Thursday, July 21, 2005

I'm A Thousand-Dollar-A-Day Newspaperman

One of the biggest, most inexplicable gaps in the history of home video appears to be on its way to being filled: Paramount will release a DVD of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, which has never been available even on VHS, this October. Score one for lovers of really nasty, cruel, bitter movies.

Speaking of which, the failure of Ace in the Hole -- and it was a big failure -- seems to have taken some of the bite out of Wilder's work, or taken away some of his nerve. Most of his movies up to Ace are pretty tough and uncompromising (except maybe for the ending of Lost Weekend), whether it's a bitter melodrama like Double Indemnity or Ace or Sunset Boulevard or a bitter comedy like A Foreign Affair. Most of his movies after Ace pull their punches more, have something unconvincingly pleasant in them like the atrocious Ron Rich character in The Fortune Cookie or William Holden's little smile at the end of Stalag 17. Among Wilder's post-Ace movies, only The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes dares to have a really bleak ending and only One, Two, Three dares to make all its characters look bad; those happen to be my two favorites of his post-Ace years (along with The Apartment, which may have kind of a cop-out ending but is just too good not to love). One wonders how mean and tough Wilder would have gotten if Ace in the Hole had been a success.

And speaking of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, here's a recent Guardian article where writer Jonathan Coe chronicles his fascination with the film, a fascination, he admits, largely based on Miklos Rozsa's music. (I used to disagree with Terry Teachout for selecting Rozsa's violin concerto as one of the great musical masterpieces of the twentieth century; after seeing The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which is built around the themes of that violin concerto, I have no doubt that he was right. That music gets into your brain and never gets out again; and it's largely because of the music that the film's ending becomes an almost unbearably moving experience.) I have to admit, though, that I don't have any great wish to see the cut sequences put back into the film, even if they could be rediscovered; based on what remains of them, they seem too jokey and goofy without the compensation of being especially funny. The "Naked Honeymooners" sequence in particular would have made Watson out to be too outrageously stupid. Wilder may have felt pressured into cutting the film -- though it was, ultimately, his own decision and not the studio's, since he had final cut -- but I think he came up with a better movie by paring it down to the basics: one short sequence exploring Holmes's attitudes toward sexuality, and one long sequence showing how Holmes's world comes crashing down when faced with the new, post-Victorian world of international intrigue (there's probably some Vietnam-era commentary in the way the Diogenes Club is transformed into a sort of shadow government, coming up with new ways of killing people and keeping them secret from the populace) and female sexuality.

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