' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Ace in the Hole (1951)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Ace in the Hole (1951)

If it was sheer coincidence that I watched “Kill the Umpire” (1950) and “Ace in the Hole” (1951) back to back, it was also fortuitous. Because if the burgeoning umpire dufus, Bill (William Bendix), of the former encounters a stereotypical Hollywood Native American saying “How” by saying “How?” back, emphasis on the question mark, in an uncomfortably comical, exaggerated tone, there is a similar moment in “Ace in the Hole” when journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) greets a Native American employee at the Albuquerque newspaper where he works by saying “How” in a smug tone stressing Chuck’s true shithead nature. In other words, “Kill the Umpire” might have been of its time, as the saying goes, but “Ace in the Hole” was ahead of its time. Maybe that’s why audiences famously did not like the latter when it was released. “Fuck ‘em all,” Wilder said of those audiences according to Ed Sikov’s unauthorized biography of the auteur. “It is the best picture I ever made.” Best? Well, that’s probably up for debate, as it is with just about any director, though that statement is nevertheless evidence of a similar combativeness within “Ace in the Hole.” The only person Wilder gives us to root for is deliberately doomed from the start as the movie spends of its one hour and fifty-two minute run time dredging the river of humanity and coming up empty.

Wilder must have seen something of himself in Chuck Tatum. Not just in the attitude, embodied in Douglas’s perpetual sneer and evinced in a scene after the character has been at his New Mexico job a year in which he laments this hellhole where he’s been forced to live, counting his sorrows to his colleagues, all of whom he manifestly considers beneath him. Put differently, Chuck is saying “Fuck ‘em all” right to their faces. He’s a newspaperman but we hardly ever see him typing, never mind reporting, laughing off the Tell the Truth slogan of his boss as the homely needlepoint it literally is, less a reporter than a storyteller, not simply writing down what he sees but adding flourish and, eventually, crafting the story to his own liking. When Chuck finds a local man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who has become trapped in a cave collapse, he butts his way in, not in the interest of any kind of rescue attempt but for the story, lying through his teeth to the Leo when he’s in the cave and then licking his lips with all the juicy newsy potential when he’s outside of it. He’s like James Cameron almost drowning Kate Winslet on the set of “Titanic” or Michael Mann filming during a literal hurricane warning on the set of “Miami Vice”; the person is just a prop.

The old adage is that it takes a village to make a movie and that’s true of Chuck too. He leans on Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal), desperate for re-election, to order that they drill from the top to get to the trapped man, which endangers Leo further but prolongs the rescue attempt to keep the story a story that much longer. Leo’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), meanwhile, introduced in the process of walking out on her trapped husband decides to stick around at Chuck’s behest, playing the part of a suffering spouse to turn a profit. Sterling and Douglas’s performances are an impeccable, incendiary yin and yang, her cruelly hollow expression and his wicked grin. And yet even as they reap their rewards, they are destined to reap the whirlwind, the walls figuratively closing in on them even as they literally close in on Leo, the character with whom we spend the least time, both too pure and beside the point.

The closer he gets to death, the bigger the crowd, lured by Chuck’s sensationalist storytelling, grows, the limits of life and manufactured suspense blurring, until the entire atmosphere becomes akin to a carnival (the movie was originally titled The Big Carnival). This is no hero’s story, of course, and it’s far too late once Chuck finally realizes he has literally doomed the protagonist of his own story. Even that fatalistic recognition, though, spurs no catharsis, never mind redemption, played to the hilt by Douglas, giving no inch, boldly, terrifyingly refusing to the very last to become likable. When Leo’s end comes, Chuck stands on the ridge above, staring down at the crowd, still sneering, and calls this callous, frenzied mass like he sees it. He may as well be looking in a mirror.

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