Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ace in the Hole

Those who appreciated Peepli Live’s vision of a cannibalistic media feeding off one man’s tragedy will find Ace in the Hole an intriguing companion piece. Made over half a century ago, this movie stars Kirk Douglas as a washed-up reporter forced to work for a small-town newspaper, who sees his ticket back to the “big league” in a man stuck in a cave collapse. Newspapermen – whether muckraking or crusading – were the basis for some of Hollywood’s best pictures of the ‘40s and ‘50s; this movie is no exception.

As Chuck Tatum, Douglas is as enterprising and ruthless a leading man as Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. He gambles with the victim’s fate, forcing the rescue team to drill instead of shoring up the walls because it would mean more time for him to whip up a media frenzy. He also strikes deals with the crooked sheriff, and the trapped man’s wife, who, in a way, is also trapped. The film intersperses the increasing despair of the man inside the cave with a savage indictment of society at large, as hundreds of tourists turn the sleepy town into a capitalistic carnival. The media’s attitude, meanwhile, can be summed up in Douglas’ practical assessment of the situation: “One man [trapped] is better than 84…that’s human interest.”

This hardboiled outlook will come as no surprise to those familiar with director Billy Wilder’s films. His black comedies took aim at those aspects of life that America held dear – corporate zeal, the institution of marriage – and turned them inside out. His leads were often unsympathetic; Fred MacMurray helps an adulterous wife murder her husband in Double Indemnity, and in Sunset Blvd, William Holden is a kept man who leads on an ageing star. Ace in the Hole may be the sharpest of them all, the grainy darkness of the dust-covered faces matched every step of the way by the blackness of the humour.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi. Also, an earlier post of mine on Peepli Live.

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