Four Frames – Ace In The Hole (1951)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. It’s awards season and The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘fame’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Billy Wilder’s underseen classic Ace In The Hole.

Anyone who thought Billy Wilder’s savagely cynical noir about a disgraced journalist’s search for a career-rejuvenating scoop was too sensational need only recall 2010’s media circus that surrounded the plight of the 33 trapped Chilean miners.

The sight of hundreds of rubberneckers flanked by publicity-hungry officials and hordes of reporters dowsing the crisis at ‘Camp Hope’ with high drama and low rhetoric is sadly reflective of the tasteless carnival that plays out in Ace In The Hole (1951).

Ace In The Hole

Its orchestrator is Kirk Douglas’ fanatically single-minded Chuck Tatum, a down-at-heel ex-New York hack whom we meet being towed into little ‘ole Albuquerque in New Mexico, sitting in the hitched-up car defiantly reading a copy of the local Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin and carrying himself with an arrogance that’s as audacious as it misplaced.

Tatum is taken on by the paper’s principled editor (Porter Hall) despite ridiculing it (“even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque”), mocking the secretary’s hand-stitched motto “tell the truth” and making it clear he’ll only be around as long as it takes him to sell a big story and win a place back in the big leagues.

Ace In The Hole

After a year of scraping around, Tatum stumbles across his scoop when he learns of a man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who has become trapped inside a mountain tunnel whilst searching for Native American relics. We straight away see the wheels turning in Tatum’s eyes as he sensationalises the story (“Ancient curse entombs man”) and sells promises of celebrity to the corruptible local sheriff (Ray Teal) in order to lean on a contractor to spin out the rescue effort for dramatic effect.

The Big Carnival (as the film was initially renamed just prior to its release) quickly descends, with people herding to the ‘cursed’ mountain to gawp at the ensuing drama, while good old fashioned American capitalism cranks into gear, with car parking charges, a fairground and stalls selling distasteful Native American headdress and copies of the lyrics of a swiftly penned song about Leo’s rescue.

Ace In The Hole

Also benefiting is Leo’s callous wife Lorraine (the fantastic Jan Sterling), who couldn’t care less about her stricken husband and wants to run away to the big city, but is convinced to hang around by the ringing tills of her diner and Tatum’s forceful persuasion. Lorraine realises she’s met her match in the tabloid hack (“I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time, but you’re 20 minutes”) and a volatile game of mutually assured destruction plays out between the two of them.

Douglas was once quoted as saying that he’d “made a career out of playing sons of bitches” and none are more repellent than the force-of-nature that is Chuck Tatum, a natural born deceiver who lives by the adage that “bad news sells best, because good news is no news”.

Ace In The Hole

Realising the story may not pan out exactly how he’d first intended, Tatum suddenly seems to want to do the right thing by Leo, but you suspect it’s more out of a sense of self-preservation than guilt. Besides, it’s way too late to put the genie back in the bottle and once the circus leaves town, no-one cares anymore.

A work of all-too-sad relevance that hasn’t aged a day, the brilliance of Ace In The Hole is in the way it reflects the very worst of the Fourth Estate right back on us and our own morbid curiosity.

Blogathon Relay: The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

One of the more pleasant surprises I’ve had recently was to have received the baton from the lovely Ruth at FlixChatter for the 10 Most Influential Directors of All Time Blogathon relay.

The Blogathon was the brainchild of John at Hichcock’s World. It’s a brilliant idea and John sums it up nicely: “I have compiled a list of 10 directors I consider to be extremely influential. I will name another blogger to take over. That blogger, in their own article, will go through my list and choose one they feel doesn’t belong, make a case for why that director doesn’t fit, and then bring out a replacement. After making a case for why that director is a better choice, they will pass the baton onto another blogger. That third blogger will repeat the process before choosing another one to take over, and so on.”

The baton has so far been passed to the following:

Girl Meets Cinema
And So It Begins…
Dell On Movies
Two Dollar Cinema
A Fistful Of Films
The Cinematic Spectacle
FlixChatter (Thanks for the banner logo Ruth!)

The original list had plenty of incredible directors on it, but as the baton has been handed down the list has become pretty damned impressive:

The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Georges Méliès, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick

Ruth’s addition to the list was Billy Wilder and her justification was thus: “I’ve recently seen one of Wilder’s best, The Apartment, and I could see why his films are so beloved. He imbued such wit in his films, a dose of cynical humor. He also has a way with actors, having directed no less than 14 actors to Oscar-nominated performances. He’s also a versatile writer/director, as he excelled in numerous genres: drama, noir, comedy as well as war films. He’s one of those directors whose work I still need to see more of, but even from the few that I’ve seen, it’s easy to see how Mr Wilder belongs in this list.”

So, Who’s Out?

Jean Luc Goddard

Jean-Luc Godard

Man, this was an almost impossible decision. Godard’s still making movies aged 83 and there’s no denying the influence of his work. Breathless remains a defining work of the French New Wave and his 1964 film Bande à part was stolen by Tarantino for the name of his production company. The more I think about it, the less I’m sure, but compared to the others on this list I feel Godard’s influence has slipped and, as such, he doesn’t quite make it. Sorry Jean-Luc, but I suspect you’d feel that lists like this are way too bourgeois anyway.

Now, Who’s In?

John Ford

John Ford

Reflecting on his masterpiece Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was asked who influenced what is still regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Welles’ reply was simple: “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” He had reputedly watched Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach more than 40 times in preparation for his debut feature and he wasn’t the only one to have been drawn to the work of one of the most influential directors of all time.

An encounter with Ford proved to have a massive impact on a 15-year-old Steven Spielberg, who subsequently said of the great man: “Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures.” Watch Saving Private Ryan‘s devastating D-Day landings sequence and War Horse and you’ll see Ford’s stamp front and centre.

Likewise, Martin Scorsese has cited The Searchers as one of his favourite films. Speaking about the film in the Hollywood Reporter, Scorsese said: “In truly great films – the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable – nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved. You’re left with a mystery. In this case, the mystery of a man who spends 10 years of his life searching for someone, realises his goal, brings her back and then walks away. Only an artist as great as John Ford would dare to end a film on such a note.”

The list goes on. Ingmar Bergman cited Ford as “the best director in the world”, while Alfred Hitchcock declared that a “John Ford film was a visual gratification”.

From the earliest days of film, through to the invention of sound and the introduction of colour, Ford remained a cinematic pioneer. Although best regarded for his westerns, he also made another masterpiece that defined a nation – The Grapes Of Wrath; while his incredible World War Two documentaries The Battle Of Midway and December 7th remain quintessential examples of the craft. For all this alone, John Ford should be regarded as The Great American Director.


 

Well, that’s me done, so now the torch passes to… Fernando at Committed to Celluloid. Good luck Fernando; you’re gonna need it!