Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Third Man (1949)

Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the Joseph Cotten Blogathon on September 5-7, 2018. At the risk of belaboring the obvious and saying what others have said before me and better, here’s my entry.

“I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm… I really got to know it in the classic period of the Black Market...Now the city is divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power: the American, the British, the Russian and the French…Good fellows on the whole, did their best you know. Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities. Bombed about a bit.” Prologue
Directed by the now shamefully underrated Carol Reed at the height of his power, The Third Man is that rare breed of film where everything comes together to form a little miracle. The direction by Reed is brilliant, the script by Graham Greene is brilliant, the cinematography is brilliant, the acting is…you get the drift.

The prologue - spoken by Reed as omniscient narrator in a very off-hand and chummy manner - plunges the audience right into the grim realities of a story unfolding with bone-dry wit, sly humor and shrewd insights into the intricacies of East-West relations, which incidentally are purely Greene’s. In a subtle note of irony, the narrator himself is a dodgy black marketeer, part of the flotsam and jetsam that comes in the wake of vanished empires and conquering armies.

Mostly shot on location in Vienna - one the first British film to do so - the film has an authenticity about it that captures the appalling disarray of a Europe scarred by a war. No studio set could ever convey the destruction caused by relentless bombing resulting in rubble-strewn streets, crumbling buildings and gaping holes in the ground. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a thing of the past. Not even an echo of its former glory reverberates in the picture, we only see the remnants of a world and a way of life utterly destroyed.
“Reed made one key decision early – there would be no Strauss, no waltzes in his film. That Vienna, the Vienna which could imagine itself at the centre of Europe, was gone for good. Reed’s Vienna is a crooked city, a city shot with tilted angles, a city in which the cobbled streets are wet and glistening as if from melted snow; a city in which a few beams of light cut through deep darkness, in which the shadows are all exaggerated. … for Greene Vienna was a no-man’s land, a city on the edge in which the old values were in ruins, a city with no future” (Peter Wollen “Riff-raff Realism”, BFI magazine Sight and Sound April 1998)   
Amateurs...they can't stay the course
Vienna had been stripped of its elegance and splendor. What remained was decadence and rot, with a fatalistic and defeated attitude blanketing the city. Postwar morality was complicated, muddled to obscurity. The notions of good and evil didn’t mean much in the face of simple survival. “I’ve done things that seemed unthinkable before the war,” says one character in the story and it seems to be true for everybody. War changes all notions of acceptable behavior.

In The Third Man Vienna is a place of utter confusion, marked by its maze of alleyways, tunnels and strange staircases. A damaged city that mirrored the troubled inner lives of its inhabitants.

As many have noted, Vienna itself is a character in the story. The picture has a firmly-rooted sense of place. As an Allied-occupied city, Vienna was under the control of the four occupying powers Britain, US, France and Russia. Still trying to shrug off a post-war hangover, the city was now a border-zone stuck between East and West on the eve of another war, a cold one this time. Europe was a continent at the crossroads. Cooperation between victors already politically divided rose barely above frosty formality. It was a bitter reminder for people still celebrating victory that not all was well in the world. Like Germany, Austria was a country in limbo and in chaos, not knowing what the future would bring and which way it would go. 

A precarious political environment like that could only produce bleak and desperate films and was a fertile ground for the so-colled Trümmerfilme (1945-50), “rubble films” -  named that for obvious reasons - set amongst the ruins of postwar cities (Berlin, Vienna, Rome). Rubble films dealt with the war, Nazism, anti-Semitism and the dire conditions of the postwar period (The Murderers Are Among Us, Germany, Year Zero, In Those Days). If these films are Noir by generally-accepted genre standards is a moot point. They are that by their very nature, with a heart of deepest darkness.

The Third Man however transcends the Noir genre. It transcends the genre of the thriller too. It defies categorization. It is not just an exercise in bleakness with razor-sharp dialogue and lots of dark humor, it’s a film about loyalty, betrayal, love, loss, the nature of evil and making profound moral decisions.

The movie is a masterclass on style and atmosphere. In fact the cinematography is so good you could hang every frame as picture on the wall. Expressionist lighting, evocative shadows, rain-slicked cobblestone streets, the constant echo of footsteps in the dark and the slanting light from apartments create an atmosphere of sinister menace. Wide-angle and close-up shots distort faces into the grotesque, most notably Harry’s sketchy cronies. Faces that always look watchful and guarded, afraid to give too much away, to say the wrong things. 
What stands out most though are the constant canted camera angles, more than I have seen in any other movie. They suggest a world perpetually off-kilter, confused and out-of-joint. Nothing in Vienna is on the level.

The famous zither score - composed and performed by Anton Karas -  reinforces the narrative’s irony hovering between playfulness and melancholy. It is authentically Viennese. It’s the music you hear in the city’s cheerful Heurigenlokalen, wine bars. 

The plot centers on Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), Our Man in Vienna, a two-bit hack writer of dime-store Westerns with titles such as The Lone Rider of Santa Fe and Death at Double X Ranch. He arrives in occupied Vienna at the invitation of his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that Harry has been killed in a hit-and-run accident. When Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) of the International Police informs him that Lime was a black market racketeer responsible for the death of many people, Holly is unbelieving. He thinks Calloway is trying to frame his friend for trading cigarettes for eggs, like everybody else in the city. Holly starts questioning Harry’s strange associates and his lover Anna (Alida Valli) and soon finds holes in the accident story. Apparently there was a third man on the accident scene, conveniently dropped from most eye witness statements. Trying to piece together the narrative, Holly starts to hit the streets of Vienna hell-bent on busting the case wide open. It’s the single worst idea of his life. Turns out reports of Harry’s death have been greatly exaggerated and he is everything Calloway says. What’s more, as Harry’s friend Calloway expects Holly’s help in bringing Harry down.

Sgt. Paine contemplating the folly of Holly
Holly is outraged. His best mate nowadays is the bottle, well, right after Harry who he considers the best friend a man ever had. 
Calloway: “That sounds like a cheap novelette.”
Holly: “Well, I write cheap novelettes.”
It’s one of the few times Holly’s grasp of facts is spot-on. Naive, pure of heart and guileless, his perspective on life has been simplified to match the structure of the pulp Westerns he writes. Holly prefers moral clarity, a clear line drawn in the sand, the basic distinction between good and bad never in doubt. Obviously sensibilities from another time and place.
Holly sees himself as the upright Western hero fighting with good cheer for truth and justice and the downtrodden, in this case his childhood friend who he hasn’t seen in years. Mixing fact and fiction, Holly sees cheap plots and conspiracies everywhere. "The lone rider has his best friend shot unlawfully by a sheriff. The story is how this lone rider hunted the sheriff down." In his imagination Harry is the victim of unfair persecution by the corrupt Sheriff Calloway.

To confound the fish out of water even more, there is a constant stream of deliberately untranslated German that reinforces Holly’s sense of being a stranger in a strange land and adds to his bewilderment. Along with the audience he has to figure out what is going on. To his credit, director Reed played fair. Every crucial bit of information is translated for Holly and the viewer.

Unfortunately Holly doesn’t have any self-awareness. He doesn’t seem to understand that his innocent blundering can be dangerous for other people. Occasionally only one step away from impersonating Inspector Clouseau, Holly doesn’t remotely have the mental equipment or the moral unscrupulousness to survive the snake pit he's jumped into. He’s lacking the jadedness and cynicism of men who have been through a long and hard war. It is quite telling that we never find out what Holly did during those years. 
The film plays with the cliches of pulp fiction but turns them into something much more serious. Westerns may be useful moral guides in certain places but Vienna after the War was not one of them. It’s a setting that embodies complexities far beyond Holly’s simplistic mindset. With his quixotic notions of fairness and morality Holly - the proverbial Noir sucker -  is no match for a real Noir villain, or the morass of a new postwar world where hell is up and heaven is down.

Adding an indispensable contrast of hard-headed reality is Major Calloway, played by Trevor Howard in one of his tough guy roles. Howard - “It’s Calloway, not Callahan. I’m English, not Irish” - is the epitome of cool here and almost walks away with the movie. A BFI screenonline article no less stated that Calloway has no sympathy for Holly at all, exploits his naiveté and is “a cold, stern authority-figure who lacks warmth and humor”. What were they smoking? Calloway is a man who’s seen it all but hasn’t lost his humanity. He’s hard-bitten enough to look evil in the eye and not flinch. If he’s not all warm and fuzzy that comes with the territory. With his sardonic humor and a voice that drips acid he’s a much-needed dose of vinegar. Exasperated beyond belief by Holly giving him constant headaches with his naive bungling, Calloway wonders how a wooly little lamb like him got lost in the slaughterhouse. There is an underlying gruff kindness and compassion in him. Like a good father, he encourages Holly to leave town to shield him from the worst of reality. He also tries to help Anna as much as he can, but the damsel doesn’t want to be saved. “Death’s at the bottom of everything”, says Calloway. Nobody can argue with him. 

As a British army officer Calloway, who's been in Vienna for a while, can't be bushwhacked. “This isn’t Santa Fe, I’m not a sheriff, and you aren’t a cowboy”, he says to Holly after Holly accuses him of framing his friend.
But a sheriff is exactly what he is. There’s a certain lawless frontier mindset galloping rampant in the occupied territory. Vienna is the postwar European version of the Wild Wild West - a decidedly unromanticized one though - where law is just an impediment to profit. Calloway is the man who’s trying to clean up Dodge and keep at least some semblance of peace and order.  

Much has been made of Holly as the ugly American who goes abroad blithely blundering through a foreign city and poking his nose where it doesn’t belong. Dana Polan - who I usually agree with - calls him “a small, little man. A failure...he’s a buffoon from beginning to end” in his DVD commentary. And Tony Gilroy does the same when he says: “He’s just a shabby character all around...he’s just a slug.” What? I think those critics give Holly a raw deal. He is the film’s moral core even if he is clumsy and has trouble connecting the dots. He has one thing going for him: a sense of right or wrong.

Cotten’s acting throughout the movie is commendable, it is subtle and nuanced. He has to be bereaved, silly, stupefied and heroic at the same time. Holly Martins is not a flashy role and quite selflessly Cotten leaves the (acting) glory to Welles, a man with an enormous screen presence and magnetism. Cotten too had screen presence but never the overpowering personality of Welles. An underrated actor who made it all look so easy.

The movie may be named for Harry Lime but it’s interesting to note that he appears only three times in the movie with a screen time that totals about 10 minutes, speaking only in the ferris wheel scene. 
Welles at the time came fairly cheap. Though his name still had marquee value, Welles had fallen from grace and wasn't bankable anymore. A bucketload of commercial failures - amongst them Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai and Macbeth -  had seen to that. He exiled himself to Europe. He was hired by Reed but proved to be elusive and had to be literally chased all over the continent so he would show up on the set. For many of his shots a stand-in had to be used - including the famous reveal - with a close-up shot of Welles done later at Shepperton Studios in London. He also refused to film his last scene in the sewers of Vienna for hygienic reasons forcing Reed to built a stage at Shepperton. 
Welles was someone who occasionally had the tendency to over-acted shamelessly. Thankfully, here he reigns himself in and gives a subtle performance.

He doesn’t show up until after the one-hour mark yet Lime’s personality dominates the movie even in his absence. In fact his absence is the invisible force that drives the plot. Everyone in this film is defined by his relationship to Harry. He gets one of cinema’s greatest entrances, materializing out of nothing when the tension has been built up. Welles called Harry Lime a star role: “They talk about you for an hour and then you show up. All you have to do is ride.” And steal the thunder from everybody else in the bargain.

Harry not only lives in the shadows but in a shadow world, in his own little fiefdom. Underground, surreptitiously out if sight and out of reach of conventional justice. The sewers are part of his fiefdom. Black marketers frequently used them as they allowed fairly free travel between sectors while bypassing the checkpoints above ground. 

When Lime finally appears - given away by a cat with a lousy taste in humans -  it is like an apparition. There is an almost child-like, impish and very seductive smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. His playful personality invites the audience to dismiss all the accusations against Lime’s character right away. A grave error in judgment.

Harry is not just embroiled in run-of-the-mill shady business dealings. He stole penicillin from hospitals, diluted it and sold it back on the black market. This adulterated penicillin crippled and deformed children and “the lucky children died, the unlucky ones went off their heads.” 
High up in a ferris wheel cabin - in every sense of the word looking down on humanity - Harry explains to Holly his philosophy with utter callousness and nonchalance.
“Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
“Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs - it's the same thing.”
“Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”
For Harry evil has to get credit for the good it often spreads in its wake though Harry just gets down to the important basics. His reasons for murder are purely economic. Always ready with a glib insouciance, there’s not a shred of conscience in him. Other people's lives do not matter. He’s a sick little puppy.

That we can’t hate Welles is simply due to his brilliance, he manages to almost capsize the film with his charisma. And that’s the trouble with Harry. Lime is one of the most likable crooks we have ever encountered. He should be locked up in the psych ward as a nut job, instead he comes off as a little rascal. To quote another movie: “The Devil is most dangerous when he’s being pleasant”. The Devil gets the best lines too, delivered with attractive and self-deprecating irony. Sociopathy as charming quirk. The face of evil is utterly banal, almost benign, a metaphor for the moral breakdown of Europe.
Harry has simply made his peace with the devil. He has consciously embraced evil, as a necessity, as a means to an end.

He is a man who casts a long shadow, in every way. His friend admires him, his cronies worship him and his lover remains faithful to him even after his “death”. 
In one of his more lucid moments Holly notices: “Harry is laughing at fools like us all the time” and he’s right. Harry has always been a parasite. Holly in his naiveté just took it as youthful exuberance.

Nothing in this film is as it appears. Character motivations are in the dark, there are false identities, mixed-up names and double and triple crosses galore. The beauty of this movie is that it studiously avoids to give us clear answers, one-dimensional interpretations or an easy way out. The third man turned out to be Harry Lime but Harry was nothing more than an illusion.

We are puzzled by Anna’s unwavering loyalty to him. Anna is from Czechoslovakia, a Soviet-held territory, living in the Western Zones on a forged passport that Harry procured for her. The Russians know it and would love to “repatriate” her. A death sentence by any other name. Repatriation by the Soviets meant labor camps or execution.
For Harry she’s just a means to an end. When the need arises, he uses her as a bargaining chip and sells her out to the Russians so they will further harbor him in their sector.

The first time we see Anna she’s on stage acting in a comedy. “I don’t play tragedy” she says. A blatant lie. She is one of the most melancholy and fatalistic heroines I have ever seen on film. Anna asks nothing of life. She knows dreams and hopes don’t stand a chance in this world. She seems to be in a near-constant catatonic state. She’s not just quiet and reserved, it is as if she has emotionally shut down after what she’s been through. Some critics took this for woodenness on the actress’s part but I think Valli plays it exactly right. She showed the same kind of mystery and impassiveness in The Paradine Case. There is a quality of stillness about her that can barely hide strong undercurrents of emotions. She never tells us - or Holly - what she did to survive the war but we can take a good guess. It’s all there in her world-weary attitude. 

In a way her loyalty to Harry is touching and commendable but there’s also the point that she’s loyal to a psychopath. Even when she finds out what he’s done, she stands by him, choosing love over humanity. “A person doesn’t change because you find out more about him” she says which is of course absolute nonsense. It seems Anna tries to separate Harry’s personal nature - his essence so to say - from his actions as if both have nothing to do with each other. Her whole-hearted acceptance of Harry’s evil makes her a collaborator. In fact it’s monstrous.

Many have criticized Holly for betraying his friend in the end. What those critics seem to forget is that Harry - before Holly “betrayed” him - had already betrayed everybody he ever came in contact with. Holly at least can critically reflect on friendship as a virtue and reject it if the price for it is too high. Being a friend does not have to mean sanctioning everything a friend does.

In the end the woolly little lamb becomes Harry’s nemesis and executioner. Holly is very reluctant to rat out his friend but the point of no return comes when Calloway makes Holly look at the effects of the diluted penicillin in the hospital. He finally agrees to be Calloway’s “dumb decoy duck” and help catch his friend. It is his duty to humanity, though it is nothing he can ever feel good about.

Calloway and his men finally close in on Harry and corner him in the city’s cavernous sewer system. In what is a bit of obvious symbolism, Harry is equated with a rat, hence the sewer. We see closeups of Lime's sweaty face, desperatly looking for a way out. In this instance we feel sympathy with the devil - now a hunted man - because the camera presents him as such, chased through long, echoing and empty sewer vistas. After he’s shot, his fingers grasp through a grating for freedom - it’s futile though, there is no escape. Mortally wounded, Harry nods to Holly, pleading for a quick release. It is Holly’s last act of friendship. He betrayed Harry out of duty and killed him out of kindness.

Holly’s cowboy innocence is forever lost, laid to rest in the sewers of Vienna with the mercy killing of his friend. This is what’s called a moral minefield. 

The film comes full circle and ends as it began: in a cemetery at Harry’s funeral. Autumn leaves are falling, always a sign for sadness and the ending of a life-cycle, in this case Holly’s and Anna’s relationship. Holly waits for Anna and his happy end at the end of a long road expecting her to forgive. But he’s tilting at the windmills of hopeless love. She simply walks past Holly without even sparing him a glimpse, her judgment of what she considers his betrayal. "They have a name for faces like that”. She takes loyalty to the point of self-destruction.

The end of the affair that never began
And once more Holly has to face the harsh truth that life isn't one of his Westerns: sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t make things better and killing the bad guy isn’t the end of it. Harry is dead, the past is dead but there is no future for Holly and Anna. Holly had good intentions and he did the right thing but Mae West knew it all along. Goodness has nothing to do with it. 

What remains is an achingly sad ending with a solitary figure on an empty road whose victory does't count for much. It just cost him everything. His friend, his love, his simple world-view and his innocence. Maybe Holly has gained some wisdom, some understanding beyond the world of his novelettes, but that is cold comfort.

Roger Ebert phrased it perfectly: “The Third Man is like the exhausted aftermath of CasablancaCasablanca is bathed in the hope of victory…” The Third Man is bathed in bitter disillusionment. The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of Holly’s stories anymore.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Ace in the Hole (1951)

“I’m in the boat, you’re in the water.”
Right after the critical and commercial success of Sunset Blvd. Wilder turned his scathing view to the exploitation of the news media. He had given his home studio Paramount nothing but successes so far though Sunset Blvd. ruffled a few feathers in Tinseltown. This time around Wilder didn’t limit his criticism to Hollywood but cast his net much wider. Ace in the Hole is a bitter and poisonous story with a clinically unflinching outlook on mankind’s basest behaviors. Where Sunset Blvd. failed - that is ruin Wilder’s career - Ace in the Hole almost succeeded. Now regarded as a great classic, the picture was a critical and commercial failure at its initial release and sparked the outrage of Hollywood big shots, columnists and the Great Unwashed alike. Bosley Crowther of course did his customary hit job on the movie, sprinkling his review with darling little nuggets of wisdom: 
“Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque…disgusting and shocking to observe”. 
He - like most critics - considered himself a newspaperman and as such within the target range of Wilder’s criticism. I’ve seen Ace described as satire several times but it’s anything but. It’s simply an accurate representation of reality.

Wilder’s vision of a media which gleefully exploits the agonies of a dying man just because it’s hot copy is unrelentingly grim and unrelentingly unrelenting. The movie is not only prophetic but it’s more important than ever. It was a harbinger of things to come in relation to today's 24/7 tabloid journalism, disaster tourism, fake news, Twitter soundbites and all-important ratings. But Wilder went a step further. He did not only accuse the media of being driven solely by greed, he doesn’t spare the general public either. Wilder implicated literally everybody in the crime. With the arrival of hundreds of onlookers - who come to see the spectacle and turn the misfortune of another into a Big Carnival, the film’s alternate title - Wilder shouts out to the world that Everybody Is Evil, Dirty and Morally Bankrupt. Just the ticket to make them come and see your movie. Nobody likes to be told they’re blood-sucking leeches. Graham Daseler put it like this in his review Evil Under the Sun: Ace in the Hole: “You can skewer the press and the politicians and even the movie business, as Wilder had in Sunset Boulevard, and get away with it, but you can’t bite the hand that feeds you.” That’s a surefire way to lose an audience. 

Wilder doubtlessly went for the sledgehammer approach with Ace. He liked to push buttons, envelopes and everything else and always had a propensity for cynicism but even for Billy Wilder, this movie is pretty Billy Wilder.

The failure of Ace in the Hole truly stung Wilder. He considered it the best picture he ever made. He learned a valuable lesson though. A picture needs a measure of humanism at the core. Following the disaster, he softened his films with some humor and heart.

Noir beyond the City
Far from the Mean Streets of Gotham or Megalopolis - where life should be safe, peaceful and calm -  we find the Mean Outbacks of Rural Noir.
There is no doubt that Noir and the City have a symbiotic relationship and go hand in hand, most of the time. The city provides a psychological and aesthetic framework for Noir. But a gritty urban setting does not have to be the defining boundary of the genre. Noir can exist perfectly fine outside this particular environment. In Noir’s less-traveled hinterlands evil can hide too. It lurks even in the pristine heart of nature. In the mountains, in the deserts and in the forests where inhospitable wilderness offers nothing but a place to die and life is distilled to the primitive. Gun Crazy, They Live By Night, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Hitch-Hiker, Pitfall, On Dangerous Ground, The Prowler and Moonrise weaken the argument of The Asphalt Jungle: that the city itself is the corrupting force, that if people only stayed in pastoral backwaters they would never turn to crime.

The barren and dry grounds of the blisteringly hot New Mexico desert don’t offer a tranquil retreat. Instead they prove to be the perfect backdrop for a picture about greed and corruption. It is true that Noir’s protagonists quite often simply transport their city mentality to a rural setting, thus bringing Poisonville and Hate Street to the country. Tatum - the man from the city -  acts as a catalyst but the evil was in Escudero long before he came. It barely needed an incentive.

Ace in the Hole is Noir through and through even though it dispenses with femmes fatales, gangsters, chiaroscuro lighting and Fate. Instead there is a sense of futility, desperation, entrapment - literally and figuratively - and a darkness of vision that is almost unparalleled. Molly Haskell wrote in her Criterion Collection article Ace in the Hole: Noir in Broad Daylight: “The noir is interior—inside a mountain tunnel where a man is trapped and suffocating, and inside the mind of a reporter rotting from accumulated layers of self-induced moral grime.” Ace in the Hole is daytime Noir.

Stuck in sun-baked Siberia
Kirk Douglas plays disgraced newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum who - due to some unsavory misdeeds - was run out of several towns and now has to work for a small-town Albuquerque newspaper, the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin headed by Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall). It’s the ninth circle of hell for Tatum. One fine day he stumbles across Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) trapped alive in a cave that collapsed on him. In a bid to milk the story for all it's worth and get himself back into the Big League, Tatum engineers a scenario to keep the man trapped for as long as possible creating a media circus in the process. Throw into the mix Minosa’s money-grabbing and hateful wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) who’s not in the least cut up about her husband’s ordeal, and we have a powder keg waiting to explode.

Douglas was an actor who considered subtlety a waste of time. He gleefully chews off vast lumps of scenery and spits them out again. He - like Joan Crawford and Burt Lancaster - went in for the Bette Davis school of acting who maintained that “Acting should be bigger than life.” I like subtle performances but I adore Douglas’s larger than life and over the top theatricals that are incredibly entertaining. Here he is at the top of his game. Snarling, blustering, threatening and full of furious energy and ferocious determination Douglas commands the screen entirely. And he’s not afraid to show the audience something else: seediness.

Tatum used to be a hot shot reporter back East but boozed himself out of every job. After being fired from 11 newspapers for reasons including - but not limited to - lying, cheating, provoking a libel suit and fooling around with the boss’s wife - the big papers aren’t interested in him anymore, there’s too much dirt on him.
Now he’s washed-up and scraping the bottom of the barrel but he keeps on digging. The guy coulda been a contender, it’s just his greed and amorality - in a word his personality - get in the way.
Noir is the genre of last chances and Albuquerque is Tatum’s last chance. Tatum is the Noir (anti)hero in exile, a man on the run who can’t escape his past. He’s on the run from his mistakes, his responsibilities and from himself. But he’ll be in the money again, of course he will. He just forgets one thing. There’s no place to hide. Robert Mitchum put it perfectly in When Strangers Marry: “Places are all alike, but you can’t run away from yourself”. The coffin lid has already closed, he just doesn’t know it yet.

His shenanigans got him a lousy reputation, a reputation he somehow relishes though. Why else would he brag about his exploits and misdeeds in the big city to Boot? 
To get out of this backwater he needs real news, hard news. Unfortunately for Tatum a year goes by without anything materializing. He’s nearly suffocating with boredom. The big chance comes when Boot sends Tatum and impressionable gopher/assistant photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) to cover a rattle snake hunt. Careful: heavy-handed symbolism here!

"I wish I could coin 'em like that"
Tatum must be one of Douglas’s most unsavory characters, and that’s saying something. From the way he swaggers into the Sun Bulletin, lights a match on the return key of an employee’s typewriter and yells to see the boss, Tatum exudes a brash and aggressive confidence. He acts as if he owns the place. Hovering between arrogance and desperation, he pitches his services as a reporter to Boot for $50 a week telling him he’s worth $250. 

Never let facts get in the way of a good story
He may be immodest but he has a point. He does know all the angles. He gives Herbie and the audience a lesson on how to make a compelling story out of even the most trivial event, like the aforementioned rattle snake hunt: 
“Give me just 50 of them loose in Albuquerque…the whole town in panic, deserted streets, barricaded houses…50 killers on the prowl…one by one they start hunting them down, they get 10, 20…they get 40, 45, 49…where’s the last rattler? In a kindergarten, in a church, in a crowded elevator? Where? Stashed away in my desk drawer…the story is good for another three days…when I’m good and ready we can come out with a big extra: Sun Bulletin snags No. 50”. 
From that moment on we know with absolute certainty that Tatum doesn’t play by the rules. This is not the first time he has cooked up his own story. Boot has his motto - TELL THE TRUTH -  embroidered and framed several times on the newspaper premises. It’s the paper’s guiding ethics and for someone like Tatum this is a rather quaint notion. It smacks of utter naiveté. Tatum needs ethics like he needs the plague. He puts his own spin on the little bromide, he literally embroiders the truth.
There’s something else he believes in: “I can handle big news, little news and if there’s no news I’ll go out and bite a dog.” That’s what he’ll do with Minosa. If the big story will not come to Tatum, then Tatum must go and create the big story.

The cave Leo is trapped in is an ancient Indian burial ground where he prowled around to steal some artifacts for selling at his trading post. To the Navajos the dwelling is known as the “Mountain of the Seven Vultures”. Tatum doesn’t see the irony he only sees the story before his eyes. “Curse of the old Indian chief, white man half buried by old Indian spirits. What will they do? Will they spare him? Will they crush him?” He finally hit the jackpot. When a guy like Tatum smells blood, he won’t let off.

“Bad news sells best, cause good news is no news.”
For maximum possible impact Tatum needs disaster. When Herbie says they shouldn’t hope for a tragedy Tatum replies: “I don’t wish for anything. I don’t make things happen, I just write about them.” We know for a fact that this is not true. The engineer in charge of Minosa’s rescue declares that all that would be needed to get Minosa out is strengthening the walls of the cave and the job would be done in about 18 hours - but that wouldn’t give Tatum his story. So he contemplates what would happen if rescue workers were to delay the rescue for a couple of days.

It is here that Tatum’s utter ruthlessness really comes out. He suggest drilling a hole from the top of the mountain to extract the trapped man which is an unnecessarily slow process of several days. Damn a man’s life, full speed ahead. He brokers a deal with corrupt Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) to let him have his way and keep other reporters away. Tragedy equals opportunity. Leo Minosa may be barely alive, but the entrepreneurial spirit certainly is. Kretzer is up for re-election and if he plays his cards right there’ll be a “hero of the hour” headline in it for him. For Tatum there may be a Pulitzer Price in the offing. For Lorraine it means cold hard cash so she plays along. Minosa's health is rapidly deteriorating. But that is no reason to close the cash register. Business is business.

Print the legend
Tatum quits the Sun Bulletin and sells his daily updates directly to his ex-boss in NYC.
"I'm on my way back to the top, and if it takes a deal with a crooked sheriff, that's all right with me! And if I have to fancy it up with an Indian curse and a brokenhearted wife for Leo, then that's all right too!"
The idea of the Fourth Estate as a guardian of truth and justice is a big joke to Tatum, because for him the story is always more important than the truth. The courageous reporter, the grieving wife, the dutiful sheriff…all lies.

The Big Carnival’s in town
Then another joyous event occurs. A vacationing family - the Federbers, “Mr. and Mrs. America” as Tatum calls them -  stop at the trading post after reading about it in the morning edition of the Sun Bulletin. They alter their vacation plans just to have a look at a death watch.

A veritable mob soon descend on Escudero like locusts, with Tatum controlling the entire story beginning to end. The area becomes a tourist attraction complete with amusement park rides, concession stands and a tacky theme song. Busloads of people come from far and wide. One man’s agonizing and miserable death in a dirty hole becomes a raucous party for the onlookers. The public as bottom-feeding leeches whose human interest is nothing but a front for morbid scandal-mongering.

Some viewers were wondering why everybody lets Tatum run the whole show. The answer is easy. The guy is a force of nature with plenty of swaggering confidence and animal charisma. Everyone is seduced by it, even the paper’s old-maidenish secretary who giggles and simpers every time Tatum talks to her. He comes off as the coolest of cats. 
Tatum is a master manipulator. Fear and/or the promise of glory, money and fame are great motivators to make people play his game. Herbie has a bad case of hero worship and even Boot, who sees through Tatum right away and should know better, still gives him a job. With Lorraine he bets on her sexual desire for him. Even if she hates him for being smarter than she is, she still has the hots for him.
Tatum may be a liar and a bastard, but he’s also a mover and shaker, someone who makes things happen. Ace in the Hole doesn’t have a femme fatale, instead we get an homme fatal. 

He’s in a league of his own when it comes to unscrupulousness and selfishness. He has no illusions about himself, he embraces his rotten nature wholeheartedly and doesn’t wallow in self-pity. There wouldn’t be anything remotely likable about him if he weren't played by Douglas. Somehow Douglas makes this huckster unforgettable and almost likable. He's compulsively watchable even if he is loathsome.

Tatum acts like a director - and a dictator -  on a film set. He sets out a blueprint, creates a story, drums up publicity, devises characters for his charade and makes them dance to his tune: when Lorraine doesn’t want to play the grief-stricken wife, he slaps her hard twice and tells her not to wipe away the tears. They’re useful for his story. It’s no way to treat a lady but then she’s no lady.

Jan Sterling’s bottle-blonde pouting floozy Lorraine is a hard-nosed dame with a spine of steel and the soul of a cash register. She’s pure unadulterated vitriol. Another exile from the big city who wanted more out of life than being stuck in the middle of Nowhere, NM toiling away in a dusty curio shop/diner. Her life’s been one big disappointment. She considered Minosa her ticket out of a bad job as a dime-a-dance girl. When they met Leo told her he had 160 acres and a big business. He just neglected to tell her it’s a 160 acres of Badlands and a shop that doesn’t generate any money. Lorraine is a gold digger who didn’t strike it rich when she married the wrong guy. Now she’s dangerous because her ambitions were thwarted.
The first shot of her sums up her whole character in one quick stroke. Standing at the mouth of the cave her husband is trapped in, she follows the rescue operation with a look of contemptuous boredom while sucking on a cigarette. For Leo the dirty freezing cave is a warmer place than his marriage ever was, though mercifully he never has to find that out. It’s quite ironic that the only time Minosa is of any use to Lorraine is when he’s dying. Then he brings in the dough.

Minosa isn’t the only one who’s buried alive. Wilder comes precariously close to belaboring the theme of entrapment and suffocation. Leo wants out of the hole, Tatum wants out of the boonies, Lorraine wants out of her marriage and Escudero. Back to the big city, to glamour, to freedom. When she hears about her husband’s accident, her first reaction is to clean out the last measly $11 bucks from the cash register, hop on a Greyhound and make a run for it. Tatum can’t let her leave, he needs Lorraine for the grief-stricken and devoted wife act. The more tearful the better. 

The high cost of dying
“Get this, there’s three of us buried here, Leo, me and you. We all want to get out and we’re going to… You saw those people, a couple of squares, but to me they’re Mr. and Mrs. America…they’ll eat it up, the story and the hamburgers…there’s gonna be real dough in that cash register by tonight.” 
That is what Lorraine likes to hear. She gets the hang of the game pretty quickly. The charges for a photo at the carnival/accident sight go up from nothing to a dollar pretty quickly. Anything for a buck. Tatum and Lorraine are two kindred spirits who’ve found each other.

Lorraine isn’t fooled though: “Much you care about Leo. I’m on to you. You’re working for a newspaper; all you want is something you can print.” She calls Tatum a twenty minute hard-boiled egg but only lags a couple of minutes behind herself. She is his female mirror image that sometimes even disgusts Tatum who sees too much of himself in her.
Tatum wants her to go to mass and pray for her husband’s rescue. That’s a big joke to her. Her refusal supplies her with one of the movie’s best lines: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

I always considered Sterling an underrated actress. One of the 50s quintessential B girls, she delivers a gutsy portrayal. Sneering, tawdry and coarse, she’s the ultimate what’s-in-it-for-me? type of dame. A floozy to give all floozies a bad name. 
Sterling plays her role with relish, absolutely unapologetic and callous to the bitter end. When the crowds disperse after Minosa’s death she’s only interested in trying to hitch a ride of out Escudero.

There’s nobody to root for in this movie. Wilder doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Minosa’s parents are nice people but they’re also completely ineffectual, doing nothing but praying and wringing hands. Minosa himself, besotted with a cheap tramp of a wife, is a poor gullible schlub and simpleton who never amounted to anything and who robs graves for a living. Wilder doesn’t treat him with too much sympathy. He never evokes more than condescending pity. 
The Bulletin’s editor Boot is the antithesis to Tatum, an idealistic, honest and kind man but he’s no match for Tatum’s force of character.
Frankly, no-one comes out of this movie looking good. Not even Herbie. He picked the wrong role model and let the promise of glory corrupt him. He loses his innate goodness and innocence.
At best people are thoughtless and inefficient, at worst downright nasty.

With his high-handedness Tatum eventually digs his own grave. When he tries to choke Lorraine with a cheap fur scarf Leo bought for her she stabs him with scissors. He’s a dead man walking now. 
The great thing about Ace is that the ending is so ambiguous. Viewers seem to be divided in their opinion if Tatum repents in the end and sees the error of his ways, or not. I’m in the second camp. This would reek of convention the movie thus far completely avoided. 

When it becomes apparent that Minosa will not survive the rescue operation, Tatum is in a jam. After all, as he said, when you sell people a human interest story you must sell them the happy ending too. There is utter self-disgust, guilt and shame in Tatum’s face when he tells the crowd about Leo’s death. That is completely believable. It would be hard to believe he wouldn’t feel anything after Leo’s death. I can’t see the leopard change his spots though. Back in his room Tatum calls his boss in NY. Maybe for the first time ever he wants to tell the truth. That he and Sheriff Kretzer “murdered” Leo with their callousness. This is the last, the only story he has left. He must tell it. It would be a Tatum exclusive. But nobody wants to hear the truth!

Tatum ends up back in the offices of the Sun Bulletin right where he started. He collapses dead to the floor, in one of the best movie death scenes I have ever seen. His grand schemes failed, he isn’t even worth $50 anymore. We can have him for nothing now because that’s all he has left.

It’s interesting to note that neither Lorraine nor Sheriff Kretzner pay for their sins. They just go their way and are likely better off than they were before.

Leo’s death is already yesterday’s news. Without fanfare the county fair is over and the crowds go home. Only garbage remains behind. (Symbolism alert again!)

Wilder’s cynical vision and message survive unsoftened even if Tatum felt some kind of remorse before he died. Wilder simply did what the little embroidered homily said: he told the truth, the way he saw it. And the truth is at least 50 shades of black.