Ace In The Hole

People always say that there are classic films which, when viewed now, seem ahead of their time. Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole is one of those films.

A relatively dark turn for Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard), the film stars a snake-in-the-grass Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper man who is looking for the chance to blow the place he’s currently trapped in: Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s got a penchant for getting back to New York, to his old desk where he was fired from after a libel suit, and after spending a year at a small town newspaper where “telling the truth” is the motto they live by, he seizes an opportunity to make the headlines once more.

This opportunity is all thanks to the greedy Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) who, while digging in an Indian burial tomb for riches, suffers a cave-in which partially buries him alive. Leo, of simple mind, seems to believe this freak occurrence is because of his persistent meddling with and stealing of dead Native Americans burial artifacts. But ghosts are the least of his worries when Tatum rolls up on the scene. Tatum sees this as an opportunity to make the headlines, and he does just that by sewing up the story to give himself exclusivity and at the same time putting Leo’s life on the back burner to prolong the emergent situation and help foster a national media circus for his own gain.

And a circus is exactly what it soon becomes, as the spectators arrive in droves and Indian burial grounds admission goes from free, to $.25, to $.50, to $.75, to a dollar. Soon, there’s literally a carnival on site as well as people camping out, radio reporters, hot dogs, pop corn and a special train line diverted just for the event.

The film, which apparently fared better overseas than it did in the States, was later retitled as “The Big Circus.” (Too kitschy a title, but obviously apropos.) For me, (and Spike Lee), the best part of this hard-boiled film which is set mainly in desert daylight, is the final shot in which Tatum crashes to the ground dead – open eyeball mere inches from the camera lens it seems. Lee mentions in an afterword on the Criterion disc, that he was obviously inspired by this scene when shooting Malcolm X where Denzel Washington pulls off a similar celluloid feat.

Anyway, now that I’ve given it away, yes, Tatum dies at the end of the film. Actually, pretty much everyone dies at the end of the film, if you are counting the two main actors. Tatum having not realized it, facilitates the slow, maddening death of his subject/martyr/muse Leo. Leo’s wife played by Jan Sterling could care less in all of this, having tried to get away as soon as she found out her husband would be unable to chase her down for the first time ever.

She ends up not getting the jump on Leo after all, when Tatum convinces her to stay and reap the benefits of the steadily increasing spectator revenue. She also acts though as a sort of conscience for Tatum, who appears oddly conflicted about her dislike for the trapped Leo, and her obvious growing attraction towards himself. He masks his hatred for her coldness though (in the need for her to play the part of the devastated wife and keep the charade alive), but secretly I believe hates her for all the same reasons he hates himself – his unscrupulousness and ability to essentially kill for his own gain without (immediate) remorse.

Throw in the addition of a corrupt small town, rattlesnake-loving, Sheriff looking for re-election, some all-to-obvious 1950s American gluttony and you got yourself a really smart, incisive, dramatic picture which in concept still very much is relevant today, but in plausibility seems a little heavy-handed and even dated.

Spike Lee Did the Wrong Thing

Spike Lee graced my city with his presence nearly a week ago, and I’m still in disbelief of the lecture that he gave that evening to at least a thousand fresh faced college students, mixed in both gender and race.

As an aspiring filmmaker and a self-proclaimed critic of all things artistic, I was obviously excited to hear his words of wisdom. However, at the end of the evening, he left me uninspired, unmotivated and disenchanted.

In an effervescent entrance, wearing his usual Air Jordan hi-tops, Spike opened with incendiary prodding at local sports teams who he did and didn’t like. After he’d wasted that precious speaking time he later he moved into how Katrina victims have long since been forgotten, and that just because everyone thinks that Mardi Gras happened this year and the Saints won, that New Orleans is all better and everyone is back at home again living their perfect life. On this aspect I agreed with Spike, however disappointed that he could so carelessly jump from antagonization to insinuation, that everyone in his audience had similarly forgotten the atrocity that was Katrina. He is wrong to assume such things.

Finally, he began the diatribe that is his biography (and filmography); at least, up until the film he obviously feels to be the apex of his career: Malcolm X. After that point in the reminiscing on his life/career he said nothing, instead opening up the floor to questions. The few nuggets of useful info I was able to pick up on the business of filmmaking and screenwriting, were trivial and disappointingly useless. Students and other aspiring filmmakers asked questions such as which does he suggest as a filmic medium for upcoming, independent filmmakers: shooting film or digital? His simplistic response: whichever you have access to. Gee, thanks Spike.

What really burned me was the way he treated a question posed by another young individual. “So, why DID Mookie throw the trashcan through the plate-glass window of Sal’s restaurant in Do the Right Thing?” Spike initially responded to this by laughing in dismissal, saying (almost as if he felt belittled), that “it’s not the first time he’s been asked that question,” seethingly following with provoking rhetoric to the young white male, “but, you know who I’ve NEVER been asked that question by?”

Who Spike? An African American? So, what he’s basically saying is it’s okay, and it’s justified for Mookie’s character to react in violence, instigating a riot, because of his friend Ray Raheim’s unjustified death at the hands of white, uniformed NYPD? I’m not saying one shouldn’t feel raw after seeing what was done to Ray Raheim by the police, but is the best reaction one from the gut, or one from the mind? Mookie is the character who seems to be the only person on his block in New York who can get along amicably with any one of the various races or cultures on one of the four corners of his neighborhood. So, when his character reacted in such violence at the end, I must admit I was shocked. A character such as Mookie could have potentially done a lot more good by taking such an injustice up to a media outfit or the proper authorities (and, I know, that’s probably the “white” thing to say in Spike’s eyes), but by inciting a riot in his own neighborhood, all he’s done is essentially aid and abet the problem of racial injustice in America and even the world.

At any rate, I was equally taken aback by Spike’s response to the young man, for Spike basically reassured me that Do the Right Thing is a movie he crafted with more hatred for social stagnancy than with inspiration or hope for social change. I guess I thought that for all the social prowess Spike had shown throughout his filmography (i.e. Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues), plus the fact that he himself played the character of Mookie, the character I respected the most until the denouement of Do the Right Thing, he would have had a different perspective on this one important social topic: race. Lately, Spike hasn’t propelled me into a frenzy of social clarity with any of his recent films; 25th Hour was memorable, but only in the way that a train wreck on the news is memorable. To me, Craig Brewer is doing more important films on the topic of race, dealing with cinematic portraits of inequality that don’t scream at you like Spike’s, but rather seep into your consciousness from the screen.