There’s a reason why some actors/actresses decide to steer clear of living in Hollywood, it’s full of crazy people who have lost touch with reality. Out there to chase their dreams that may never happen. Taking a normal job, going to auditions, writing scripts, following any lead that could be their big break. It stinks of desperation and dreamers who have lost the plot, or are driven and won’t be pulled back into the world of the living, the sane with us who know to stay on the right side of the silver screen. Only the lucky few are picked, get the call and go over and make the big time. Then you have to apply the old saying “whatever goes up, must come down” tell that to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) one of the victims of the introduction of sound. The screen didn’t get smaller, in fact its blown wide open by those early talkies as everyone began to rush to that “gimmick” with all they could, seeing actors old and new change in a matter of years. You can see the effect of progress crystallised in a few films, but none of created a victim of that progress as frightening as Billy Wilder in his chilling take on Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard (1950). Having been in tinsel town for almost 20 years he had he own fair share of stories to tell, but they would be true, and that would be unfair on those who have given him all he has made in this foreign country he calls home.
It’s been a few years since I first caught this striking film, a dark comment on an industry that Wilder was more than willing to use as material. My thoughts on the film have had time to mature and change over that time. I’ve taken in many, many more films, a small portion commenting on the industry that produces them. We’ve just seen a film briefly win Best Picture before being snapped away due to an admin error. Hollywood loves the praise itself, but sometimes the ego’s been stroked a little too often and a conscience for the better film to be honored props up, declare Moonlight (2016) the winner over La La Land (2016) which was a front-runner for what seems a year since it was first premiered.
However if we go back to 1950 it’s a very different time and the golden age is starting to crumble after the studio system was being broken down by both Washington and the stars who made the studios so powerful. The only real power was censorship, which was skirted by Wilder. American cinema was entering a new age of the psychological, the fear of the Soviets, the first decade of peace, after WWII was still uneasy with the war on communism being fought in Korea. With all this going on Hollywood is ripe for he picking.
If we go back to the dawn of sounds we see numerous careers being ended, the fear of rejection and uncertainty in an industry of replace and progression. Culminated here in Norma Desmond, one of the first film stars to be let go or forgotten, or as we learn simply too much to handle, one of the first diva’s. Of course the dark twist is that she’s played by Gloria Swanson one of those much forgotten once celebrated actors whose own fame had since faded. Was this a version of herself, a pastiche of the silent era stars, would the audience be able to tell the difference. A dastardly piece of casting, of course Swanson knew exactly what she was doing. A heightened version of what her generation could now be. The self-awareness she brought, the history which could still be hers if she hadn’t found another career, whilst also having a minor acting career was all but forgotten. The fact she carried on, shows how she adapted to the introduction of sound. Just where did she find the unhinged Desmond that is very much part of that desire to be famous, once the attention has gone, how does the individual adapt to life post-fame? Desmond is the ultimate forgotten star.
Add to that a version of Wilder and Charles Brackett who co wrote this film, their view of the system for an aspiring script-writer. Is Boulevard a culmination of their experiences, did the encounter a Greta Garbo or Mary Pickford who was lost in the transition now living in a delusion of grandeur in the Hollywood hills. The writer and the narrator here is Joe Gilles played by William Holden an actor of the new confident age of sound, two generations sharing the screen. Gilles the struggling writer is knee-deep in debt, he can’t get a script green-lit for the life of him, his cars threatened with repossession. When will he get a break? It’s only when he gets a flat during a car chase does he find a mansion that wouldn’t look out-of-place in Citizen Kane (1941). Shelter was the storm that is his collapsing world. On meeting Desmond a has-been, his life’s being turned on its head, both using each other to their own ends, nothing new there.
So who has the upper hand here? It starts out as Gilles who takes on Desmond overblown untamed screenplay meant for the silent screen rather than a contemporary audience, OK maybe the arty world might like it. A script that relied more on the eyes, the facial gestures rather than dialogue to progress the plot. Relying on titles of varying length instead. It’s Gilles’s task to adapt and tame this beast of a script, without upsetting the original writer’s ego. Of course this soon gets out of hand, the writer finds that he’s been moved in to the house now. His life is no longer his own, in a trap of gifts and love of an older woman who see’s him as her way back to the big or small screen – depend who perspective you look at it. He want to use her script for his next big film, can he make it work for both.
It’s a film ultimately of professional back stabbing, who can walkover who first and hardest and still prosper. We see from the beginning that it hadn’t worked out too well for someone who is hovering dead in the swimming pool. A classic trope of Film noir, start at the grizzly demise of someone and work backwards, just how did this guy end up in the pool, I don’t think he tripped? What we see in the course of the film is two figures hungry for fame eat away at each other. One with step in the door, whilst another is just a shadow. Littered with figures from a forgotten age of cinema, a nod to them and a reminder that they were still around, they just be playing cards had to carve out a life post fame.
Last it also works perfectly as a comment on an industry, Paramount Pictures included that released the film is ultimately a business that will pick up and drop the next big thing to make a few bucks. The kind of cynicism that Wilder is known for. It’s a method that still works to this day, one day your hot, then you make a flop and out you go NEXT!! That’s show-business for ya.
A few years ago everyone was raving about The Great Beauty (2013) my natural reaction was to not watch it, which makes no sense, usually you’d go out of your way to watch a film. I decided to let it pass me by until it showed up on TV where I took the chance to see what all the fuss was about. Which in turn enriched my later understanding and enjoyment of Youth (2015) which to a certain extent deals with the same themes as the previous film – the effects of aging as we grow older. This time director Paolo Sorrentino gives us a mostly English speaking cast and more varied age range of actors which helps us explore themes of the film.
Why I really wanted to see this film was to see both Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in this more thoughtful film than the average. I soon learned why. Like The Great Beauty it’s bright, luxurious and treats its cast as both beautiful and flawed people. You enter into this almost perfect world that is the Swiss health farm where we spend the long duration of this sometimes drawn-out film that moves between four main characters, each with their own challenges. It’s not just about being in the lap of luxury, just lying there and being pampered. Of course we have a lot of that but at a mental cost.
Turning to both life-long friends Fred Ballinger (Caine) and Mick Boyle (Keitel) who as we learn have led long productive and creative lives; a retired conductor, the other an aging director whose in the midst of developing his next project. It’s the desired image and rich in cliché which becomes a bit of a turn-off, the high life and big profound ideas that after a while you have to switch off and go with. Unlike Ballinger the retired conductor whose being hounded by the emissary for Queen Elizabeth II who want his to conduct for her, one of his most famous pieces, one of his simple songs (for a opera maybe). Refusing due to personal reasons. Also he has his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) whose also his PA. These are not exactly average people at this health-spa.
Then we have a contemplative and arrogant actor Jimmy Tree, a skewed version of Paul Dano who’s there to find and develop his next part. That I won’t tell you. It’s a film that I find builds itself on the use of the clichés of the high and modern life. They are all discussing life but not really experiencing it, cut off by the mountains which we are allow ourselves to be transported to. They dwell and ponder not worrying about time. It’s somehow not boring though, as much as they could be talking down to you, we all have these conversations on some level. Maybe not with some of the big and clever words that.
As the film progress it does rely on a lot of repetition to carry the film, the formal structure of the health spa as we go through the week or so we spend there. From the performers on the rotating stage to the masseuse who works out at night and the almost levitating Buddhist monk. You have to have the routine to show the passage, we are only visiting as these characters learn about themselves, boy do they take their time too.
I have mixed feelings about this obviously accomplished film. It’s not your average pop-corn movie, it does take a bit more to sit through this admittedly sumptuous film, much like The Great Beauty which is more aware of its own world, the high life that Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) who wants to find meaning in his life beyond the luxury he has surrounded himself with. His friends are starting to die-away. He needs more purpose that just a pretty one-night stand. Compared to Ballinger who is obviously much older he has surpassed that stage, his has a daughter who he hardly knows but still adores him besides his faults.
Whilst director Boyle is still working, wanting to keep going to be known and appreciated. Wanting to work with his once starlet Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) who herself is a has been living on old glories, wanting to find recognition and meaning in her own life. A washed up actress (a version of Marilyn Monroe maybe had she lived longer) who s in-fact more aware of her position than her old friend. Fonda is fantastic, taking a massive risk, playing a version of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) deluded but still wanting to carrying on. Riding the wave of her fading legend to find relevance.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast delivered strong performances, none of them underused. Even supporting characters have their moments that make the film a rich experience, But rich is word I must emphasis it is a very rich film in its look and language which makes gives it exclusivity, I’m even using these big words myself to review this film that both entertain, enrich and to a point isolates at times. It would be lost thought without Caine and Keitel who are a part time couple who as we learn only share the good things until the end when we learn life must go on however it finds us.
I knew Ace in the Hole (1951) wasn’t Billy Wilder’s finest film and for reasons I will go into as I discuss the film. Coming off the back of the very successful Sunset Boulevard (1950) which is considered a classic was a highly charged film-noir which really sizzled in the writing and acting. A satire of the Hollywood system how it creates stars, only to dump them when their popularity wanes. You can’t help but see Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in her deluded state descended preparing for her close-up as her mental state peaks. Taking has-been screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) down with her in a honey trap that promised great things for him. Anyway enough about getting ready for close-up and more about getting back to New York for down and out writer Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) who won’t accept that he’s failed as a journalist, big ideas of big stories, made up to sell papers has again and again back-fired on him. None of the big papers want to know him. He tries his luck in a paper in Albuquerque, ran be an editor who wants to up-hold the truth, reporting the small stories in life. Gives this once big player a job after being promised great things. Surrounded by small town people who are happy with they’re lot.
On the face of it we have another Joe Gillis here in the world of journalism, wanting to make his way back up to the top. Even with Douglas in the role, giving one of his best performances as a man driven by desire to succeed, falls into a nasty trap of being too cynical for the audience to really swallow and enjoy. After spending a year at the paper he was expecting to be back on top. Not staring opposite a cross-stitch of “Tell the truth” a pillar of good respectable journalism, which drives him to distraction. His news is about sensation, increases circulation and the big scoops which make him successful.
When he’s sent out of a routine story which has become the norm for him. With an eager young colleague in tow they come across a petrol (gas) station where the owner has been trapped inside a n Native American cave, buried under the rubbles from rotten supports. This is too good to pass up, jumping on this now “human” story, making it his own, an exclusive scoop. When all those around him want to get him out fast. Even the poor guy Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) wants to get out. Everyone outside is slowly wrapped around his finger as he orchestrates a media sensation, drawing thousands of people to this once quiet spot in New Mexico. The idea of getting him out quick is soon dashed with the sherif bribed with hopes of re-election in sight.
All this for one man to get back to the city, to deliver the stories he was meant to write. A man trapped by circumstance and his ego that leads to his destruction. A role made for Douglas who personally is a vain man who never really plays a good or a bad-guy, you never know what you’re getting when he’s on-screen. Which works here more than I have seen before. The subject matter so soon after Wilder’s earlier film of a writer not a winning formula every time, as he shows us the outsiders view of America. This is too much even today we have just had the Leveson enquiry wrap up this year in the UK that was in response to phone-hacking, journalists in the city never seem to learn. Any and all efforts go into getting a story.
Tatum is a personification of that need for a story that could have lasted a few days, stretched out into this circus he created. A modern day attraction for the average person to flock and stare at. It’s sickening today to have cars slowing down past car-accidents on the motorway for a picture or for a video. Our need to escape the everyday has not changed, it’s grown stronger for some to see what we have in the media. To see this first hand is too good to pass-up. If only this was made with more heart and humour, not the focusing solely on the writer. The Minosa family is in there somewhere but not delved into enough. There are also hints of being a western however slim they maybe too, with the New Mexico setting and the Native American imagery. There is a complete disregard for the sacredness of the land, treated as an attraction for tourists, a people now little more than a figment in the countries history. It’s not really touched on, yet you can see it in the imagery of the head-dresses worn by children, iconography that has become mass-produced souvenirs.
I’m glad to say that Wilder was back on form when it came around to the P.O.W. caper Stalag 17 (1953). Maybe the gap in production gave Wilder time to reflect and rediscover his strengths which kept him going through the decade. Ace in the Hole is by no means his worst film, I have yet to see that for myself. I won’t even guess which one that maybe, only after viewing it will I know. This was more a stumble from a great height to produce a poor copy of a better film. What makes it watchable is Douglas’s performance, one of sheer passion a man neither black or white and definitely a personification of the big city journalist.
- Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder (twentyfourframes.wordpress.com)
- Ace in the Hole (1951) (monsieurcocosse.blogspot.co.uk)
- 1,001 Films: “Ace in the Hole” (1951) (cinesthesiac.blogspot.co.uk)
- Quotes in Noir: Ace in the Hole (1951) (shadowsandsatin.wordpress.com)
- Journo Film: Ace in the Hole (1951) (nickjhp.wordpress.com)
- Ace in the Hole (1951) – A film by Billy Wilder (thewergst.wordpress.com)
- Ace in the Hole (1951) (corndogchats.blogspot.co.uk)