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.


Tommy Salami said...

Excellent post on one of Wilder's best films, overlooked until recently due to its bad box office. People don't like seeing how ugly they can be.

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