With apologies to film critic Miles David Moore for poaching on his territory, this month I am considering two classic American films that I had frequently heard about but never seen until recently.
By what might be called an auspicious coincidence, during the afternoon of Saturday, August 3 I had a few minutes on my hands. I had seen some initial reports of a shooting in EL Paso, but few details. I was near a branch of the library so I dropped in and browsed their DVDs. I spotted one I had always meant to see, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, released in 1951. So I checked it out and took it home. Little did I know at that moment how appropriate this choice was.
The film tells the story of cynical, nearly washed up reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) who, having been fired from every major newspaper he’d worked for due to various indiscretions, turns up in Albuquerque and offers his services to the local paper. Asking editor Boot (Porter Hall) if he’d like to make $200 a week, Tatum explains: "Mr. Boot, I'm a 250 dollar a week newspaperman. I can be had for $50."
Boot offers $60 and Tatum accepts, willing to work for a fraction of his previous salary in the hope of somehow landing on a story that will be picked up nationally, thus returning him to his former glory. But after an uneventful year spent mostly fuming and haranguing the paper’s small staff about the shortcomings of Albuquerque vs. New York City, an unexpected break occurs. Sent by the paper’s long-suffering editor to cover a rattlesnake hunt, Tatum and the paper’s young cub reporter/shutterbug, Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), stop for gas at an outpost in the middle of the desert and discover that the proprietor has become trapped in a cave while looking for Indian artifacts. Tatum, recalling the real-life story of Floyd Collins, immediately grasps the potential of this human interest story and so begins his manipulation and exploitation of one man’s tragedy.
The outpost and mountain where Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) lies near death become a frenzied scene as hundreds of spectators arrive to witness the unfolding drama. A carnival-like atmosphere—a literal carnival turns up with music and rides—envelops the site. Some of the small pleasures of the film involve watching admission to the site, free in the beginning, rise from 25垄 to 50垄 to $1.00, or listening to a seemingly heartfelt song performed by a cowboy band encouraging Leo to hang on, then seeing the sheet music for the song being sold below the bandstand. Blinded by greed and ambition, Tatum prolongs the rescue attempt to its tragic conclusion, though the final scene is a tiny masterpiece of cynicism and irony.
The film has its flaws: Some of the scenes are more or less set pieces, thus the story doesn’t flow as smoothly as it could, and some points are made in a rather obvious way. But the pacing overall is good, the story itself is quite compelling, and the acting is stellar. Kirk Douglas gives his usual intense-bordering-on-manic performance and the supporting players, especially Arthur, Benedict, Hull, Ray Teal (of Bonanza fame) as the corrupt sheriff, and Jan Sterling playing Lorraine, Leo’s wife, are outstanding. Frank Cady (best known as Sam Drucker in the Beverly Hillbillies universe) does a wonderful comic turn as Mr. Federber, the first tourist to arrive with his family, and John Berkes brings a quiet dignity and sadness to his role as Leo’s father.
Ace in the Hole was Wilder’s only commercial failure (and he was only able to make it because of the success of Sunset Boulevard, his previous film). The critics and public alike found it too cynical and an unrealistic portrait of journalism. In the afterglow of our WWII victory and a return to prosperity, this reaction is perhaps understandable. But in 2019 with the El Paso and Dayton shootings and their attendant media circuses fresh in my mind when I sat down to watch, the movie struck me as highly prophetic. I began reflecting on the role of the media, especially television with its 24/7 news cycles in creating or prolonging horrors like the two mass shootings of the weekend prior to my viewing. Aside from whatever other motivations they may have, one wonders if the prospect of worldwide fame might tempt already unstable perpetrators.
Having posted a note on Facebook that I had seen Ace and some of my thoughts about it, the aforementioned Miles Moore in response mentioned a similar film that garnered at the time a similar dismissal by the public and reviewers, Elia Kazan’s 1957 release, A Face in the Crowd. Much like Ace in the Hole, Face was criticized as being unrealistic—An entertainer becoming a political power? Absurd!—and, again, too cynical. However, subsequent history has made this film seem frighteningly prescient.
Rather more polished than Ace, A Face in the Crowd is nearly flawless. Andy Griffith gives a show-stopping performance as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, an often drunk and aimless drifter plucked out of jail and obscurity by Marcia Jeffries (a young and very beautiful Patricia Neal) and turned first into a radio star, then a television icon, and finally an advisor to potential presidential candidate Sen. Worthington Fuller, finely played by Marshall Neilan. It is a remarkable experience to watch Rhodes’ transformation from folksy charmer (though Griffith’s skill gives hints from the very first of his manipulative and egotistical side) into power-hungry demagogue. A powerful yet very subtle scene early in the picture when Marcia points out to Lonesome his power to persuade is sheer movie viewing joy. What both actors are able to convey with their faces alone is stunning.
The entire cast is fine. Patricia Neal grabs the viewer’s heart with her appearance right at the beginning of the movie and never lets go, remaining deeply impressive as she alternates between her love for Rhodes and her fear and disdain for what he becomes. Andy Griffith is astonishing in his film debut, mixing his folksy Mayberry persona with much darker elements. His performance is a sterling tribute to Kazan’s much praised ability to get the best from his actors.
Beyond the remarkable performances by the leads, we enjoy an understated turn by Walter Matthau as a half-cynical, half-sensitive writer who not so secretly loves Marcia. Lee Remick, also debuting in this film, shines in a small but juicy role as a 17-year-old baton twirler who Rhodes secretly marries, further breaking Marcia’s heart having just proposed to her. And one of the real joys of seeing this film is watching Anthony Franciosa, playing an ambitious office “boy” turned Rhodes’ manager, slowly become the roguishly appealing, wisecracking Tony Franciosa so beloved by film and TV viewers in subsequent years.
The parallels between this movie and our current state of affairs are too obvious to mention. Both of these classics, however dismissed or ignored in their time, are touchstones both of modern American cinema and contemporary sociocultural observations. Both are available in beautifully presented Criterion Collection editions as well as on several streaming services. I cannot recommend them highly enough.