Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ace in the Hole

A DVD Diamond in the Rough

I had forgotten how great this 1951 Billy Wilder film starring an over-the-top Kirk Douglas (as a cut-throat reporter milking the story of a trapped miner for his own ends) was until I saw it last night on Turner Classic Movies. It was one of guest programmer Neil LaBute's picks and if you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and check out the Criterion Collection DVD. Wilder not only directed the film but co-wrote the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award) and, as a former reporter, he certainly knew his stuff. As one reviewer on YouTube put it, "The script is so good that you could actually taste and swallow the dialogue if that was possible." Douglas plays a down-on-his-luck New York reporter killing time at a small-time Albuquerque newspaper until a big story comes along that will earn him his ticket back to the big time on the East Coast. But he forgets the golden rule, "Tell the Truth," opting instead for faux sensationalism and personal glory. In this classic scene, he sells himself a job at a podunk paper:

Chuck Tatum, news-maker: "If there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog."

I also love the speech Douglas gives at the end to the gathered media circus just after the trapped miner dies: "Go home. The circus is over."

The film also featured some cool cameos, like Jay Silverheels (Tonto of Lone Ranger fame) as a news room employee and Frank Cady (Sam Drucker from Green Acres!) as a Mobile Home tourist caught up in the media hype. In fact, Mr. Drucker provides one of the film's little in-jokes when he identifies himself as a salesman for Pacific All-Risk Insurance, a fictitious insurance company that Wilder featured in one of his previous films, Double Indemnity (1944).

And Jan Sterling as Lorraine Minosa, the cold-hearted platinum blonde wife of trapped miner Leo Minosa, is a Film Noir-ish femme fatale for the ages. As Douglas says to her at one point, "When they bleached your hair they must have bleached your brains as well!"

According to Wikipedia, the film was loosely based on the real-life events surrounding the 1925 entrapment and death of W. Floyd Collins in Sand Cave, Kentucky. "A Louisville newspaper, the Courier-Journal, jumped on the story of the imperiled Collins by dispatching a reporter named William Burke "Skeets" Miller to the scene. Miller's enterprising coverage turned the tragic episode into a national event and earned Miller a Pulitzer Prize. Floyd's name is also used in the movie as an example of a cave-in victim turned into a media sensation."

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