Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thieves’ Highway (1949)

Written by clydefro

(editor's note: You can check out clydefro's blog here)

Film noir has always been predicated on the loss of innocence. There’s an inherent cynicism, a battered degree of expectation, that goes hand in hand with noir. It tends to be the only reliable area of film where we know, with almost extreme certainty, that bad things will happen to characters we like. If there’s a happy ending in noir it’s false and studio-mandated. If there’s any seed of hope left by the final credits the burgeoning distrust we’ve wrapped around our eyes refuses to fully buy in to the result. It’s a painful, often masochistic form of coping with the outside world. We still root for the protagonist, but we know he’s doomed to heart ache or a broken jaw or any number of other ailments. And, of course, we revel in it just the same.

Bad things happen in Thieves’ Highway. Actually, almost everything that occurs in the film is for the worst aside from that overly happy ending. Director Jules Dassin neither approved of the final scenes nor was consulted about them after he finished the picture and trekked over to London to make Night and the City amid the wrath of a Congress-sponsored witch hunt. It hardly ruins the movie, though, and you’d have difficulty finding a superior, more engrossing look at the proletariat class through the lens of film noir. Thieves’ Highway carefully depicts the world of produce markets and the truckers who supply them, never leaving any doubt as to which side deserves the bulk of our sympathy. It’s a relentlessly dramatic and entertaining picture that surely deserves placement alongside the very best of the film noir entries of its day. Dassin and screenwriter A.I Bezzerides bring to life a fixed match of dirty business excused by capitalism and the men who are mere pawns in a flawed game. It’s difficult to know whether Henri-Georges Clouzot saw Thieves’ Highway prior to filming his masterpiece The Wages of Fear, but he certainly should have.


While I’m familiar with a significant number of Richard Conte’s films made at Fox in the ’40s, nothing else really seem to have the pull of his work here. There are some quality pictures in there, things like Somewhere in the Night and Cry of the City, but Conte absolutely maintains the perfect temperament of nice guy sifted rage as WWII veteran and world traveler mechanic Nick Garcos in Dassin’s film. He returns home from globe trotting in the Far East, gift boxes in hand, only to find his father has been confined to a wheelchair after tangling with shady market dealer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick’s girl Polly (Barbara Lawrence) is thrilled to see him, but decidedly less enthused by the geisha doll present he gives her. The ring on the doll’s hand places a nice salve on the situation, though not before the viewer gets reason to doubt Polly’s sincerity. Polly’s cute but icy. She’s the typical disposable paramour.

Nick’s all set to enter into a business arrangement with Polly’s father until he broods over Mike Figlia cheating his old man. The film ably lets Nick reveal a temper lined with rage in his promise to retrieve the money owed from Figlia’s carcass if necessary. Even with hindsight, the plan doesn’t necessarily coalesce for Nick. I don’t think the movie is ever really concerned with being a revenge tale or a means to let the son collect on the indignities served to his father. The more impressive approach of fate utterly sliding its foot into Nick’s path at every turn is used by Dassin and Bezzerides. A plan is hatched so that Nick and Ed Prentiss (the reliable Millard Mitchell) will drive in separate trucks up to San Francisco. Over 400 miles and 36 hours plus on the road without sleep. Nick wants Figlia. Ed wants the cash his Golden Delicious apples will fetch. Neither gets exactly what he bargained for, and the addition of Pete (future director Joseph Pevney) and Slob (Jack Oakie) as disgruntled followers would seem to only enhance the tension.

Thieves’ Highway is bursting with plot, far more than the typical mood-dominated film noir. Each development builds firmly on the whole and we’re ultimately left with a usual Dassin cocktail of defeatist intensity. I don’t exactly know where or how the film most appropriately should close, but the actual result does feel less than satisfying. Dassin laments this too-easy tying up of loose ends in his interview on the Criterion Collection’s magnificent DVD releaseof the film. Not only was the paternalistic, Daryl F. Zanuck-endorsed scene where the cops come in to passively reprimand Nick for not letting the police handle the situation (when they were, of course, hardly integral to overseeing the market’s depravities) added without Dassin’s input, the false smile of Nick coming in to sweep Rica (Valentina Cortese) off her feet in marriage was equally manufactured. It’s a very Hollywood addition and ending to an otherwise fiercely iconoclastic effort on Dassin’s part.

There’s ample reason to celebrate Jules Dassin’s contribution to film, especially his noir pictures indelibly imprinted in the mind of anyone who’s seen them. I’m an unabashed admirer of Dassin’s. His films like this one, Brute Force, Night and the City and Rififi, are pure, raw examples of film noir sliced efficiently to the bone. Later works outside the crime drama genre reveal a masterful director equally at home exploring female disintegration in the face of a spouse’s affair (10:30 P.M. Summer) or an all-black cast extending the boundaries of John Ford’s The Informer (Up Tight!). Almost anything Dassin touched was brilliant and interesting regardless of its overall merit. No Dassin picture after his apprenticeship at MGM is easily ignored. His diverse, yet guarded output remains one of the more fascinating in all of 20th century film. And no other filmmaker managed to so defiantly rebut the House Un-American Activities Committee while later succeeding on his own terms. Dassin refused to testify despite being named by former colleagues Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle and instead moved to Europe for work. It took him five years before finally answering with Rififi, but the result ultimately earned Dassin a share of the Best Director prize at Cannes.

I think this all speaks to the high level which Dassin was working on even with films like Thieves’ Highway, which has been neglected for far too long. There’s a distinct and real affectation of empathy that Dassin continues to master in this film. He was so adept at forming favorable portrayals of these flawed, demonstrably volatile protagonists that you can’t help but cheer the characters’ potential redemption. With Nick in Thieves’ Highway, we have a man ticking away with anger and doom. He’s a mechanic, but he nonetheless fails to properly address a flat tire while traveling on the road to San Francisco. His element is completely and totally pierced. It’s difficult to establish a hold on Nick, but we still remain fascinated with his determination and sense of justice. Thieves’ Highway doesn’t necessarily endear itself as an essential unraveling of the human condition so much as it lets the viewer connect the dots at his own pace. The various external factors leading Nick to the room of the tempestuous Rica are entrenched in fate’s most shrouded rationalizations.

Yet, we take it just fine, believing in the character and his bouts with whatever hand is in front of him at the time. Much of the willingness to go along with Nick comes from Conte’s amiable characterization. He’s vulnerable and tough and believably integrated in a total mess, all at once. As I mentioned earlier, this is a film where things go horribly wrong at every possible opportunity. Dassin provides a burned-in opportunity for memory making in the dissolution of Mitchell’s character. It’s horrific, savage, and far too real for a studio film. You can smell the charred flesh and burning apples. Oblivious to the plight of his partner, Nick meanders around the market area before falling into the bed of Rica. Valentina Cortese, who also happened to be Dassin’s girlfriend at the time, is remarkably sensual playing an apparent prostitute. Rica demonstrates her claws in one highly evocative game of tic-tac-toe played out on Conte’s naked chest. It’s a moment like this that endears us all to the slightly unusual frequency of film noir.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Classe tous risques (aka The Big Risk 1960)

The Gangster Code in Classe tous risques

“I’m telling you because we always think we’re clever, but if you stop standing your ground, you’re nothing. You slip a little more every day until you’re nothing. Like today.”

The 1960 French film Classe tous risques (AKA The Big Risk) is director Claude Sautet’s second feature length film, and while films such as Bob le flambeur (1956) and Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954) show their hood protagonists as elegant, glamorized men, Classe tous risques smacks of gritty realism in which all glamour is glaringly absent. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that Classe tous risques is based on the novel by José Giovanni. Giovanni was mixed up in a murder and racketeering case, sentenced to the guillotine, and then served a commuted sentence of hard labor. Imprisoned for a total of eleven years, Giovanni wrote a number of novels--some of them completed while still in prison, and a number of which were made into films including: Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960), Classe tous risques (Sautet, 1960), L’Excommunie/Un nommé La Rocca (Jean Becker, 1961) remade by Giovanni as La Scoumoune (1972) and Le deuxième souffle (Melville, 1966). Le Trou is based on Giovanni’s attempt to escape from prison while Classe tous risques is based on the life of gangster Abel “the Mammoth” Danos, a prominent member of the Bony-Lafont gang, the Gang des Tractions Avant, and the Carlingue.

More than twenty years after the film’s release, Claude Sautet discovered that the fictional Abel Davos was based on the real-life of Abel Danos, one of the most notorious French gangsters of the 40s. Sautet admitted to interviewer Michel Boujut that if he had known about the Davos-Danos connection he “might not have made the film.” The real-life Danos was executed by firing squad in 1952 for treason. However Eric Guillon’s recent book Abel Danos: Between Resistance and Gestapo throws some doubt on the absolute demonizing of Danos as a collaborationist. By the time Danos came to trial, there was only one living witness to testify against him, and the witness had an adversarial relationship with Danos. On the other hand, another witness testified that Danos was a member of the Marco Polo Network.

When Classe tous risques begins, sad-faced gangster Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) is not at the pinnacle of his criminal career. Living on the run in Milan, and under a death sentence in France for his crimes, Abel has lived in self-imposed exile in Italy for almost a decade and raised a family there. But now with the money running out and the police closing in, Abel decides to return to France and his network of friends. Ventura who already had a number of solid roles in his impressive resume, plays the role of Abel with a tired, but determined, laconic acceptance.

On one level it makes a great deal of sense for a criminal to return to a familiar network of fences, fellow thugs, and tipsters, and this is particularly true for any criminal existing on the run. In Abel’s case, he also has a family to support, but since Abel is under a death sentence, returning to French soil is a desperate move that brings him uncomfortably close to the guillotine. Abel’s decision to return to France is taking an enormous risk (hence the film’s title), and he knows that if he’s caught, the game is over. At some point in the story, Abel’s risk morphs into self-destruction.

Abel and his longtime loyal henchman, Raymond (Stan Krol) ship off Abel’s wife Therese (Simone France) and two small children by train with the plan of meeting back up and then sneaking into France illegally by boat. When the wife and family out of the way, Abel and Raymond commit one last job on Italian soil with the idea that this heist will set them up for some time. The heist is also emblematic of the reductive progression of Davos’s criminal career. It’s a street snatch and grab--short, simple, and violent, boiling down to a daring daylight robbery, in which Abel and Raymond cosh security guards and make off with a bag of loot while slipping through heavy city traffic.

Abel and Raymond count the loot and are disappointed to discover that the haul is a fraction of what they expected. Splitting the money, the two men separate with a toss of the coin. While Raymond, a crony of Pierrot Le Fou wins the coin toss, he subordinates his safety to Abel and gives Abel the car while he takes the motorbike to the border. Although things go wrong at the border, incredible split-second timing and luck bring the two men back together for the reunion with Therese and the children.

The film’s initial breathless pace underscores the sheer professionalism of these two hoods--men who both have long rap sheets and a slew of bodies in their bloody pasts. But luck also plays a huge role, and luck delivers them to a French beach and dumps them there….

Abel returns to France with the idea that he’s returning to his reliable network of pals--fellow hoods who can help ease him back into the French crime scene. Abel tells himself that perhaps he’s been “forgotten,” and there’s an irony to this hope as while the police still remember him, Abel’s pals would rather he didn’t exist. Stuck in Nice and with cops crawling all over roadblocks, Abel needs help to get to Paris, but his pals in Paris suddenly don’t seem that eager to have him back. They mull over Abel’s request to send an ambulance to Nice, and every one of them comes up with an excuse why they have to hire a total stranger to go to Nice and haul Abel back to Paris.

At this point Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo) enters the picture and he takes on the risky job of traveling to Nice and rescuing Abel. But Stark does a great deal more than that. Picking up a new, instantly faithful girlfriend along the way, Stark essentially replaces Raymond as Abel’s right hand man.

By the time Abel makes it back to Paris, he feels betrayed and disappointed in his friends, former gang members Fargier (Claude Cerval), Jeannot, and Riton of the Gates (Michel Ardan). While perennial loser Jeannot is currently out on bail between prison stays, Riton and Fargier have become bourgeois and comfortably affluent. In one great scene that takes place in Riton’s café, Riton’s wife nags Abel while listing the inconveniences he’s caused in their lives, and Riton, who’s too hen-pecked to stop her, lets her ramble on until Abel forces a confrontation and limits the discussion to gang members. At this point, Fargier announces his plan to help retire Abel to a remote place in Brittany. Abel isn’t ready to be put out to pasture and he reminds his pals of the debts they owe him. Shame-faced and unable to look Abel in the eye, Fargier and Riton waffle and ultimately refuse to help him. They’ve done the minimum by hiring Stark, but now that Abel is back in Paris, he’s too hot to handle, and none of Abel’s former pals want him under their roofs. It is left once again for Stark to step in and help Abel--in spite of the fact that these two men don’t really know each other and that Stark doesn’t owe Abel a thing.

Abel’s situation has plummeted from bad to worse. The police are hot on his heels and it’s a matter of time before he’s caught. Considered a pariah by his former pals, without safe shelter and unable to provide for his two young sons, Abel takes his chances robbing a Parisian fence. This act crosses the line as far as Abel’s pals are concerned, and by robbing a fence they use and know, Abel has cannibalized his own network. On the other hand, Abel’s robbery of a former underworld connection is the desperate, self-destructive act of a cornered man who is willing to alienate all of his former contacts to break out of his current untenable and incredibly humiliating position. By robbing the fence, Abel symbolically acknowledges that old debts remain unpaid and that any crumbs of loyalty are worthless. This is an act of war, but it’s also the last possible, self-destructive choice for Abel. He can be cornered, snitched out, and starved out, or he can take action that symbolizes a break with the past and heralds a path of bloody final revenge. But Abel’s final defeat comes in the humiliation of acknowledging his inability to help Stark. The message is that if a man is unable to pay back his friends, then he is nothing.

Loyalty and friendships between gangsters remain a dominant theme in films and books that explore the labyrinthine codes of criminal life. According to the film, Abel funded Riton’s café and got Faurier out of prison. In return, he gets a one-way ambulance ride to Paris, but ultimately his friends abandon him. Abel’s former associates clearly decide to not return favors because he is so powerless and in such desperate need of their help. They elect to abandon him simply because they can. Their failure to help, and their failure to repay Abel at the lowest point in his life, is a betrayal of gangster ideals, and Classe Tous Risques is a magnificent exploration of those abandoned ideals from the view of a gangster who’s tumbled from the top of the heap and now needs a few of those owed favors in order to remain in the game.

Unfortunately Classe tous risques was released just a few weeks after Godard’s Breathless. Overshadowed by the Godard blockbuster, Classe tous risques was a box-office failure, and Sautet swore he’d never make a film again. But luckily for French film fans, Sautet relented and added many films to his resume including the subtly brilliant Un cœur en hiver (A Heart in Winter) and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Ironically it is Breathless that is credited for catapulting Belmondo to stardom while Classe tous risques sank in the dust for many years. Criterion’s 2008 releasewill bring a new audience to this underrated film, and as usual the Criterion print is gorgeous. The DVD extras include excerpts from a documentary about Sautet, an interview with Jose Giovanni, archival footage, trailers and a booklet.

Written by Guy Savage

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ace in the Hole (1951) part 1

Written by Tim (aka - Mappin and Webb Ltd)

Despite its barren environment, the seemingly infertile ground of the blistering hot New Mexico desert proves to be more than amply fecund to grow a story that’s as sharp and cutting as the metaphorical scythe used to slash, reap and serve to the audience the gripping narrative crop - and the bounty harvested tastes as bitter as a spoonful of lye. The man wielding the aforementioned blade is writer, producer and director Billy Wilder whose film Ace in the Hole is a dark juxtaposition in it’s themes of profaneness, immorality and inhumanity as the bright New Mexico sun under which the tale is set.

The first appearance of down and out newspaper reporter Charles “Chuck” Tatum (Kirk Douglas) comes as he sits in his convertible coup reading a newspaper while it’s being towed down an Albuquerque street by a wrecking truck. He hops out at the offices of the local newspaper the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin on a mission. From the way he hits the return key on a Sun-Bulletin employee’s typewriter so the bell will get their attention and other equally less than charming behaviors, Tatum exudes brash confidence and his arrogance is as distinct and noticeable as the cleft in Douglas’ chin. He meets with the Sun-Bulletin’s editor and publisher Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall). Boot is a cautious man, as Tatum observes aloud that he wears suspenders and a belt, and Boot’s personal motto, “TELL THE TRUTH” is embroidered and framed both inside and outside his office. Tatum shows his clippings to Boot and pitches his services as a reporter to his newspaper for 50 dollars a week telling him he’s a 250 dollar a week reporter that worked in all the major big city markets, but left them for various reasons (affair with the publisher’s wife, libel suits, boozing it up on the job.) Tatum is a good reporter by his own immodest assessment, “I can handle big news, little news and if there’s no news I’ll go out and bite a dog.” Tatum however is no longer a hot shot reporter in New York or Chicago, as he presently finds himself in Albuquerque with, “a burnt out bearing, bad tires and a lousy reputation.” Boot succumbs and offers Tatum a job at the paper. Tatum sees it as a chance to get back in the offices of a big time city paper, if he can only get a juicy story that will have the big market newspapers clamoring for his services once again.

A year passes and the office walls of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin seem to be closing in on Chuck Tatum as he has yet to get the big story that will be his, “loaf of bread with a file in it” ticket out Albuquerque. Boot sends Tatum and a young cub reporter Herbie to cover a rattle snake hunt in a remote county, hours outside of Albuquerque. On the drive, Tatum lets Herbie know he is unimpressed with the story potential of the rattle snake hunt. Herbie asks him why and Chuck tells him a real story would be 50 snakes on the loose in Albuquerque for days - slithering around in churches, schools and keeping the town in a panic. He imagines aloud to Herbie that one by one the authorities would hunt down all the snakes except for the last one they would be unable to find. The reason for number 50 eluding capture: Tatum would keep the final snake in his desk drawer to continue the story’s run for a few more days. Then when Tatum’s, “…good and ready we come out with a big extra, ‘Sun-Bulletin Snags Number 50.” His speculation on such a morbid scenario such as this indicates to the viewer that this isn’t the first time Tatum has thought about ignoring journalistic ethics to benefit the sensationalism factor of a story and his own gain. Perhaps his earlier threat of biting a dog to manufacture a story wasn’t just a sharp quip. A journalist focusing on panic, disaster and misery is what Tatum tells Herbie to be paramount: “Bad news sells best, because good news is no news.”

On the way to the snake hunt competition Tatum and Herbie stop at a desolate old roadside trading-post to get gas. A Police car’s siren signals there’s something brewing up at the desert mountain Navajo cliff dwelling near the road side trading-post. Tatum tells Herbie they should check it out as Tatum’s nose for news is still strong and accurate. They discover that the adult son of the owner of the “Minosa Trading-Post” (where they stopped) is trapped alive in one of the caves in the mountain cliff dwellings due to the ceiling collapsing on him. At the mouth of the cave several people are already there including the deputy sheriff who refuses to go inside the cave to get the trapped man supplies and assess the situation. When the deputy asks the local Navajos standing by if they would go in, because of their familiarity of the caves, they decline as the “Mountain of the Seven Vultures” (as it’s known to the Navajos) is an ancient burial ground that has been disturbed by the white man and will curse anyone who now enters. Chuck Tatum thinks the “Mountain of the Seven Vultures” name has a nice ring to it. Seizing the moment due to the Deputy Sheriff’s ineptness, Tatum’s aggression and arrogance is almost a positive quality for the first and only time in the film as he pushes the Deputy out of the way, takes his flashlight, some essential supplies for the trapped man and heads into the cave with Herbie in tow.

As the two reporters enter the cave, Chuck begins telling Herbie about the human interest factor of a good story featuring an individual in peril, as opposed to say one where you read about hundreds of men being killed. Tatum recounts the real life story (which the film’s plot is loosely based upon) of W. Floyd Collins being trapped in a Kentucky cave for a week in 1925. Disgusted that Herbie has vaguely heard of the Collins story, Tatum spits at him, “It was one of the biggest stories that ever broke, front page in every paper in the country for weeks… maybe you heard that a reporter on the Louisville paper crawled in the cave for the story and came out with a Pulitzer Prize.” After scolding the young reporter, Chuck tells Herbie to stay back a bit in the cave as he gets closer to the trapped man. The Floyd Collins talk serves as a territorial catalyst - Tatum wants this story all to himself. As Tatum ventures deeper inside, the dark and twisted labyrinth of the cave is a metaphor for the nebulous trappings formulating inside his own mind. He thinks this may be his big break for getting out of Albuquerque, but Tatum’s hubris and greed will eventually cave in on him like the trapped man.

(click here for part 2)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ace in the Hole (1951) part 2

(click here for part 1)

Tatum reaches the trapped subject Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) and provides him with some blankets and supplies while also snapping some pictures of him for the breaking story. Leo is an unlucky lug who ventured into the caves to swipe Indian artifacts for selling back at the trading-post when the cave collapsed in on him and pinned him there. As Leo explains that maybe there is something to the Navajo curse, Tatum is half listening to him and half formulating the lead of the story in his head. Chuck Tatum promises to get Leo out and ventures back outside, but not before a tiny cave-in potentially traps Tatum in there as well. It serves as a reminder to the audience: the danger inside the cave is omnipresent. Meeting up with Herbie again, Tatum is champing at the bit about spinning the potential angles of the story, “Curse of the old Indian chief, white man half buried by old Indian spirits. What will they do? Will they spare him? Will they crush him?” But in his excitement, Chuck has to backtrack some to Herbie regarding their earlier snake in the desk drawer conversation. Herbie asks him how soon they can get Leo out and Tatum replies that all he needs is just one week of this story. Puzzled, Herbie asks him that he wouldn’t really wish for anything that unfortunate, to which Tatum replies, “I don’t wish for anything. I don’t make things happen, I just write about em.” But Chuck Tatum is already formulating how he can milk this story for everything its worth to ensure it will get him back to the journalistic big leagues. If that means keeping Leo Minosa trapped inside for longer than necessary, Tatum will indeed “make things happen” to ensure such. Returning to the trading post, Tatum gets on the phone with Boot to start the ball rolling on the story and sends Herbie back to Albuquerque with the pictures of pinned Leo Minosa. Chuck Tatum has the story formulated in his head to make sure it’s as gripping as possible, but one bleach blonde obstacle stands in his way, Mrs. Leo “Lorraine” Minosa (Jan Sterling).

The next morning as Chuck Tatum bangs away on his typewriter in the trading-post, Lorraine Minosa is completely unaffected by the life threatening situation her husband is in. She is bitterly jaded and isn’t the only Minosa feeling trapped. Her personal quagmire is being married to Leo and stuck in the middle of nowhere New Mexico. Lorraine resents Leo as she feels she was misled by him when they first met in a saloon in Baltimore years back. Lorraine recounts to Tatum those five years ago in Charm City, Leo told her, “He had a 160 acres in New Mexico and a big business. Look at it, we sell 8 hamburgers a week, a case of soda-pop and once in a while a Navajo rug, maybe.” Lorraine then grabs the measly 11 dollars in the cash register with the intention of boarding the Trailways bus that’s about to stop in front of the trading-post and will take her away. She plans on leaving Leo, the Minosa Trading-Post and the integral worried wife angle of the trapped man for Tatum’s story behind and getting as far away as the 11 bucks will take her. Chuck knows he can’t let her leave for the story’s sake and tries to call her out on her planned heartless action made possible by Leo’s situation, “Nice kid…He can’t run after you lying there with those rocks on his legs.” Lorraine, who is on to Tatum’s true motives at Leo’s expense chimes back, “Look who’s talking. Much you care about Leo. I’m on to you. You’re working for a newspaper; all you want is something you can print. Honey you like those rocks just as much as I do.”

As Lorraine steps out of the trading post in front of the Trailways bus stop sign, dramatic timing and opportunity drives up in the form of a vacationing couple and their sons hoping to take a look at the cave containing the trapped man they read about in the morning edition of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Tatum has followed her outside and tells the couple they can drive up to the mountain for a gander and get breakfast at the trading-post afterwards. They drive off to the mountain and Chuck tells Lorraine that the curiosity of this family is only the beginning, “Get this, there’s three of us buried here, Leo, me and you. We all want to get out and we’re going to. Only I’m going back in style. You can too if you like, not with any 11 stinking dollars. You saw those people, a couple of squares, but to me they’re Mr. and Mrs. America…they’ll eat it up, the story and the hamburgers…there’s gonna be real dough in that cash register by tonight.” For her to leave now, Tatum tells Lorraine, when they bleached her hair they must have bleached her brains as well. The Trailways bus pulls up in front of the camera obscuring Lorraine facing it with her suitcase in hand. Momentarily keeping the audience in suspense as to her impending decision, the bus pulls away revealing Lorraine has turned her back to the camera and is walking back to the trading-post. Chuck and Lorraine have now become accomplices. Tatum is correct in his prediction that the public’s morbid curiosity will turn Leo’s plight into a literal media circus with Tatum controlling the spin of the story and Lorraine helming the overflowing trading-post cash register. The crowds exponentially grow over the next few days and Lorraine even rents out carnival rides and ice-cream concession stands on the Minosa land for the public to enjoy and her to reap the monetary benefits in the midst of a life or death atmosphere that shouldn’t be anything other than somber.

Where the darkness of Charles Tatum takes its most sinister turn is his meeting with the corrupt county sheriff and the engineer in charge of getting Leo out. Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) is on board with exploiting Leo’s situation for political gain due to the upcoming county election as Tatum promises hero status PR in the paper for the Sheriff as long as he agrees to keep other reporters at bay, thus ensuring the story is Tatum’s exclusively. The final obstacle to this cabal is the contractor/engineer telling both men that shoring up the walls of the cave to get Leo out would take 18 hours - too short a time for Tatum and Kretzer’s liking to get the maximum possible exploitation bang for their buck. The sheriff reminds the engineer that he was just a lowly truck driver a few years ago and thanks to the Sheriff’s help, if he wants to remain a successful contractor in the county, he should heed Chuck Tatum’s idea for getting Leo Minosa out: drilling a hole from the top of the mountain to extract the trapped man. The contractor warns them that this process will take a week before finally reaching Leo Minsoa, but that’s just what Tatum and the Sheriff have in mind. Seven days is just enough time for the Sheriff’s favorable media coverage to cinch the upcoming election, Lorraine Minosa to make money hand over fist at the trading-post and Charles Tatum to perhaps get a Pulitzer, but at the very least a way back to a big city newspaper “in style.” Once the top of the mountain drilling path operation is committed to, the engineer informs Tatum and the Sheriff days later that the shorter, original plan of rescuing him via shoring up the cave supports is impossible. The drilling has made the cave too unstable for the original plan to be executed later. As Leo’s health rapidly deteriorates in the cave, the question becomes will he survive in time for the purposely prolonged rescue Tatum engineers to succeed?


The cast of Ace in the Hole is top notch all around. Jan Sterling is perfect as the cold hearted Lorraine Minosa who is the only character that comes close to matching up with Douglas’ Charles Tatum. She serves as an accomplice at first to Tatum, but eventually becomes something of a nemesis when she tries to deviate from the worried wife role Tatum needs her to play to keep the story palatable for the public. He tells her to go to a special mass arranged at the local church for her husband one evening, to which she replies with perhaps the films best line, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” Tatum keeps her in line through violence and manipulating her sexual desire for him, exploiting everything he can to make sure his story doesn’t cave in and he ends up trapped in Albuquerque. The film belongs to Douglas all the way however, and his unyielding and scheming anti-protagonist Chuck Tatum is so convincingly thorough, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else pulling off the role as adroitly as Douglas did. Even when Tatum scrambles for what appears to be redemption toward the end of the film, the motive is thoroughly blemished. He’s saving his own skin as it becomes apparent Leo Minosa will not survive in time for the rescue and Tatum’s orchestration will end in a crescendo of decimated reputations and criminal prosecutions when the real story comes out. Ironically in the end, Tatum can’t get his actual twisted story he masterminded behind the trapped man to be heard by the big city papers he so desperately wanted to be embraced by once again. Wilder brilliantly leaves it open-ended if Tatum’s numerous schemes we witnessed will be brought to light, or remain entombed in the darkness forever like Leo Minosa.

Visually Ace in the Hole could be one of Billy Wilder’s finest works. The way he and cinematographer Charles Lang Jr. (The Big Heat, Sudden Fear, The Magnificent Seven) film the growing mobs and carnival like atmosphere outside the cave is strikingly eerie and majestic simultaneously. The carnival set was massive and the 500 extras Wilder hired only grew as onlookers and people came from surrounding towns came to look for themselves at the filming, not unlike the story’s curious gawkers showing up to see what the gathering was all about. Wilder makes especially clever choices in framing such as the close-up of Kirk Douglas’ fist grabbing the back of Jan Sterling’s hair during the only “kiss” in the film and the final haunting verbatim shot of Tatum ending up back in the offices of the Sun-Bulletin right where he started. Only this time (without spoiling it) he tells Boot he can have his services for nothing as that is all he has left.

The absolute caustic recklessness, with which the characters in Ace in the Hole selfishly operate, is nearly unmatched compared to any in Wilder’s other films (one would have to include Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity in that discussion at least.) It is Wilder’s most cynical film with regard to his outlook on not only the dark nature of man and his selfishness, but the insatiable morbid curiosity of the public that often occludes moral consciousness. The film suffocates the audience with its bleak outlook on humanity just as Leo Minosa gasps the dirty air in the cave, while the growing mobs outside inappropriately revel and celebrate in close proximity to what will eventually become his tomb. One might speculate that because Wilder was so profoundly affected by the Nazi atrocities committed in the Second World War (Wilder himself escaped Germany to America in the 1930’s before some of his own relatives were later rounded up and murdered at Auschwitz), Ace in the Hole was his unflinching mirror held up to reveal some of the most base and malign behaviors humanity is capable of demonstrating. Wilder also does not spare the journalistic community from his barbs as he sees their complicity in exploiting the misery of others as not unlike vultures such as Charles Tatum, circling the desert skies, waiting for a human life to become cadaver and carrion sustenance in the harsh and unrelenting desert plains. Ace in the Hole pulls no punches, candy coats nothing and leaves the kid gloves at home. Because of its brutality though, it still remains a potently damming and brilliant film over half a century after its release.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

I Confess (1953)

Written by Bill Hare

Montgomery Clift and a Hitchcock Portrait of Sensitivity

For filmgoers who like performers who render sensitivity Montgomery Clift becomes an obvious favorite.

In the important realm of close-up projection where eye contact between performer and audience is the critical barometer, Clift’s register catapulted him to soaring heights.

A definitive example came in the 1951 drama “A Place in the Sun” directed by George Stevens. Wily veteran Stevens used Clift and leading lady Elizabeth Taylor to exquisite advantage. Taylor, one of Clift’s closest friends, had captivating eyes that were made to order for close-ups in the manner of Clift.

One of the most unforgettable close-ups in cinema annals occurred as Taylor walked into Clift’s cell just prior to his execution for killing a woman he had impregnated but did not ultimately love. His passions burned for Taylor and the feeling was mutual. Their expressions told the ultimate story and the scene was etched forever in the minds of all who saw it.

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most successful traits in the career of a film stylist who basked in triumph was his ability to skillfully cast performers. Clift was an exquisite choice for the sensitive Father Michael William Logan in the 1953 release “I Confess.”

The setting is historic and picturesque Quebec City in Canada’s Quebec Province. The cinematography of Hitchcock regular Robert Burks emphasizes dark clouds on overcast days and shadows when the sun is shining.

The brooding mood synchronizes with a man whose heavily laden conscience is torn in conflicting directions in two important dimensions. Therein lies the film’s plot and inherent dramatic conflict.


Secrets of the Confessional and Deep, Abiding Love

Hitchcock was a practicing Roman Catholic and the story, adapted to the screen by George Tabori and William Archibald from a play by Paul Anthelme, surrounded a priest accused of murder who can clear himself by breaking his vow of silence relating to confession. In this case Otto Keller, played superbly by German actor O.E. Hasse, has confessed to Clift in the sanctuary of the confessional of the church where the parish priest served.

To those familiar with U.S. law, where privilege attaches to confidences involving members of the clergy, differing circumstances applied to Canadian law of that period. This brought an element of torture and dilemma for Clift. Despite repeated interrogation by police detective Karl Malden, he refused to waver.

Clift’s Father Logan was also a war hero who had fallen in love before service duty abroad. Anne Baxter expressed her willingness to marry him, but Clift responded that there were “too many war widows already” and declined.

By the time Clift returns Baxter, after not receiving letters from him following a certain interval, marries Roger Dann, a leading local political figure as a Member of Parliament.

After Clift’s return Baxter, who concedes, even to her husband, that she has always loved the man who, after returning home, becomes a priest, is found one morning with Father Logan after they had become caught in a storm. As a result they spend an evening together in a guest house where they had sought shelter.

Suspicious Circumstances Equal Motive

To the distinct disadvantage of both Clift and Baxter, they are found the following morning, after the storm has ended, by the disreputable owner of the guest house as well as the main residence. His eyes dance with opportunistic delight when he recognizes Baxter as the wife of a well known Member of Parliament.

Does this make Baxter a logical target for blackmail? Does the fact that she is seen in the company of a local priest make the prospect even more enticing? The answer is yes to both questions and a target she becomes, with Clift dragged along in the ensuing circumstances.

The web of suspicion tightens even more after Clift and Baxter were both viewed leaving the scene of the blackmailer’s home around the time of his murder. While Clift could potentially clear himself by revealing what he has been told in the sanctity of the confessional by O.E. Hasse, that he went to the blackmailer’s home to rob him since he and his wife badly needed money, to do so would betray the sacred confidence of the Catholic institution of confession, part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

While Malden, who reveals himself to be a practicing Catholic, and is someone who feels sympathy for the sensitive priest, facts are facts. Prosecutor Brian Aherne is convinced that with Clift possessing sufficient motive along with being observed leaving a home where a murder occurred on or about the time in question, he should be compelled to stand trial.

An Honest Wife’s Guilt and Hitchcock’s View

Clift’s position generates even more audience empathy for another basic reason. Hasse has been befriended by Clift. As a European émigré in need of employment, the priest sees that both Hasse and his wife, played by Dolly Haas, like Hasse a German born performer, are employed at the rectory where Clift, another priest, and the parish pastor reside.

Not only does Hasse maintain silence while knowing that Clift will be tried for a murder he committed; he goes one step further by planting evidence that increases suspicion toward an innocent man.

Aherne does his best at trial and presents his evidence. While the jury returns with a “not guilty” verdict the foreperson adds that there was insufficient evidence to convict. Strong suspicions remain. Clift leaves the courtroom with courtroom observers furious. The anger develops at a swift, furious pace when he leaves the building.

Dolly Haas has seen enough. She knows that her husband, someone who committed a murder for profit and then planted the dead man’s blood on the priest’s cassock, has victimized Clift grievously to serve his own ill ends.

In Hitchcock fashion there is a grand finale, and this one is played out in the historic setting of Hotel Frontenac, perhaps the beautiful city’s most spectacular and best known building.

After Hasse shoots his own wife to save himself, he is finally hunted down in the august setting of the hotel.

The film’s unique linchpin rests on the bond within Catholicism’s confessional secrecy. The anguish is clearly visible on Clift’s face as he realizes that he can save himself from a murder conviction and punishment for breaking the bonds of that secrecy, which he refuses to do, even after Karl Malden has pled with the priest to provide all information within his knowledge.

As a practicing Roman Catholic, Hitchcock was the perfect director to make “I Confess,” feeling an empathy toward a priest tormented by a natural desire to extricate himself from a murder charge and his obligation toward the church as an ordained priest.

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