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.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

lostweekendI feel I’m endlessly repeating myself here, I’ve surely stated it so many times on this blog, but I love Billy Wilder’s films. They have an art and craft that seems sadly lacking in modern Hollywood. Sure, they are often incredibly entertaining, dramatic and/or funny, but there is an artistry to them too, a depth of  honesty and craft, so even the most superficial of them (say, his late-in-career Jack Lemmon romantic comedy Avanti) has something special that rewards repeated viewings. Maybe its the casting, the performances, the music, the gags, the drama… maybe they just all contain a little bit of Billy Wilder’s soul. They don’t feel like ‘product’.

The scripts though; those are the real thing, so finely polished they put so many current films to shame; like so many of Hitchcock’s  films, Billy Wilder’s films had such magnificent scripts. So much care and attention evidently lavished on them, only when finally, absolutely ready were they taken into production. I wish all modern scripts were given such attention- so many films these days are being shot whilst screenplays are still being written. Look at what happened to Prometheus– all the work seemed to be on the design and the film’s mash-up of two authors work failed to gel into a cohesive whole; it is clearly two different films. And sure, James Cameron may have spent years writing his future  Avatar sequels but they undoubtedly will be clumsy behemoths with cringe-worthy dialogue and littered with plotholes. Its almost a given of any current blockbuster. Scripts don’t need to be so well thought-out as they used to be, there will be plenty of noise and CGI spectacle to distract audiences.

So its always a pleasure to watch a real piece of craft and art, and usually Billy Wilder’s films fit the bill nicely (well, I haven’t seen a bad one yet, anyway).

The Lost Weekend  has, incredibly, languished unwatched on the shelf here for nearly two years, a shocking and shameful statistic.  What have I been doing? In my only defence is the stark fact that, as Wilder’s films are a finite number, the joy of discovering one for the first time will regrettably always be a rarer and rarer pleasure. But anyway, I finally got around to it.

The film is a dramatic work concerning alcoholism and its effect on a life as it spirals out of control. There is an unflinching honesty to the proceedings that is both stark and surprising considering the film dates back to 1945.  Its dark, its depressing, but there is certainly a truth to it. I have seen what effect alcoholism can have on people and their lives and could recognise some of that in this film. Of course being set in 1945 much of what we see here is the stuff of history and rather dated- very often with films as old as this, one can feel its almost a science fiction film, as distant from the present as a film set in the far future, but this is certainly clearly as relevant today as it was back then. Its a great film.

On its original release The Lost Weekend  rightfully garnered rave reviews and success, finally wining four Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Yes, this was clearly the age when Oscars went to deserving films. I must say Ray Milland here was a revelation to me, I had no idea, of all the films I have seen him in, that he had this in him- what an amazing performance. Sad to reflect he would later end up as a bad-guy in the Battlestar Galactica tv pilot in the late ‘seventies, but hey, that’s Hollywood careers for you, no respect for whatever awards are on the mantle case .

The Horrible ‘To-Watch’ List Part One: The Guilty Secrets Dept.

Ah, the shame of a steadily-increasing list of  unwatched Blu-ray discs. I really should stop buying any more discs for a few months, until I get through some of these. You know, back when the HD formats started I looked at my huge soon-to-be -history DVD collection and decided that never again would I catch the collecting bug. You know how it is, you love movies, the extras look enticing, you start collecting a director’s movies or a series of films and then you suddenly find you’re building some kind of library of coasters.

The idea I can even watch a film whenever I want is still a kick for me,  someone who remembers the olde days of movie-watching being at the whim of terrestrial tv-planners; its all like some kind of ‘pinch-me-it-can’t-be-true’ dream. They made Titanic for $250 million dollars and you can pick it up for just over a tenner even on Blu-ray, with a picture to shame some cinema outlets. I guess that’s where they get us, with those darn bargains…. So anyway, despite my brave and noble intentions, I now have a collection of Blu-ray discs as large as the DVD collection that preceded it. And alarmingly, quite a few of them have not even been played yet. Well, we’ve all got ’em, the Unwatched Blu’s.

So I thought I’d trawl through my collection of films gathering dust that I haven’t seen yet. Maybe even offer up a few excuses.

casablancaFirst off, with today’s post, the guilty secrets department. I think we’ll start with a film oft-quoted in adverts, comedy sketches, countless ‘top-ten of all time’ lists… Casablanca. Everybody seems to love Casablanca. Nope, I’ve never seen it. I bought the American Blu-ray (superior master to the UK one, apparently) from Amazon several months ago for something like £5 before postage. Its a film that I’ve always been curious about, particularly since watching/loving the Woody Allen film Play it Again, Sam, so many years ago as a kid, which was practically a love-letter to the film.   I can’t really explain why I’ve never seen it,  God knows there have been ample showings on tv. Several years ago I even bought an anniversary making-of book about Casablanca when I was on holiday thinking it would be nice to read after watching the film, but as I never got around to buying the DVD to watch the film, nope, I’ve never read the book either. Its a classic romance apparently, and Ingrid Bergman is wonderful in it, and Humphrey Bogart is no slouch, either. I don’t know. I really should get around to it. I feel guilty just looking at it’s case up on the shelf…

We’ll stay with Mr Bogart with my next guilty secret that sits on the shelf alongside Casablanca– and this is the classic maltese bluJohn Huston mystery thriller The Maltese Falcon, which I bought as a rather pretty steelbook, with gorgeous original poster art (more old movies should get this ‘classic’ artwork treatment). Now I gather, rightly or wrongly, that this is a  film-noir detective thriller with Bogart playing hard-boiled no-nonsense Private Eye Sam Spade in a story based on a Dashiell Hammett classic piece of pulp fiction. I love film-noir and certainly black and white detective/private eye movies with plenty of twists and turns. I love that whole ‘pulp-fiction/potboiler’ genre. Just how I managed to watch seasons of gangster movies and b&w classics on the BBC over the years but never managed to see this is, well, quite beyond me. So I finally bite the bullet when this bargain-priced Blu-ray appears and it inevitably winds up sitting next to Casablanca.  I guess the two films would make a nice Saturday evening double-bill. Someday.

Now, readers of this blog wil know I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo is one of my favourite Top-Five movies. I’ve bought several of Hitchcock’s  films on DVD, read a number of books about the director and his films. I’ve even started to buy his films on Blu-ray. But there is one that I have bought (like Casablanca, at a bargain-bin price from America) that even has the added draw that it stars the utterly gorgeous Grace Kelly that I have not catchathiefwatched yet, and that is To Catch a Thief. Okay, maybe its one of Hitchcock’s lesser films, to be honest I really have no idea, it certainly doesn’t appear to get the attention his more famous films get.  But with Hitchcock directing, and the film starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, it has to be worth a watch, yes? This darn thing has been sitting on my shelf for a year already.  When I bought it it wasn’t even available over here but that UK release has come and gone some several months ago. To add further insult to injury, that UK release costs a lot less than the ‘bargain’ price I bought the American edition for once postage is factored into it.

To Catch a Thief  is just the kind of situation that winds me up- I’m a big fan of the director, I’m entranced by one of the stars (Grace Kelly is a screen goddess, no question about it)… I’ve bought the film in HD, offering a quality I could never have enjoyed before. Good grief, its a Hitchcock film I have never seen! And yet it stays on the shelf. Maybe the truth is, there’s not many ‘new’ Hitchcock films for me to ever watch, so maybe its best to treasure them, wait for the perfect moment?

Which might be the excuse for my next guilty secret that sits on the shelf- because its an early film by one of my very favourite directors, Billy Wilder. Its The Lost Weekend, which is a film I know very little about  but which was released on Blu-ray last year by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. lostweekendI bought a few of these MOC films back then which I actually got around to watching, like the excellent Touch of Evil and Double Indemnity (another Wilder classic).  But this one slipped through the net. I will just point out in my defence that I did watch one of the extras on the disc, the near-three hour documentary about Billy Wilder (a BBC doc I believe) which would be worth the price of the disc alone. Its releases like this that really prove the value of home video, as it feels like the film is an unearthed classic, given the HD treatment against the odds, a gem for film historians who know of the film and for those like me who have somehow never heard of it.  Its certainly seldom if ever been aired on television (and in this day and age of almost zero-interest even by the BBC in showing old ‘classics’ unlikely to ever be again).

Now, regards films that are well-known, here’s one that I certainly have heard a lot of and yet never seen, even though I’m actually a big fan of it’s Historical Epic genre, and this is Cleopatra.cleopatra Nope, never seen it. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, a budget so big it nearly bankrupted the studio-  I think I read somewhere that, allowing for inflation, Cleopatra remains the most expensive film ever made, even compared to the monster epics of today like Titanic, Avatar etc. Don’t know how true that is, but you have to be curious about seeing all that money onscreen in the days before cgi ate up all a films budget. I do think the film is famous more for the real-life romance between Taylor and Burton and how it scandalised Hollywood at the time, and to be honest I think that this why it’s never particularly appealed to me. How good can a film be if its more famous for its stars having a sordid affair offscreen than anything actually onscreen?  But I have also heard, over the years, that its not a bad film at all, and certainly when the Blu-ray came out last year it came out with some fanfare. So its an old Epic back from the days when the word Epic really meant something, and Elizabeth Taylor is certainly a screen icon (although, to be honest, I cannot think of many films of hers that I have actually seen). Added problem regards watching this one though is its running time, over four hours? Come on, if I struggle to find 90+ mins to watch a  Billy Wilder film, what chance does this one have?

Now, the most recent Blu-ray that I have purchased that deserves the term ‘classic’ colonel blimpand that I have yet to see is the Powell and Pressburger film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a film widely hailed as one of the very greatest of British Cinema. It has recently been restored and is said to look simply wonderful in HD. I adored their Black Narcissus and recently bought and actually watched(!) their The Red Shoes, which was an utterly amazing film. So my expectations are high for this one. Again I know very little about it. But you know, I prefer it that way, and just as with films like The Lost Weekend, I actually work hard at avoiding any info prior to finally watching a film. Certainly not easy in this day and age. Now, if only I could finally get around to watching it…

 

Sometime I’ll continue this list with a list of those films I have already seen and have now upgraded to HD, only to, yes, fail to watch the darn Blu-ray. Films like Citizen Kane, Shawshank Redemption, Silent Running, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago (this one still in the shrinkwrap, horrors!), Chinatown, HeatTotal Recall... yes the tale of shame continues… surely I’m not the only guilty party here though? Feel free to share your shame and list the Unwatched Blu’s on your own shelves…