Thursday, 17 June 2010

I'm a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman. You can have me for nothing.

#385 - Ace in the hole
Director - Billy Wilder

I have yet to watch Sunset Blvd, and therefore this is the first of Billy Wilder's films I've watched which isn't a comedy. And yet, it begins in a comically jolly way, with lively 50's music and a wonderful shot of our lead - Charles Tatum (played by a young Kirk Douglas - who looks a lot like Alex Winter in the 80's) - reading the paper in his car as it is towed.

Tatum is a typical New Yorker. Fast talking, aggressive and brash. However he is also reckless and arrogant - and this is how he finds himself fired from all the big city papers and working in a small local paper in Albuquerque. His motivation for the entire film is simple: find a story which is big enough to get him noticed and get his old job back in New York.

After a tedious year on the paper, Tatum gets his wish. En route to a rattlesnake hunt with his photographer he stumbles upon a man called Leo trapped in a cave-in. To make matters worse, none of the local native Americans will go into the cave as it is cursed - the Mountain of the Seven Vultures. This is Tatum's story.
The rest of the film is watching Tatum spin the situation to his advantage.

This is very much a film of its time - and I don't just mean the appalling and consistent casual racism directed towards the Native Americans - in the way that the news travels. It is very interesting to see how reporters worked in a time when phones were sparse, let alone mobiles. This type of monopoly on a story (Tatum manages to successfully negotiate no other reporters being allowed on site) could never happen in our world of mobile camera phones, audioboo, twitter etc etc. We're an immediate culture - when just fifty years ago it was all a lot slower.

So, Tatum takes control of the event and manages to manipulate the rescue, stringing it out into an elaborate charade:
  • Tatum can use a big story to reclaim his status and get his New York Job back.
  • Leo's wife Lorraine is planning to leave him anyway, but sees the media frenzy and public interest as an easy way to cash in.
  • Sheriff Kretzer needs a big public interest story and the positive spin from Tatum in order to make sure he is re-elected.
With the sheriff on side, Tatum can blackmail the engineers to use the slower rescue method (a massive drill boring through the mountain side - which will take a week) rather than reinforcing the cave tunnel and pulling him out (which will only take 16 hours).

The public face of Leo's suffering is not with him, but with his parents. We very rarely see Leo, as most of the film takes place outside the mountain, but the few visits into the heart of the cave show a man who quickly loses his chirpy attitude and then begins to lose health, gradually becoming a weaker shell of a man.
Meanwhile, on the outside, his parents have to deal with the circus (both media and literal) which has emerged around the cave. It is interesting that the film is also referred to as The Big Carnival (apparently it was renamed) - which refers to both the carnival set up outside the mountain (for the entertainment of the the hundreds of people coming to watch the spectacle event) and also to the horrible events which are unfolding, manipulating Leo's suffering.

It is a really uncomfortable film to watch - the exploitation of suffering and danger is so hideously inhumane that you're essentially watching it as car crash cinema. Not because it's a bad film, but because the subject matter is just horrific.
The worst character by far (in my mind) is Lorraine - after all, the Sheriff is just a corrupt policeman, a film archetype. And yes, Tatum may be the violent, abusive, racist misogynist who orchestrated the whole event, but he is just an amoral reporter. He has no stake in the people around him. He could not care less. Whilst Lorraine may no longer love Leo, and may even be planning to leave him, she allows her husband and her husband's family to be hideously manipulated and exploited just so she can make some money and attempt to seduce Tatum.

Of course, things go wrong - and whilst the final act is inevitable, you spend the whole film hoping that it won't fall apart, that Leo will be OK even if it means that the amoral bastards get away with it.

A fascinating look at the arrogance, greed and corruption of people. It is entrancing - if utterly uncomfortable - cinema.

Billy Wilder really is bloody good.

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