Thursday, March 15, 2007

Kirk Duplicitous

The Criterion Collection newsletter came out today, and as usual contains a hint about an upcoming release. Actually, this one isn't exactly a hint, more like a straightforward announcement, probably because this news was already mentioned in the press. The "hint" is:

Extra! Extra! Billy Wilder finally caves! Chuck Tatum's got the scoop!

This refers, of course, to Chuck Tatum, the venal reporter played by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. The Criterion DVD will likely be out in July; as a warm-up, TCM is running it this Saturday at noon (eastern time).

This film is as good a candidate for the Criterion special-edition treatment as any as-yet-unreleased movie; it's a genuine cult classic, its targets are timeless, it's based on a true story (cue the inevitable "the real Floyd Collins" special feature) and it was a major turning point in the director's career.

Not a good turning point, though. It was the first film Wilder produced himself -- all his other movies as a director except Double Indemnity had been produced by his writing partner, Charles Brackett -- and after two straight movies that were very dark and sardonic (A Foreign Affair and Sunset Blvd.), this was even darker and meaner, draining out any trace of redemption or suggestion that there is good in mankind. As Self-Styled Siren wrote in her essay on the film, Wilder used to try to have one major character who was basically good, but not here:

As scalding as he is, Wilder doesn't leave audiences utterly without hope. A Wilder picture almost always has at least one character who acts as moral grounding--Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity, Arlene Francis in One, Two, Three, Nancy Olson in Sunset Boulevard. You can measure the movie's cynicism by the amount of respect and exposure that character gets. The Apartment, often called bitter, is one of Wilder's most optimistic films, in that the character whose essential decency anchors the movie turns out also to be the protagonist, Jack Lemmon.

In Ace in the Hole, the last good man is the editor Boot. He has about four brief scenes. He may believe in truth, so much so he has his secretary cross-stitch "Tell the Truth" on a sampler, but he is badly outnumbered.

After the movie bombed, Wilder had to regroup; his next few movies were all based on successful stage plays -- a sure-fire way of making sure he wasn't handling material that the public would reject (since the public had already accepted Stalag 17 or The Seven Year Itch in another form). With one or two exceptions, he would stick almost exclusively to comedies and happy endings from that point on. I'm not saying the rest of his career has no value; obviously he did a lot of fine things. But I think it's fair to say that this was one movie, and one failure, that made its creator a bit more cautious from that point on.

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