Monday, 30 November 2009

Ace In The Hole

Uncharacteristically devoid of Wilder's charming wit, at least for the most part (starts out with some smart one-line punches from Kirk Douglas' hardboiled cynic Chuck). Which only makes it difficult to digest - even his 1960 film, The Apartment, is about the corruption of soul; yet the fluid humour keeps it floating smoothly. Probably this explains the film's critical failure at the time.

Ambitious reporter Chuck Tatum is always in a soup. He's worked with some of the biggest houses in journalism, but personal misdemeanours keep coming in the way of his career. So he comes riding with a flat-tyre to small town Albuquerque, looking for the one scoop that'll take him back top. Luck favours him when he runs across an amateur archaeologist, Leo Minosa, stuck in a cave-in. The man can be saved in a day, but seeing that his life is not in imminent danger, Chuck decides to milk this golden opportunity - to sustain "human interest" in the story, he arranges for a lengthy rescue operation. Chuck will be the only one to do an exclusive coverage of the accident and rescue efforts.

Things don't look too bright. And not only because of the journo's exploitation of a man's suffering. Leo's simple-minded father has his faith pinned on Chuck, who is something of a brave hero to him, and Leo's wife can't wait to desert her husband. The local sheriff wants to gain political leverage from the incident, the engineer gives in to corruption because his job is in jeopardy, there's a gathering of hundreds outside who have arrived to "show their sympathy" for the man inside, small businesses bloom all around - the whole picture resembles a giant carnival more than anything. The picture may look exaggerated at first sight, but anyone who has heard the outpours of cliche-ridden sympathy during the Prince incident (pointed out by Jabberwock) or witnessed political reactions following 26/11 should see how acute Wilder's observations were. The Mr. Federber character is not in the least fabricated - people are callous about accidents in exactly the same way, insignificant though it may seem on the surface.

The unexpected revelation of buried guilt and conscience is Tatum changes the blame equation all of a sudden - is he the most guilty man? Isn't his ambition fuelled only by public thirst for yellow journalism? In true noir tradition, Tatum is killed - but what about the faceless revellers outside having the time of their lives? They have paid nothing; except maybe for twenty square meals of tacos, hot dogs and soda-pops. There are more unsettling questions than those answered on screen by the mechanics of Wilder's plot.

My pick for the best scene - a huge circus tent (Chuck himself scorns at the carnival as a "circus") is pulled down after the din has died down. Looks like a mock-flag-lowering ceremony to honour the late Leo Minosa. Of course, nothing of the sort is said. The visual clue is enough. Maybe that is the power of cinema!