Saturday, March 3, 2012

Some Thoughts On Ace In The Hole (1951)

This is clearly another movie that's so much of a classic and that has been written about so extensively that there's no room for me to say anything new about it. Just as clearly, I can't let that stop me completely, for when have I ever been able to shut up about movies?

Anyhow, I'm not going to waste your time going into details about the obvious. The quality of the script (especially the fantastically sharp, darkly funny dialogue perfect for this, the least obvious of all film noirs), Billy Wilder's inventive and tight direction that makes a film that's nearly two hours long feel like seventy minutes, and Kirk Douglas' burningly intense performance, are as much a given as the whiteness of snow. Instead of the appropriate gushing, I just have two observations to make about the movie.

Firstly, there's something poignant (and a bit depressing) about the fact that Ace in the Hole has become less of a black comedy (and believe me, this is just as much a comedy as it is a drama; the difference between a black comedy and a drama lies only in the ability of a walking dead man to have a bitter laugh at his own cost in the former) as the years have passed. In 1951, having an actual carnival raised at the location of a catastrophe must have looked like a slightly surreal exaggeration. Today, that sort of thing has turned from a metaphor into business as usual; black humour has become documentation.

Secondly - and this is what I love most about the film - I'm again and again impressed by how right Wilder and Douglas do by a basic plot that could (and by all rights should) have become either a mawkish melodrama, or a film so moralizing nobody'd ever be interested in actually listening to its morals. Instead, the film is subtle even when its surface seems to play by the Hollywood rules, and knows the difference between having a moral outlook (and the bitterness that can - really does more often than not in Wilder's films - come with it) and hitting an audience over the head with what it is supposed to think and feel. Things and people are complicated, even when you want to sneer at the fact.


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