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.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, 1950 was a very introspective year for Hollywood, in terms of the films it was releasing, looking in on it self, with the addition of this early Nicholas Ray film noir that shows he doesn’t always needs blistering saturated colours to convey the pent-up frustration that his characters feel as they are pushed into a corner. We’ve seen it before with the young lovers on the run in They Live By Night (1948), the lynch mob that hunts down a woman in Johnny Guitar (1954) to most famously the misunderstood teenager of Rebel Without a Cause (1955). It’s not just the young and women who are in these positions, older and once successful screenwriters in In a Lonely Place (1950) such as Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) who was once on-top has reached a low that he may never get out of.
Given the opportunity to turn the latest sensational novel into a film he has been given the chance to make his name again. If only he liked the material, just another melodrama that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. Inviting back a young woman who can recite the book to him, sounds innocent enough right? Not when the same girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) is found dead the next morning, he was the last person to be seen with her could he really be the killer? He has the temperament to do such a thing, but why would he after giving her taxi money, it doesn’t make sense. A young girl who has so much ahead of her found strangled. Steele’s only chance of being saved is an alibi that is given by his neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) who seemingly gets him off the hook.
His violent past and record leave doubt in the minds of those investigating the murder. The audience is certainly left guessing, we doubt his innocence the more we learn from Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) his old army friend investigates. Almost certain that it’s Steele that has killed the young woman. We have only Laurel’s alibi to keep him in the clear and that’s not exactly airtight as it only covers the early evening when the woman was still alive. She slowly grows close to him in classic Hollywood style, falling for his charms and dangerous ideas. Not fully aware of what he is capable of. We see him put under immense strain by the police as the is questioned multiple times. He goes over the murder himself as if it were one he wrote himself. A coping mechanism maybe or was he the killer.
As the film progresses, so does romance between the two, softening up around Laurel enough to write that screenplay he’s asked for. He has come alive in more ways than one, all his passions are awoken. Be careful what you wish for as he begins to unravel, we see the rumour’s become fact, a monster is waking up before us. Is he the killer we still ask ourselves, as we even back him into a corner. Bogart could easily play either the good the bad or the flawed guy wanting, show the range of this incredible actor whose time on-screen was prolific and dark. Opposite one of the film-noir’s classic blonde-bombshells Gloria Grahame who softens from the hardened abrasive neighbour to the lover living in fear.
Where does this fit into Ray’s work though? At the beginning of his directing career, given what was probably an assignment to complete, lucky enough to work with these two actors who made this film a classic. Looking inside Hollywood to find a dark underworld of murder, lies and mistrust. Much like Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Blvd. (1950) which delves even further into that world of dog-eat-dog. Ray has yet to come out to give us more emotion that I found in They Live by Night or as late as Bigger Than Life (1956) with all its pent-up emotion just wanting to release. He has still produced a classic of the period that still works today and shows how great Bogie can be and whats better than that?
- “I was born when she kissed me…I died when she left me…I lived a few weeks while she loved me…” (eddieonfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- Bride of Bogartstein: IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) (acidemic.blogspot.co.uk)
- #6: In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) (goodfellamovies.blogspot.co.uk)
- In a Lonely Place (1950) (tsorensen1001.blogspot.co.uk)
- Book to Movie: In a Lonely Place (eves-reel-life.blogspot.co.uk)
- Noir by way of Maron: Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) (ajournaloffilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- “In a Lonely Place” (1950) Dir: Nicholas Ray (onsecondlook.blogspot.co.uk)
- IN A LONELY PLACE/1950/HUMPHREY BOGART (theuraniumcafe.blogspot.co.uk)
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)