, Chuck boldly makes his way into the mountain to speak with the military veteran Leo, an obviously nice fellow who recognizes the vast structure that threatens his life as "The Mountain of the Seven Vultures." Its caverns hemorrhage suffocating sand at random intervals, and bone-crushing rocks await potential victims at any moment. The area even doubles as an Indian burial ground! Has Leo been punished for excessive exploration of sacred ground? He thinks maybe so. It seems all the makings of a national story are in place, and Chuck is eager to take advantage of his sudden opportunity.
To suggest Chuck is an egocentric personality seems far too weak an accusation to direct his way. A liberal's nightmare, Chuck is perfectly willing to stand on the outstretched throats of others if it might help him breathe a little easier. Rather than help a man in desperate need (wouldn't that be a great story too?), Chuck does precisely the opposite of the right thing: he inflicts further damage. Not only that, unlike so many noir characters who at least hesitate before taking a wrong turn, Chuck shows no such qualms. The potential reward is too great for him to concern himself with anything else. In defiance of the most logical solution to free the affable, helpless Leo, Chuck persists with a selfishly intransigent attitude about the best means of freeing the imprisoned man, which involves prolonging Leo's suffering for the sake of the news story's extension. As a preeminent example of an embattled noir character, the physically contained Leo eventually succumbs to psychological anguish as the rhythmic pounding of an overhead drill rig torments him for days in his potential tomb. The film noir is noted for its many characters who feel a sense of entrapment, either through no fault of their own or from painting themselves into a corner. The ensnared unfortunate of ACE IN THE HOLE embodies this recurrent genre theme. Leo is indeed Chuck's "ace in the hole," a cruel metaphor manufactured by the newspaper man. In a literal sense, Leo is confined physically to the pit of a mountain that threatens to swallow its powerless prey. Later the entrapped man is buried figuratively by Chuck's predatory nature. Probably worst of all, Chuck pretends to care about the man he uses as an unknowing partner in a game with a potentially grave outcome for everyone involved. Leo makes a costly mistake when he explores the mountain too deeply, and another when he takes Chuck to be a friend. This is about as bleak as film noir gets, and the heel of all heels portrayed by Douglas in a bravura performance. In one of the genre's best examples of what I term noir recognition—that inescapable moment when the major protagonist realizes how low he has sunk—the camera cuts to Chuck when Leo recites, "Bless me father for I have sinned..." in front of Father Diego (Lester Dorr). Chuck finally appears to comprehend he is hopelessly beyond redemption. So finished is the lead protagonist, he will be unable to sell his true story, which ironically is even more sensational than his previous one. Nobody wants to hear it.
The trapped man's disloyal wife is Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), who views her circumstances much the way Chuck sees his when he is delivered to Albuquerque at the film's exposition. Stuck in a desert with her husband, at least as she perceives things, Lorraine feels Leo overplayed his hand a bit when he lured her away from the East Coast. Also like Chuck, she blames others for her own decisions that shaped her current situation. So disappointed is Lorraine with her existence she is prepared to abandon Escudero despite the obvious danger her poor husband faces. Instead, Chuck convinces her to exploit the business potential of her man's plight.
In one of the film's most disturbing themes about the dark side of the American way, institutions intended to serve the public instead serve the needs of insiders. Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) is an eminently corrupt public figure. Without a great deal of resistance, he is bullied into submission by Chuck, first verbally and later physically. The sheriff's affinity with the small rattlesnake is appropriate only on a surface level; the reptile does not pretend to be one thing while being another. With the sheriff's cooperation secured, Chuck gains the allegiance of local contractor Sam Smollett (Frank Jaquet), who knows perfectly well the most direct route to Leo would be the most appropriate rescue plan. Rather than shore up existing tunnels, the Chuck-approved plan calls for drilling down from the mountain's top, which assures Leo will be trapped about 10 times as long as he would be if the contractor's original plan were successfully executed. Chuck is not shy about resorting to tough-guy tactics whenever he feels someone may muddle his self-serving career path back to the big city. He assaults the sheriff and later Leo's wife after they show resistance about playing the roles engineered for them by the thoroughly reprehensible reporter.
ACE IN THE HOLE was inspired in part by a 1925 news article about a man trapped in a cave and the public attention the event created. Co-writers Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman render an unflattering portrait of capitalistic ambition and mindless consumerism. As is usually the case in Westerns, the environment is itself a character in this noir-Western amalgam. A desolate landscape that would make a good home for rattlesnakes only, the tiny town of Escudero at first would appear the antithesis of the urban jungle film fans might associate with the noir form. Chuck's initial story attracts local interest, and soon greed engenders opportunistic depravity. Though seemingly too small to justify its bus stop, the area mutates into a startlingly chaotic urbanesque scene with strong noir undertones, complete with carnival! Suddenly a 25 cent fee is levied for those who want a closer look at the mountain that encases Leo (eventually that asking price quadruples to $1). A once dead diner now has a cash register that rings. A pop-country song is born ("We're Coming, Leo"), and its sheet music is merchandised. Of course, the song's optimistic title bears little resemblance to the truth. Al Federber (Frank Cady) attempts to use an on-camera moment to plug his insurance business. Money, money, money. The longer Leo remains incapacitated, the greater the economic impact on the area. The condemned working-class man embodies the underprivileged social stratum, destabilized by a ruthless capitalist's pursuit of fame and fortune. The ingenuity of camera placement by Wilder and cinematographer Charles Lang enhances the unshakable sense of claustrophobia that hangs on the sequences captured inside the mountain, but their most unnerving image follows those interior scenes. In one of film noir's most instructive shots, after the carnival leaves town all that remains is a sign that promises proceeds to a dead man. Though it performed well overseas, ACE IN THE HOLE was not a commercial or critical success in the US, perhaps in part due to the cracked mirror it holds before American ambition and its related casualties that play out in the background.
As of this writing, ACE IN THE HOLE remains readily available as part of the Criterion Collection. The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack presents a 2K digital restoration of the film, framed at the correct theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the dual-layered Blu-ray edition. The hefty amount of supplemental material is sufficient to convert anyone into a fan of Billy Wilder, though I suppose anyone willing to invest in Criterion products already is familiar with his work. The audio commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard was recorded in 2007. The co-author of JOURNEY DOWN SUNSET BOULEVARD: THE FILMS OF BILLY WILDER (1979), Sinyard is one of the most descriptive of any film scholars I ever have heard. He shows keen awareness of all crucial metaphors, ironies and implications, and also demonstrates strong awareness of the recurring themes and motifs that characterize the Wilder oeuvre. In one of his best insights about the film under review, Sinyard likens the cars that gather before the mountain to those that assemble in front of a drive-in movie screen; the disaster location cheapened to commercial spectacle. Another great observation is the gradual manner in which the term "friend" is devalued over the course of the narrative.
The documentary feature "Portrait of a '60% Perfect Man': Billy Wilder" (Portrait d'un homme 'à 60% parfait': Billy Wilder, 1982, 58m 30s) was directed by Annie Tresgot and Michel Ciment. The French film critic Ciment interviews Wilder in and around the filmmaker's workplace and beachfront residence. Wilder confirms it was the rise of Adolf Hitler that convinced him and many of his compatriots to flee to the US, where he faced uncertainty as a writer deprived of his first language. After he established himself as a screenwriter, he found he preferred directing, which he explains is a lot more fun than the laborious process of screenplay development. ACE IN THE HOLE was his first film for which he also served as producer. After the studio re-titled it THE BIG CARNIVAL and imposed numerous changes, Wilder fought hard to gain as much control as possible over his future projects. Though Wilder is remembered as one of the early directors to shoot on location, he admits location work invariably leads to compromises due to lack of control. He found working within the studio soundstages far more gratifying.
Next up is a condensed Q&A session (23m 39s) at the American Film Institute in 1986, with Wilder reflecting on his career and George Stevens Jr. on hand as moderator. Wilder believes his efficiency as a filmmaker enabled his long-term success in a challenging industry. Executives liked him because he worked within schedules and budgets. In fact, Wilder emphasizes reliability is more important than talent when it comes to directing in Hollywood. Wilder enjoyed a long career because he made commercial films, not esoteric ones. His camera setups always were as economical as he could imagine, since he knew a moving camera loses efficiency in terms of everything else that must move with it. He preferred logical camera positions, from viewpoints where someone might be watching, over elaborate camera work that reminds the viewer of the filmmaking process (and thus removes the viewer from the cinematic experience). Wilder also notes one must be a great collaborator to work in film.
The 1984 interview (14m 18s) with Kirk Douglas is pleasantly informative, both in terms of Wilder as an auteur and Douglas as an actor. ACE IN THE HOLE marked the only collaboration between the two, and it was with regret Douglas turned down the lead in Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953), for which William Holden won an Academy Award. Douglas says he always has been one to want to contribute in some way to the script, but he found it difficult with Wilder, who always seemed to have a superior idea. A proponent of method acting, Douglas worked at a newspaper to prepare for his role as Chuck Tatum.
Other supplements include audio excerpts (1970, 10m 9s) from an interview with Wilder’s co-screenwriter Walter Newman. ACE IN THE HOLE would prove to be the only working partnership between the two to make it to the finish line, though they discussed other concepts ultimately dropped after many weeks of work. According to Newman, his only disagreement with Wilder in regard with the script for ACE IN THE HOLE was the starting point. Newman felt the story should have begun with Leo's entrapment, and details about Chuck's past could have been inserted into the story later as required. In another brief segment (2007, 5m 40s), New York-based filmmaker Spike Lee recalls his visit with Wilder, whose 1951 film would make a great double bill with A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) according to Lee. Both films reveal the inherent danger of the media, and the disheartening notion that if there is money to be made, it will be made, even if people have to die along the way. A stills gallery assembles production stills and behind-the-scenes photos, and a theatrical trailer (2m 22s) is accessible. The imitation vintage newspaper insert with essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin is a nice touch.