DAYS OF BEING WILDER
No, start over.
Every writer should want to be Billy Wilder. There is nothing that guy could not do, no emotion he couldn't wring out of a story. He could be hopeful and silly, or darkly cynical; he could be poignant and meaningful, or bitingly satirical. I've been a fan for a long time, probably discovering him first when I discovered Marilyn Monroe in junior high. Some Like It Hot may be her best film.
Last night, I watched Ace In The Hole. Ian Shaughnessy, a newer Wilder convert, and I were talking about this film. A flop in its time, its cult status has grown through the fact that it has never been commercially released for home viewing. A local video store had what appeared to be a very dubious copy, with the outer sleeve made on someone's home printer, and I decided to give it a try. The picture was fuzzy and at times a little distant, and the AMC logo popped up in the corner of the screen from time to time, but still, I was watching one of Wilder’s best films, and a criminally lost masterpiece.
The basic plot is Kirk Douglas is a down-on-his-luck reporter that has been run out of every major paper in the country. He ends up in New Mexico and blusters his way onto a local paper. His hope is that he can find one big story to propel him back to the big leagues, but a year passes before anything comes along. Then, on his way to cover a rattlesnake festival, he hears about a man trapped in a mine, and his brain goes into overdrive. He hatches a scheme to keep the man down there, prolonging his rescue, and creating a huge media circus in the process (the alternate title of the film is The Big Carnival). The crux of the story that follows is whether or not Douglas will find his soul in time to actually save the man's life.
Ace in the Hole has a saddening freshness to it, because the questions Wilder poses about the downfall of the overly ambitious who see journalism as circulation numbers (ratings) and not a public service to spread the truth are just as important today as any other. In a time when the White House is waging war on dissenting opinion, and the news services join in, reporting what sounds good as opposed to what might be right (you know, Howard Stern is a racist, Howard Dean is crazy, children went blind seeing Janet Jackson's nipple, and we won a war that continues to kill American boys), the muckrakers are more prevalent than ever. There are more people looking to win the Pulitzer by any means necessary than there are simple, honest publishers like the one that hires Douglas, and the needlepoint credo on his wall: "Tell the Truth."
(A coincidental aside, I am about 1/3 into In Cold Blood, and a lot of the same charges that were leveled at the Douglas character in Ace in the Hole were also leveled at Truman Capote. Many suggested there was more he could have done to save the killers he wrote about from hanging, and that he didn't to have a better ending to his book.)
(Second aside: This film partially inspired the episode of The Simpsons when Bart fell down the well, pop culture junkies.)
Apparently last July a Seattle paper reported that Paramount was working on a DVD of Ace in the Hole. In some ways, we need this more than ever, it has the potential to be more subversive in 2004 than it would have been in 1951. People tend to write off old movies as being antiquated curiosities that are no longer relevant. Messages are often more potent when the viewer doesn't know they are receiving them, and Wilder has a great opportunity to insert himself into the brains of a whole new generation and tricking them into thinking about the things they see.
Current Soundtrack: The In Crowd, Disc 2