In a 6.7 Observer piece, Phillip French offered a rote analysis of Kirk Douglas‘s Chuck Tatum, an avaricious journalist, in Billy Wilder‘s Ace In The Hole (’51): “Like the tarnished heroes of Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment, Tatum is a characteristic Wilder protagonist, a self-loathing anti-hero on his way down and eventually finding redemption or salvation as he approaches rock bottom. [The film] is morally gripping and unsentimental in its refusal to give the audience an easy point of sympathetic identification.”
In fact Ace In The Hole offers a much darker and more rancid portrait of a self-loathing character that the other Wilder films mentioned. I’ve always felt at least some measure of affection or compassion for Sunset Boulevard‘s Joe Gillis, Double Indemnity‘s Walter Neff and The Apartment‘s C.C. Baxter. These guys had ethical issues but were obviously human in various respects. (Baxter was pretty much a cuddly love bunny.)
Tatum isn’t inhuman as much as a conceit — Wilder’s concept of cynical behavior pushed to level 11. A snapping turtle, a piss-and-vinegar reptile from start to finish. His only half-tender moment is when he rhapsodizes about the spiritual glories of New York City. The last time I watched Ace in The Hole (on a Criterion DVD) Tatum began to piss me off. Is there anything about him that isn’t fueled by resentment and spit?
This is why I haven’t ordered Criterion’s Ace In The Hole Bluray (which came out on 5.6, right when the whole Cannes journey began) or begged for a freebie.
Here’s how I put it earlier this year: “Six and a half years ago I bought Criterion’s then-new DVD of Ace in the Hole. For years I had written lovingly of this film’s flinty, hard-as-nails quality. I’ve mentioned Jan Sterling‘s ‘hard-boiled egg’ line a couple of times. I’ve memorized Kirk Douglas‘s ‘eight spindly trees in front of Rockefeller Center’ speech. But guess what? My main reaction to the DVD was ‘this is too cynical, too bitter…it overplays that aspect.’ The best movies always define themselves with clean, bold strokes, but too much cynicism kills the ghoulash. Douglas is all barbed wire and snide attitudes. Did any real-life, semi-successful journalist ever piss on people this consistently? Possibly, but I doubt it.”
I also don’t believe Walter Winchell was ever as cyborg-like as Burt Lancaster was in Sweet Smell of Success, so there.