Looking Backward: Ace in the Hole (1951) & Second Looks Friday

18 May
Ace in the Hole (1951)

I felt like this for most of the movie. But in a good way.

Woof. The Darkness. I understand entirely why the early 50s in all their prosperity and joie de post-guerre would reject Ace in the Hole outright. Even though Wilder tries to Tartuffe the characters by making Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) the Prime Evil who catches hell about his lack of ethics from his journalistic superiors, the intent to indict the whole circus is pretty clear, so small wonder Wilder did about as well with his relevant powers-that-be (the Media) as Moliere did.

Fascinating to watch everyone succumb, too; to watch listless rubbernecking balloon into something sinister (from the lady who just seems to want to participate by getting her little elevator story out there to Mr. Federber (Sam Drucker!) and his pretend ad lib insurance commercial, from Jan Sterling’s Lorraine and her quick eye for an easy burger-buck to the contractor’s on-again/off-again willingness to go along with all the craziness) in a way that’s clearly fictional but rings true.

Charles Lang’s cinematography here could be offered in a court of law as a reason why black and white stuck around after color’s prominence for reasons beyond finance. (Seeing this within twenty-four hours of Our Man in Havana has made me plumb wary of shadows.)

Kirk Douglas

Wheels turning…

But the real star is the silent face of Kirk Douglas. Yes, yes, he talks, of course he talks, this is Billy Wilder, no one’s allowed to not talk, but the reason the whole enterprise works is the sense that every step on this flowchart is considered for a moment. He doesn’t let Tatum leap into things – this isn’t a brash character whose overexcited head for ideas gets out in front of him – but nor does he let him become coldly calculating. He seems to sense that there’s a new coin to toss each time the situation comes to a turn, if that isn’t a mixed metaphor (I can’t tell; I was up all night watching a bunch of movies, including this one. Second Looks is magnificent, but it’s killing my sleep schedule), and a choice happens there as he sits or stands in semi-shadow. Until that last shot, when his face is all shadow.

Mercifully, TCM chased the cruel rotgut whiskey of Ace in the Hole with the plotless but driving laughfest that is Top Banana next, which, while still technically featuring a morally fast-and-loose character (played in that case by Phil Silvers) dealing falsely with media expectations, well…it sprays a lot more soda water to wash off the New Mexico desert dirt of Ace in the Hole. I’ve mixed my metaphors again. Is the seltzer here a chaser or a bath? Let’s keep it a chaser, because It’s Always Fair Weather added a dash of orange bitters and Our Man in Havana gave a few rum coves from Britain the oh I’m exhausted. But a splendid lineup again, Second Looks. Hoping this becomes a regular feature…

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