Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Review: Ace in the Hole.

Acting on a hot tip from Mark Evanier, we recorded a seldom-seen movie from Turner Classic Movies by Billy Wilder called Ace in the Hole. Made in 1951, it starts Kirk Douglas as a down-and-out New York newspaperman. He's wound up in Albuquerque, and is looking for a big story to get him back to the big time.

He chances across a podunk town near an Indian burial ground. A local fella is trapped inside, and they're pondering how to get him out. Kirk recalls a recent story about Floyd Collins, a spelunker who was trapped for several days. The reporter that scored that story won a Pulitzer.

This movie is interesting for lots of reasons. Billy Wilder is famous for writing and directing films like Sunset Blvd., Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. These have witty dialog, and always have a kind of wry humor. Ace in the Hole is a depressing noir flick with nobody at all to root for. Kirk milks the situation by advocating a rescue technique that takes days longer so that his story will last.

The story of Floyd Collins is true, right down to the unbelievable media circus that sprung up around his entrapment. This depiction of greed and the ugliness of human nature was something the public (and reviewers) were not ready for.

The movie was panned and failed miserably at the box office. Of course, movies like Network and television like Jerry Springer show the same kind of media frenzy and what viewers are capable of. Wilder was way ahead of his time and paid the price. The film was re-released with the new title The Big Carnival, but remained a flop.

We were in Fort Wayne, Indiana when the town flooded one spring. Media attention was unbelievable. Ronald Reagan came by to shovel sandbangs. When one reporter was asked why all the attention, he replied that floods are good news. They hang around for days, showing struggles, engineering operations, and human nature stories. Much better than something like an explosion, which happens and is done.

The movie has a real message, but it is delivered in a morose manner. The word most often used in reviews is "cynical," but that doesn't go far enough. For me, it was an interesting diversion in the brilliant career of Billy Wilder. I am thankful for networks like TMC that are willing to show films like this which are unreleased on VHS or DVD and hard to find at all.


Josh Radke said...

I remember seeing that movie on AMC once, and I also remember wishing it would be shown again so I could snag it on tape, but it never was. Glad someone's finally got it. There are too many good movies out there that are (or will never) be released for purchase--or if they have been, are difficult to find at a reasonable price or in playable condition--if you can find one at all (e.g. most of Danny Kaye's films but especially Walter Mitty, A Song is Born, On the Riviera, and On the Double; Cagney's A Lion is in the Streets and Man of a Thousand Faces; Price's The Mad Magician; Tommy Lee Jones's April Morning; Curtis's Black Shield of Falworth).

Unfortunately, when studios have a hard time releasing even their blockbusters (e.g. Quo Vadis, El Cid) I don't hold much hope for these "lesser" films.

Maybe Video-on-Demand will allow for more of these buried films to be viewed, and maybe eventually we will be able to purchase the films for storage in our cable boxes (I supposed this can already be done with DVR).

Shocho said...

On Demand has some goodies from time to time too, but you really have to make an effort to check the schedules to see these rare movies. I'm just glad it's all cabling into my house, even if sometimes I can't find it in time.

Glad to find somebody else who likes the classics. I know a lot of folks who "don't like black and white movies," and they're missing out on some terrific films.

josh radke said...

Love them--I easily own more movies (DVD & VHS) made before 1970 than after. I'll take a "B" film noir or western with unknown players from the "Studio Era" over most of the BS spewing from H-wood post-1977 (so will a lot of people). But every now and then a Princess Bride, or a Field of Dreams, or a Red Violin, or a Finding Forrester, or an Equilibrium pops up.