Saturday, August 25, 2007

“Ace in the Hole”: Bad attitude, worse film

Sometimes a film’s reputation rests more on what it says than how it says it. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) is one example. A critical and commercial failure when it was first released, it has since become a cult favorite because of its extreme cynicism. Kirk Douglas plays a newspaper reporter who sabotages the rescue of a man trapped in a cave so that he can keep the story going for a few days, and practically everyone else in the film (the rescue crew, local politicians, even the victim’s wife) becomes complicit in the plan. I have nothing against cynicism; perhaps my favorite film is Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in which gossip columnist Burt Lancaster describes both another character and the movie itself when he says, “I’d have to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic.” But watching Ace in the Hole, which was just released on DVD this year, is more like trying to drink straight turpentine. It’s made for people so insecure in their misanthropy that they can’t stomach even a glimmer of hope in a movie, for fear that their bleak outlook will be compromised. (They also fear that audiences won’t “get” a movie that doesn’t hold their heads under water for a full two hours.) There are three problems with Ace in the Hole. One is Wilder’s usual lack of subtlety. Characters are constantly describing each other’s bad behavior instead of letting us notice it for ourselves, and the more obvious a satirical image (such as a passing van for “The Great S&M Amusement Corp.”), the more likely Wilder is to repeat it two or three times. This isn’t such a problem when Wilder is dealing with broad comedy (Some Like It Hot), film noir (Double Indemnity) or near-camp (Sunset Boulevard), but it’s a real distraction in what is supposed to be a sly satire. The second problem is Douglas’s character, an asshole who proudly announces that he’s an asshole every chance he gets (for example, taking a job at a small-city newspaper and telling all his co-workers that he’s going to quit as soon as he finds something better). It’s a mystery as to why other characters fall under his influence (oh, that’s right, it’s because almost all of the human race is as evil as he is), and why we in the audience should care about him. I don’t mean that he’s not “sympathetic,” but that he doesn’t give us a handhold to find our own dark impulses in his actions. In Sweet Smell of Success, we can’t help but fantasize about what we would do if we had the wealth, power, and style of Lancaster’s character. And that means that we can’t help but identify with Tony Curtis’s social-climbing publicist, because he wants to become Lancaster too. It also helps that the film begins with Curtis being blackballed by Lancaster for reasons we don’t learn until later — but which we assume from the outset are unfair. Ace in the Hole, in contrast, begins with Douglas draining the film of any mystery by announcing that he’s ended up in Albuquerque because he’s been fired from better newspapers for drinking and for screwing an editor’s wife. A final problem is that Wilder makes his story unbelievable by succumbing to the temptation to make it bigger and bigger. Implausibility isn’t fatal when a film’s characters or themes are fascinating, but here… It doesn’t make any sense that the story of the trapped cave explorer would become a national phenomenon but no one of consequence would point out that there’s a much quicker rescue method than the one Douglas is pushing. A coal miner who visits the scene points out that building a reinforced tunnel through the cave would be quicker than drilling through the top of the mountain, but he’s ignored, and either no one else is smart enough to realize it or every prominent engineer in America thinks it would be fun to keep someone trapped in a cave for a while. I guess either possibility would suit Wilder. Another question that nagged me was: Who the heck is paying for the elaborate rescue operation? A crooked sheriff is nominally in charge, but there’s no way that a county of a few thousand people could finance the operation. I’m sure that the rescue effort would be taken over by the state, if not the federal government, and that would be the end of Douglas having complete control over the situation. Ace in the Hole would ring truer if it were about a local news story that Douglas exploits for the possibility of a minor career boost; indeed, it would be even more cynical if he were willing to essentially kill someone solely to move up the journalistic ladder from Albuquerque to Fresno. But Wilder can’t resist the chance to imply that all of America, and not just one American town, is voyeuristic and amoral. I’m glad that I finally saw it, but I can’t get on the Ace in the Hole bandwagon. If you want 1950’s cynicism, rent Sweet Smell of Success or Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). Or, if you want to see a journalist manipulate his subjects, check out Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote (2005).

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Anonymous american fez said...

I'm sure you know, but 'Sweet Smell of Success' was directed by Alexander MacKendrick, a Bostonian.
He also directed the original - and truly awesome - "The Ladykillers." among many other Ealing Comedies. A much better and far subtler filmmaker than the overrated Billy Wilder

8/29/2007 03:33:00 PM  
Blogger Robert David Sullivan said...

I did not know that MacKendrick was a Bostonian, but it makes sense. "Sweet Smell" does have the modulated bitterness I associate with the Hub.

I need to revisit the Ealing comedies. I also remember "I'm All Right, Jack" as being an enjoyably nasty piece of work.

8/29/2007 03:49:00 PM  

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