“This is pitch black”
Last month I watched Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. I said then “I never feel that Wilder was truly comfortable making sex comedies. There is a bitterness and cynicism within them… this corruption at the core of the films that make them resonant and pertinent to this day”. Well if I thought Sunset Blvd. was dark, then this is pitch black.
Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tattum; a journalist who has been kicked off various big newspapers and is working for a small circulation newspaper in Albuquerque. He stumbles across a story that he can exploit as a means of getting him back into a prestigious job. That the story has only a limited shelf-life and needs Tattum to involve himself in machinations to keep it going is the basis of the storyline, that those machinations involve risking a man’s life and capitalising on his suffering give the film its thematic thrust. Douglas is excellent, his performance is not only thoroughly convincing but is necessarily ambiguous at certain points. Throughout the film you hope that Tattum will see the immorality of his exploitation of Leo Minosa’s suffering and have a change of heart which is hinted at again and again- at one point he learns that unless he makes a change that Leo will die the next morning and he starts putting those changes in motion. This is it you think, he’s seen the light. Then he explains that Leo’s death will ruin his human interest story. Even at this stage, faced with effectively murdering a man in order to get a big newspaper story he is unable to see past his own self-interest. It may not have all of the ingredients of a typical noir thriller but films don’t get any more noir than this.
One of those key film noir ingredients is the femme fatale figure and Jan Sterling’s role as the unsettled wife of Leo Minosa who aims to capitalise on his misfortune and then leave him typifies that. She isn’t the Eve to Kirk Douglas’s Adam (see how I follow a snap of her eating an apple with that? Oh yes!) as he was rotten to start with, but she is corrupt and corrupting- all heavy-lidded beauty and actions without remorse. That said, I wasn’t thrilled by her performance at all. I understand that her portrayal is highly regarded but for me it was flat and obvious: she starts corrupt and scheming and ends corrupt and scheming, there’s no arc, no nuance, no stand-out moment. I just wanted to grab her by the shoulders and scream “Act damn you!”. I guess I’m on my own on this one, but the opportunities she has to steal the film (stopping Leo’s mother praying for his rescue because her help is needed to serve customers, brilliant dialogue like “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons”, the scenes with Douglas where his character may win the argument but she gets more to do as a result ) are really wasted.
And that is what stops the film being absolutely perfect because, quite frankly, in every other aspect it is. Ace in the Hole is cynical and brutal and pointed and merciless and utterly uncompromising. There is no hero, there’s no-one to root for, there’s no-one even to like. Everyone in it is self-serving, nasty or cynical, or else weak, cowardly and thoroughly unsympathetic as a result. There isn’t even a happy ending. Billy Wilder’s cynicism here isn’t confined to the newspaper hacks who keep the story going. He focuses upon the corrupt officials who allow this to happen, the travelling hawkers and peddlers, the rubber-neckers, the travelling vigil-holders, spectators, vultures and ghouls, the contractors who take the more lucrative long way around, the sideshow entertainers and the local entrepreneurs. Everyone wants to indulge in the Leo Minosa tragedy- it’s a human interest story! Watching this in the wake of the Jade Goody carnival funeral, it can’t help but strike me how close to reality the whole thing really is almost sixty years later.
Only an idiot would say this film isn’t perfect and then give it 10/10. 10/10.