18 May 2011

ACE IN THE HOLE / THE BIG CARNIVAL (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1951, US) - Rotten to the Core

Wilder’s satire is as caustic as they come. Human depravity was extenuated with a memorable accent in Wilder’s 1944 classic noir Double Indemnity by the scheming Phyllis Dietrichson. ‘We’re both rotten’ she tells the doomed Walter Neff, only his response is more telling ‘Only you’re a little more rotten’. The corruption of an ideal is aptly demonstrated by such a metaphor – rotten souls, rotten people and rotten dreams are some of the charges levied at the grotesque journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). It’s not surprising Wilder’s 1951 treatise on the American news media was a critical and commercial failure considering the prescient tone struck by the insidious fabrication and duplicitous manufacturing of news. Tatum like Neff is a victim of hubris but unlike Neff’s death march Tatum’s descent is a venomous trajectory of egotistical excess which offends and polarises all those around him. Wilder paints a picture of American society that is inherently unsympathetic. The parasitic hunger for sensationalising personal tragedy is sustained primarily through an ending in which imagery of rampant exploitation and prostitution is galvanised by Tatum’s dying words ‘You can have me for nothing’ he says pathetically before he drops down dead in a heap. It is a savage denouement and one that cuts deep:

3 comments:

  1. One of my favourite movies, one of the greatest film noirs, one of Wilder Wilder's finest works, and one of Kirk Douglas' best performances - yeah, I guess that's Ace in the Hole for us. :)

    Wilder, as you said, literally filled every frame with acid and vitriol, and painted one of the darkest portraits of rottenness. The film, with its acerbic and devastating blow on yellow journalism, can really make even the most hard-hearted people wince - that's the kind of power it still wields!

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  2. Though, when it comes to brilliant & unforgettable jabs against the degradation of the wonderful profession of journalism, and also in terms of purely cinematic value, I guess I'd put Sweet Smell of Success slightly ahead of Ace in the Hole. What would your order of preference be?

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  3. I don't know, it's a tricky one. Whilst Sweet Smell of Success has the edge in terms of performance, dialogue and cinematography, Wilder's noirish diversion has a stronger ending, so overall I would probably agree Lancaster and Curtis would come ahead but just slightly.

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