Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Ace in the Hole

ACE IN THE HOLE              A                    
aka:  The Big Carnival
USA  (111 mi)  1951  d:  Billy Wilder

This Billy Wilder film was so tough and brutal in its cynicism that it died a sudden death at the box office, and they re-released it under the title ‘Big Carnival,’ which didn’t help.  Chuck Tatum is a reporter who’s very modern—he’ll do anything to get the story, to make up the story!  He risks not only his reputation, but also the life of this guy who’s trapped in the mine. 

A grim and pitiless portrait of media manipulation through fake news or yellow journalism that accentuates the most vile human instincts, becoming one of the most scathing indictments of American culture ever produced by a Hollywood filmmaker and a candidate for the most cynical film of all time, with capitalism never looking so heartlessly corrupt, yet this strange phenomena that draws crowds to accident sites or raunchy scandals has never been more grotesquely captivating onscreen, basically indicting spectators for their own voyeuristic tendencies.  Like professional wrestlers that change their persona from bad guys to good guys literally overnight when the right financial offer comes around, Kirk Douglas did pretty much the same thing, starring as an amorally driven villain early in his career before becoming that recognizable heroic figure on the screen.  Billy Wilder draws out his burning intensity, driven by copious amounts of unscrupulous ambition, literally staring into the void of a dark and desperate soul, where his charisma and personal magnetism light up the screen, providing a performance for the ages, where one would be hard-pressed to find a better and more edgy performance throughout his legendary career, though my personal preference leans towards a calmer and much more likable persona in LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962), which is reportedly the actor’s favorite as well.  Written by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, there are some who suggest that the film is humorless, that Wilder dropped his uncanny knack for comedy, but Wilder’s satire is so savagely brutal that many simply overlooked the small treasure troves happening right before their eyes.  Wilder’s acerbic wit and gift for dialogue are legendary, as witty a wordsman as there ever was in the business, yet the film’s opening is an infamous sight gag, with Douglas calmly reading the newspaper in his convertible car while he’s being towed into town, notifying the driver to pull over in front of a newspaper office, as if he’s riding a cab, and telling him to wait while he steps inside for some unfinished business.  Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a morally dubious newspaper reporter charged with nefarious deeds who’s been kicked out of a multitude of offices stretching all across the country from New York to California, now finding himself in the dry desert vacuousness of Albuquerque, New Mexico pleading for a job.  Out of money and out of options, he sells himself to newspaper owner and editor of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall), as if he’s getting the greatest deal of his life, willing to work at a major discount.  Promising to make the editor $200 bucks, his logic sounds strangely self-serving, “Mr. Boot, I’m a 250 dollar a week newspaperman.  I can be had for $50.”  Notice the small touch of Boot returning his nickel (the price of a paper) when Tatum criticizes the paper for its anemic coverage, and the embroidered motto hanging on the wall, “Tell the truth.”  Among the more humorous lines, Tatum describes Boot as a cautious and conservative man who takes no chances, “I’ve done a lot of lying in my time.  I’ve lied to men who wear belts.  I’ve lied to men who wear suspenders.  But I’d never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders.”  While this is small-time America, land of redemption and opportunities, Boot takes a chance with Tatum and offers him a job, but remains skeptical of Tatum’s hustler tactics, where the man knows how to sell a story, more of a snake oil salesman and renowned huckster than an accurate reporter.

Tatum feels like a caged animal locked up in this dead-end town that feels like he’s been sentenced to a wasteland, calling it a “sun-baked Siberia,” a city reporter at heart, moaning about missing the bright lights of the big city where there’s always something important happening to write about, complaining about everything under the sun in this blistering diatribe, Ace in the Hole (2/8) Movie CLIP - Small Town Blues (1951) HD YouTube (2:42), before being sent out of town on assignment to cover a rattlesnake hunt, bringing along young cub photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur), but they get sidetracked along the way.  The tone of the film shifts radically once they pull into a gas station that doubles as a tourist trap selling burgers and Indian trinkets, resembling a trading post, where the sign says it’s free to enter to search for Indian artifacts in the nearby caves of ancient Navajo cliff dwellings, with a police vehicle speeding to the site, which attracts Tatum’s attention, meeting Lorraine (Jan Sterling) who is bringing blankets and coffee for her husband, quickly discovering Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), owner of the establishment that bears his name, is trapped inside a cave-in while searching for hidden treasures, stuck under giant rocks blocking his exit, buried several hundred feet underground.  Tatum immediately takes charge, smelling a big story, pushing the young deputy out of the way and heading into the cave himself, bringing Herbie and the blankets along with his camera, where falling dirt and debris is a constant in the make-shift mine shaft that has been all but deserted for years.  Tatum befriends Leo, encouraging him, offering him hope, while behind the scenes prolonging what should be a one-day rescue operation into several days by copping an exclusive deal with a corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal) while his story makes headlines around the country, all drawing attention to this lone man’s plight, luring tourists and other interested gawkers from miles around, making this the biggest story in the country.  Tatum’s ferocious drive to string this story out for days is nothing less than mind-boggling, throwing out all journalistic integrity, describing Leo as his “ace in the hole,” while he lies, cheats, and intentionally misleads the public, creating a public charade, like intentionally organizing a planned train wreck promising none of the passengers would be hurt.  His pushy, big city charisma allows him to coerce the rescue team to change their tactics, luring them with overtime dollar signs, convincing them to place a drill on the top of the mountain directly overhead, traveling a much greater distance through solid rock (it sounds utterly disastrous when they finally break through, leaving the victim totally exposed to flying debris), which should take them nearly a week instead of shoring up the flimsy walls with needed support at the cave opening that would take less than a day.  Literally overnight, what was once free now costs 25 cents to enter, eventually rising to a dollar, declaring proceeds will go to the “Leo Minosa Rescue Fund,” or straight into Lorraine’s pockets, creating a sprawling open-air circus environment as radio and TV crews arrive with live reports, songs are written and performed just for the occasion, while thousands of tourists set up camp with trucks hauling in amusement park rides, creating a carnivalesque spectacle of hyped media exploitation, all at Leo’s expense, shot with an unvarnished look of a documentary film by Charles Lang, growing unrelentingly grim, painting an uncompromising portrait of human nature at its worst, suggesting everyone has the potential to be corrupt. 

With that relentless drill pounding away at the mountain top, as if digging into the deep recesses of the subconscious in search of the last traces of Tatum’s vanishing humanity, an important figure in the film is Lorraine, the noirish femme fatale character, who happens to be a mirror image of Tatum, expressing no love lost for her husband, actually seething with contempt, threatening to leave him several times in the past, bored with her life in the middle of nowhere, pretty much despising the desolate emptiness, preferring the immediate gratification of big city enticements.  The extent to which she shamelessly shows little concern for Leo’s predicament contrasts mightily with his own parents, as Papa Minosa (John Berkes) helps feed the rescue team and remains a constant presence while Mama Minosa (Frances Dominguez) continually prays at a religious shrine, laboriously keeping the candles lit, an expression of her devout religious faith.  Tatum and Lorraine are rogue figures that operate alone in a moral vacuum, thinking only about what’s in it for them, thinking the rest of the people are saps to be taken advantage of, showing no faith whatsoever in humanity.  The story is inspired by real news events, one referenced by Tatum himself, an incident in 1925 when cave explorer Floyd Collins, heralded as “The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known,” was trapped inside a Kentucky cave following a landslide, with a Louisville newspaper sending a reporter, William Burke “Skeets” Miller, to the scene, where his coverage became a media sensation (The 1925 Cave Rescue That Captivated the Nation | Mental ...), with throngs of sensation-hungry tourists descending on the cave site, where the atmosphere resembled a county fair, selling hot dogs while offering amusement rides for kids, all but forgetting about the personal tragedy that drove them there in the first place, turning the incident (which lasted 18 days) into a nationwide event, winning himself a Pulitzer Prize.  The second event took place in 1949 a year before the film’s release when a 3-year old, Kathy Fiscus, fell into an abandoned well just outside Pasadena, California, with a television news reporter following the rescue attempt live on the air for more than 24 consecutive hours, creating such a stir that thousands of people arrived on the scene to watch the action unfold.  In both incidents, the victims died before they could be rescued.  Additionally, Wilder was sued for plagiarism by screenwriter Victor Desny, who claimed he called Wilder’s secretary in November 1949 to propose a film based upon the story of Floyd Collins.  While the historical event was public knowledge, hardly protected by copyright laws, the initial decision in 1953 ruled in Wilder’s favor, but Desny won on appeal in 1956 when the California Supreme Court ordered Wilder to pay $14,350 (equivalent to $135,000 in 2019).  It all makes for a strange saga.  This savagely depicted satire, a predecessor to Kubrick’s Granddaddy of black comedy DR. STRANGELOVE OR:  HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) and Sidney Lumet’s nightmarish Network (1976), was largely ignored by the viewing public, excoriated by the American press (“Fuck them all,” said Wilder, “It is the best picture I ever made”), while winning an International award in Europe at the Venice Film Festival, released into a lengthy period of obscurity for half a century until resurrected by a DVD release in 2007, making it one of the rare Wilder misfires at the box office, who, to his credit, refused to sugarcoat the subject matter, yet the scathing, no holds barred approach by the director has been heralded over time and now stands as one of Wilder’s best films, brutally honest and way ahead of its time in conveying the media circus surrounding a tragedy.  Among the best known examples in the past century are the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 pitting Darwinian science against religious fundamentalism, the Lindberg baby kidnapping trial of 1935, dubbed the trial of the century, the 1963 Kennedy assassination and accompanying funeral procession, the bipartisan Watergate hearings from 1972 to 74 ultimately leading to a Presidential resignation, the prolonged, daily grind of the 9-month O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, and the hype surrounding Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, all of which received sensationalist, wall-to-wall media coverage, completely occupying the mindset of the nation and even the world for a brief period of time.  

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