Fedora and the Shelf of Shame

fedora1Welcome to the first (and hopefully not last) instalment of the Shelf of Shame, a series of posts where I finally get around to watching discs that have been sitting on the shelf for far too long. I’m starting with the Billy Wilder film Fedora, released on Blu-ray/DVD here in the UK by Eureka, a disc I bought several months ago and hadn’t gotten around to watching. There’s films that have been sitting on that shelf of shame for much longer than that, several years some of them (Betty Blue is one that springs to mind, which I bought back in 2013, shudder), but as a keen admirer of Billy Wilder’s filmography it didn’t seem right for this film to be on the shelf of shame for any longer.

That being said, I bought this one knowing very well that Fedora is not one of the best Wilder films, but even one of Wilder’s lesser films is better than those of most other directors. Wilder is rightfully a legend in cinema history- with films like Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Ace in the Hole to his name…. even one of his ‘lesser’ films, Avanti!, qualifies as a personal favourite, so Fedora had to be worth a shot, no?

At the beginning of Fedora, we witness a frantic-looking woman throw herself from a station platform into the path of an approaching train, instantly killing herself.  The woman is legendary film actress Fedora (Marthe Keller), an icon of Hollywood of old, and as crowds of adoring fans visit her body which is lying in state prior to a lavish funeral, waiting in the line is down-on-his-luck film producer Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweller (William Holden). Through the device of a voice-over and flashbacks, Dutch tells us his story, of events just two weeks prior, when he had tracked down the reclusive movie star to a remote island in the Mediterranean. Dutch had written a script based on Anna Karenina, and was trying to get a deal to make it into a film, one of the conditions of his backers being that he should get Fedora out of retirement to take the starring role in the romantic tragedy.

Dutch knew Fedora from many years prior, having met her on a movie set in his youth back when Fedora was at her Hollywood prime, a huge movie star, and she and Dutch had shared a one-night liaison. Having tracked her down to a remote island in the Med, Dutch hoped his past liaison with her might enable him to convince her out of retirement. The Fedora he found hiding away from the public eye on the remote island was as beautiful and ageless as he remembered from all those years ago, but acted furtive and nervous, finally claiming she was being held captive on the island by the Polish Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Krief) that owns it. Before Dutch could free her from the clutches of the countess and her associates, Fedora was taken from the island hideaway to France, where she would commit suicide just several days later, as we saw at the beginning of the film.

In many ways, Fedora as a film really doesn’t work. Its sequences on the romantic Mediterranean lack the wistful romance of Wilder’s superior Avanti!, and most viewers will quickly deduce the films central ‘twist’ long before it is revealed. But there is something else going on in Fedora, and part of it is no doubt a shared theme with Wilder’s early classic Sunset Boulevard, another film about a reclusive Hollywood legend that also starred William Holden, and also was told through flashbacks and Holden’s narration. It all combines into a curious symmetry and a suspicion that there are layers of meaning that escape us (indeed, most likely not even there) but yet still tantalise.

fedora2Fedora dates from 1978, and is Wilder’s second from last film, and yet feels older than it is, clearly old-fashioned even in 1978. This is deliberate, as the film is a somewhat bitter love letter (how typical of Wilder) to Hollywood of old, the director far removed from the Coppolas and Spielbergs and Scorceses and other young turks that were taking over. “It’s a whole different business now! The kids with beards have taken over! They don’t need scripts, just give ’em a hand-held camera with a zoom lens!” cries Dutch forlornly at one point, and you wonder if its Wilder wailing through him. The new corporate studio system in place when this film was made was already far different to Old Hollywood (it is to Hollywood’s shame that Wilder could not get this film made in Hollywood, instead relying on European investors).

Through its love/hate eulogy for Old Hollywood, and the power of film to immortalise and at the same time destroy, the film weaves quite a spell. While it is far from Wilder’s best work, there remains something utterly bewitching about it. Its not a great movie, but remains quite a good one. Fedora isn’t really about that ‘twist’ and is really more about its atmosphere, its languid pace, its performances (albeit two of them undermined by some very dodgy dubbing, unfortunately). For me I think its greatest asset is its central terror of growing old and being utterly defeated by the past- its likely unintentional, but Fedora’s nightmare in this film was possibly the same that could have haunted Wilder himself in the twilight of his career, his importance and worth in Hollywood in the era of Star Wars quite unfair.

Tell the truth: Ace In The Hole (1951)

aceWell, unlike The Lost Weekend, a blu-ray that languished on a shelf here for well over a year, this disc I watched pretty much as soon as it arrived. I’d been looking forward to it since it came up for pre-order months back. I recall first watching this film many years ago on a late-night showing on BBC2. Not knowing what I was in for, I remember it seemed quite shocking. Back then I think I believed all Billy Wilder films (thanks to having seen The Apartment, Some Like It Hot etc),  were comedies- the joke was on me in this case. The only humour in Ace In The Hole is in its very grim and dark ironies- it is a brutal, cynical film set in a broken America and as far removed from Wilder’s later comedies as one can imagine.

When does news become entertainment, when does it become its own mad circus? While it is true that the world of Ace In The Hole is history now, the importance and dominance of printed newspapers fading away,  its core message is as important as ever- indeed perhaps even more relevant now in this world of 24-hour news channels competing for exclusives and advertising revenue than it was back when it was made. Its hard to believe that Ace In The Hole was released in 1951- it seems quite prophetic and concerned with our own present-day.

ace2Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a world-weary big-city reporter  whose career is in tatters, finds himself stuck in lonely middle-of-nowhere Albuquerque, where he finds work for a local newspaper. Tatum scoff’s at the embroidered legend ‘Tell the truth‘ on the office wall. Tatum is convinced it is only a matter of time until he finds a big story that can resurrect his career and get him back into the big-leagues again.

A year passes, and the increasingly frustrated Tatum finally stumbles on his big story. A local man has been been trapped in a cave-in while scavenging Indian relics. Tatum works up a scheme to keep the man trapped  longer than truly needed in order heighten the drama and newsworthiness of the rescue attempt. The corrupt local sheriff  assists Tatum’s plot in return for Tatum writing him up as a selfless hero in order to help his winning an upcoming election. Even the man’s wife agrees to help Tatum, as she sees the resultant publicity and money as her way out of her marriage while she plays the dutiful tearful wife of the trapped man.

Ace4Soon the developing story engineered by Tatum becomes a huge National event, people from all over the country arrive to witness it first-hand, radio crews set-up to broadcast regular bulletins and the attention of the big national newspapers falls at last onto Tatum so he can strike his big deal. Unaware that its mostly all a lie, everyone wants the story and cynically there are plenty willing to somehow profit from it. The once remote, dead-end town transforms into a literal carnival. Special trains are put on to get the public there, a music band sells sheets of music describing the poor man’s plight, a circus arrives to entertain the tourists while they await the outcome of the rescue attempt. All the while Tatum is the centre of attention. But the happy ending Tatum is planning (a big job back in New York after the trapped man is rescued) starts to go awry as events start to spiral out of his control.

Douglas has never been better than he is here, possibly the performance of his career. His Chuck Tatum is horribly realistic and convincing whilst utterly repulsive and deplorable. He dominates the film and every scene he is in, his amoral character corrupting everyone around him in order to perpetuate the story he is selling. The film is clearly just as much a film-noir as Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity. The script is as sharp as you would expect from a Wilder film, with some mouth-watering dialogue and the editing is superb, ratcheting up the tension admirably.  The conclusion is as inevitable as it is perfect, the final shot a classic moment.

Its likely one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films, which is certainly saying something considering the company it keeps. But it was without doubt a film before its time. Too cynical? Too dark and negative about the broken American Dream? Whatever the reason,  it simply didn’t find its audience, proving something of a damaging flop for Paramount at the time (so much so that profits from Wilder’s subsequent film, Stalag 17, had to be used to balance the books for Ace In The Hole). But over the years its reputation has deservedly improved. Its a fascinating and endlessly rewarding film.