I didn’t grow up a fan of Kirk Douglas’ acting. Unlike some of the other stars whose work I connected with at a young age, appreciating Douglas took time. Only after having gained a certain level of maturity could I enjoy the unbridled energy Mr. Douglas brought to each role in a career that lasted over six decades. Today he’s one of my favorite actors. The reasons for that have nothing to do with his three Academy Award nominations, the Presidential Medal of Freedom or the National Medal of the Arts. I am a fan of Kirk Douglas thanks to his vibrancy and exuberance, which are palpable. Whenever Douglas is in a scene it is impossible to take your eyes off him.
As you probably know Mr. Douglas is celebrating his 100th birthday today. He is one of the last surviving actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age and we hold him dear. To celebrate his extraordinary career Karen at Shadows and Satin is hosting the Kirk Douglas 100th Birthday Blogathon and this entry is my contribution. I have to say it took me no time at all to decide which of Douglas’ films to focus on. I went with my favorite of his performances, his portrayal of newspaper man Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder‘s Ace in the Hole because what Kirk Douglas manages to do in this movie is mesmerizing.
Billy Wilder had quite the career by the time he made Sunset Blvd (1950), the movie that preceded Ace in the Hole. His impressive resume included a Best Director Academy Award for The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity (1944) was a hit right down the line – to name just two of Wilder’s accomplishments up to that point. Sunset Blvd.’s critical and commercial success served to cement Wilder’s place as a player in the top echelon of the industry and at Paramount Studios in particular. In other words, Billy Wilder was riding high when he embarked on the darkest project of his career, a shocking, pitiless study of human beings at their worst titled Ace in the Hole.
Wilder considered Ace in the Hole his best film. Or so he said on several occasions perhaps in answer to critics of the film, which were numerous. The movie bombed at the box office and critics panned it. In fact, although Wilder followed Ace in the Hole with Stalag 17, a big hit in 1953, the negative reaction to Ace diminished his status as a filmmaker for a time. Even Paramount became contentious and decided to change the film’s title to The Big Carnival without Wilder’s approval, which his contract stipulated. Unfortunately for Paramount’s the new title – an awful choice given it highlights what Wilder condemns in the film – didn’t help the box office receipts at all.
Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman co-wrote the screenplay for Ace in the Hole and received an Oscar nomination for the effort. Ace in the Hole is a daring movie that presents an unrelenting attack on our morals brought to life by compelling visuals, biting dialogue, memorable performances and a story that doesn’t quit. This movie starts from a dark place and descends into utter depravity. I don’t think it’s by chance that Wilder starts the movie with dirt as the backdrop as the credits roll and concludes with one of cinema’s most memorable endings – a shot from the ground. Simply put – it doesn’t get any lower than this.
Although Ace in the Hole has gained respect over the years and although it is one of those movies everyone should watch I can understand why audiences were turned off by it in 1951. This movie offers no respite from the muck, it’s unrelenting in its pursuit of the condemnations it serves with impunity. No one is immune. Not the press, not the public and not the viewer.
Ace in the Hole tells the story of Chuck Tatum (Douglas), a reporter who knows his way around a big story having earned his stripes and lousy reputation in big-city papers. Tatum arrives in New Mexico full of himself and touting his abilities as a newspaper man while also bitter about the depth to which he’s fallen. Here – dripping sarcasm and cynicism – sits a former star reporter forced to ask for work at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, a paper no one has heard of.
Chuck Tatum walks into the Sun-Bulletin offices looking down his nose at the poor souls who work there. These are people ignorant about the happenings in the world, innocents who believe in truth. Tatum is hired by the editor, publisher and owner of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, Jacob Boot (Porter Hall), a man who holds that truth as the beacon of journalistic integrity. Chuck Tatum takes the job out of necessity. One year later he is going out of his mind from boredom when Boot breaks the monotony by sending him and photographer, Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) to cover a rattlesnake hunt.
When Chuck and Herbie stop to get gas in a town called Escudero they learn that a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a cave in nearby cliff dwellings. And that’s all it takes to get Chuck Tatum’s juices flowing. The rattlesnake hunt is forgotten and before you know it Tatum is manipulating every aspect of the Minosa event until he turns the man’s misery into spectacle, until a carnival replete with gullible people, cut-throat reporters, power-hungry politicians, a band and a ferris wheel stand just outside the cave dwellings where Minosa’s life hangs in the balance. It’s even difficult to recall the sounds and images as I write this. To say that the escalating circus is upsetting is an understatement. Billy Wilder ensures we are nauseated throughout by pitting heartbreaking scenes up against spectacle and the result is a wanting to recoil while we are riddled with guilt at the inability to look away. It’s like the deer in the headlights thing. This is the power of Ace in the Hole. It is ruthless and watching it 65 years after its release only serves to strengthen its message. Consider the media spectacle we’ve experienced during our last election. I guarantee that you’ll recognize us in Ace in the Hole and the similarities are sickening.
“I’ve made a career of playing sons of bitches.” – Kirk Douglas
I know people like Chuck Tatum. Not reporters, mind you. I mean the type of people who flaunt their faults unapologetically as if you are the one that has to adjust. That’s how Tatum is when we first meet him in Ace in the Hole and I despise him right off the bat. Unfortunately he also has my undivided attention from the moment he lights his match with a typewriter roll. Tatum starts off as a slimy egoist and takes a downward spiral toward putrid taking us all with him as he falls.
Chuck Tatum is a completely unsympathetic character. This guy has absolutely no redeeming quality. Not one. When you focus Kirk Douglas’ unconstrained energy onto the darkness depicted in Ace in the Hole what you get are the seven levels of Dante’s inferno. Or at least that’s what comes to mind when I watch him as Tatum. Dante’s Inferno is a favorite of mine and Tatum’s decent reminds me of the journey in the book every time I watch this movie. Tatum is methodical in his planning. A ringmaster who’s also a great juggler. That is until the balls turn into lions and the audience is hungry for blood. It comes as no surprise when Tatum passes the point from which he cannot return in the three-ring circus he orchestrates. This guy’s downward spiral is the movie’s downward spiral and no one but Kirk Douglas could deliver the inevitable doom that permeates the movie from the beginning. Douglas guarantees it with a slick, slimy entrance and all the foul odors that follow. I’m not sure at what exact point Billy Wilder gives up on redemption for Tatum even after watching Ace in the Hole several times. But it happens some time before we actually see the character’s violent outbursts, the overt signs that he is falling apart at the seams.
There are moments in the movie, fleeting moments when we get glimpses of Chuck’s vulnerability. These are the moments when he turns toward the camera – toward us – revealing his self-disgust. It’s at those moments, when Kirk Douglas allows the veneer to drop from Tatum’s armor, some truly great acting. The scenes between Douglas and Richard Benedict as Leo Minosa in the cave are also terrific – in a horrific sort of way. Benedict is great as Leo whose situation grows bleaker every time Tatum visits after which Tatum is increasingly violent. As the days pass the carnival starts to make Tatum raw so that every noise and every sight makes him ill. As it does us.
There are several other actors who deliver impressive performances in supporting roles with Jan Sterling leading the pack. Sterling is fantastic as the bitter, disillusioned Lorraine Minosa. As the soul of Chuck Tatum descends into the abyss Mrs. Minosa increasingly shows signs of excitement. The wasteland into which Leo brought her full of empty promises is now full of possibility. In her defense Escudero is in the middle of nowhere. The telephone exchange is Escudero2 and I get the impression there is no Escudero3. It’s no wonder she’s taken with Chuck Tatum who may be a low life, but he ain’t boring. Interestingly it’s toward Lorraine Minosa that Chuck is the most violent. She comes closest to his own level of low and holds an image up to him that he despises – himself.
Porter Hall is also quite good as Boot and the great Frank Cady is memorable as Al Federber, the patriarch of the family whose claim to fame is having arrived first at the carnival. In truth all the players here are terrific with each adding a layer to the absurdity. But again it’s Kirk Douglas who draws us in and repels us. It’s Kirk Douglas who brings this carnival to life. He is the ringmaster.
Happy 100th birthday, Mr. Douglas. Thank you for your career and for making me ill with your portrayal of Chuck Tatum. It’s a brilliant turn.
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