Sunday, March 25, 2007

ACE up his sleeve

Billy Wilder's world view was obviously tinted by his own long, difficult journey as a Jew in Austria during the early part of the last century. Escaping the marching xenophobic wave that smashed down on Europe (and eventually to other corners) brought him to the America cinema, first as a script doctor, an indemand writer, and quickly a crack-whip director with a cynical sense of humour.
Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend all showed the dark fringes of a man who's tempted fate, wrestled with demons and surfaces for his comeuppance (ok, LW had the force-fed happy ending and hid the homophobic angle that was central to the novel).
Off his success of Sunset Boulevard, Wilder used his sharp pen and sharper ear for lemon-juice-on-that-cut dialogue to produce ACE IN THE HOLE, a 1951 slice of cynicism about a no-holds-barred, self-determined journalist Chuck Tatum. Down on his luck and out of a job, Tatum, as played by Kirk Douglas, uses his wiles to wrangle a temporary desk gig in Albuquerque, which he is determined to make his own stepping stone back to the Big City.
Along the way, he digs his heels into a lot of people.
Tatum's tunnel vision for his own story, the one to flog and promote his own faith in himself, is fed by some other motivated ne'r do-wells and gutter-dwellers, along with the ignorant and bored. Nearly everyone stinks with lost hope or faded moralism, which was one reason this film tanked during a period where America was being told they had won their brief battle in Korea, despite the war still being unresolved with signatures today.
This film has remained nearly lost, with rare late-night showings on small market TV channels. No release to video and no dvd has meant that ACE IN THE HOLE, also known as THE BIG CARNIVAL, was one of those 'lost gems.'
Wilder, in later interviews, distanced himself from the film, perhaps because it was so poorly received and was so heavily influenced by his European sense of fatalism. Or maybe he just thought it was a minor work, when compared to The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot etc. With a catalogue of that nature, its possible to understand.
Well, despite its neglected release, poor reception and general maligned nature during its day, AITH actually garnished a few awards -- nominated for an Oscar for original screenplay, it actually carted off the Venice Film Festival's 1951 International Award, while Jan Sterling was named the best actress by the National Board of Review. So some people realized (similar to Touch of Evil a fistful of years later) that the movie was a gem.
But now, film noir, classic film fans and general lovers of dark stories should celebrate, as Criterion has announced that they've acquired the DVD rights to this treasure and intend to release it, with no doubt a nicely honed print and abound with extras, this summer.
That leaves THE AFRICAN QUEEN as perhaps the biggest catch still being held off the shelves... and that uncut, only seen in Ponoma edition of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons.

For a fascinating analysis of this great piece of celluloid, check out

No comments: