“When you have a big human interest story, you’ve got to give it a big human interest ending. When you get people steamed up like this, don’t ever make suckers out of them.”
For someone who has relished in cinema since he was born, I have been pretty lucky to have met my heroes and idols. It’s been a wonderful life (to paraphrase Capra), to admire and study the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Alfonso Cuaron, Julian Schnabel, David O. Russell, Spike Lee and Bong Joon Ho and then to be able to discourse with them directly. There are moments I have to pinch myself for I can’t believe my good fortune. I’ve been asked several times what movie actors have made me feel starstruck when meeting them. I respond that it’s always been the directors who cause me to get weak in the knees. There’s one exception, and that was meeting Kirk Douglas, whom we lost a year ago at the age of 103. He was the last surviving icon of the industry’s Golden Age.
I met Kirk when he was 87 years old, in 2006, and I was invited to an intimate dinner in Santa Barbara. I was at first taken aback by his size. He didn’t have the stature I had imagined from seeing him so much on the big screen. He did have a forcefulness in his walk – an energy from the center of his body that propelled him forward. His shoulders moved energetically. His big eyes would stare at you, taking you in, sizing you up from head to toe. I was speechless until he saw I was holding a vodka martini with three olives, and he barked he wanted one. After procuring it, I brought up the subject of Dalton Trumbo and the blacklist, which led to discussing “Lonely Are the Brave” (1960). He told me he was very fond of that film, probably his favorite of his filmography. As I relaxed into the idea of being in his presence, I brought up Kubrick and “Paths of Glory” (1957) and “Spartacus” (1960). The actor had a wicked sense of humor. He told me he’d been a “son of a b&tch” all his life, and said something like “I was born determined.” It is that drive and aggressiveness that made every performance of his so appealing, whether he was playing a hero or a cad. To me he was the most compelling when he could channel that ferociousness into flawed characters that were unprincipled and tough-minded like the boxer in “Champion” (1949) and the producer in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952). We became good friends, and he agreed to the creation of the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film, a dinner fundraiser that supports SBIFF’s educational programs. He went on to present the honor in person to John Travolta, Harrison Ford, and Robert DeNiro amongst others. When age started to take its toll and he couldn’t come in person, he would send video salutations to Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange, Forest Whitaker, and the last recording, which was to Martin Scorsese, reproaching him for not having cast him in one of his movies, claiming he could have been perfect for “Taxi Driver” or “Raging Bull.” Indeed, he would have been.
In 1951, director Billy Wilder, whom the previous year had helmed “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) – a lacerating look at Hollywood which earned 11 Oscar nominations – followed that success with “Ace in the Hole,” an equally cynical drama that this time followed a corrupt journalist (Douglas) who turns a casual cave accident into a nasty and greedy circus-like atmosphere that dominoes into an out-of-control national tragedy. Wilder and Douglas not only deconstruct the role of the media at large, but the film becomes a study of American society at large. Seventy years later the film has lost none of its immediacy. In the PTSD of the Trump era, “Ace in the Hole” is prescient and spirited.
Douglas commandingly plays Chuck Tatum, a flailing and newly sober reporter whose career in NYC had fallen apart because of many peccadilloes. In the traditional American way of trying to reinvent oneself, he comes to the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin and tells the editor, “Mr. Boot, I’m a $250-a-week newspaperman. I can be had for $50.” A year goes by and Tatum behaves, plays by the company rules, stays sober – yet he feels restless. One day, he and young photographer Herbie are assigned to cover a rattlesnake hunt and while stopping for gasoline, they hear of Leo Mimosa who has just become trapped in the collapse of an Indian cave dwelling while striving to retrieve (poetic justice) Native-American artifacts.
Tatum seizes on the opportunity of a lifetime to capitalize on the rescue effort and make it a national sensational event. Soon after and effortlessly, he’s able to manipulate the thrusting wife of the victim, the sheriff and others kowtowing to ambition, and greed. Kirk is a heel, a cynic, a liar, ruthless and fascinating. At one point, we relish in his climb towards success – only to suddenly find ourselves being repelled when we see him ruthlessly go too far while choking a woman with a fake fur. Douglas is phenomenal in this – so unafraid of diving into the darkness of the human soul.
Wilder’s take on all of this wasn’t warmly received when it was released. It was too cold, too lucid. Working with master editor Arthur P. Schmidt, he holds a mirror to American human nature. Watch the scene where we see the Carnival unfolding below and how it cuts to a train pulling in, masses hungrily descending unto the spectacle.
Tatum: “Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Philo, Kanopy, Plex, FlixFling, IndieFlix and Crackle. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes & Vudu.
Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman
Directed by Billy Wilder
Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Cady, Richard Benedict, Ray Teal
Bringing “Ace in the Hole” to the Screen
The idea for “Ace in the Hole” came from young dramatist Walter Newman, who convinced Wilder there was a great screen story in the 1925 case of Floyd Collins, a cave explorer trapped by falling rock in a Kentucky cavern. Since he was pinned down fairly near the entrance, Collins could receive food and talk with rescuers for about five days, until two secondary cave-ins closed him off completely. During those first days he gave an interview to a cub reporter from a Louisville newspaper, whose articles turned the tragedy into a national media event, drawing tens of thousands of gawkers to the area. The enterprising newsman won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. Collins wasn’t so lucky, dying in the cave after eighteen days of exposure, starvation, and suffering. Ace in the Hole, written by Wilder with Newman and Lesser Samuels, takes its broad outline directly from the Collins tragedy, which is explicitly mentioned in the dialogue. Desperate to jump-start his stalled-out career, reporter Charles “Chuck” Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas at his energetic best, takes a job at a tiny New Mexico paper, hoping for a breakout story that will restore his credibility with big-city editors. On his way to cover a routine rattlesnake hunt (!) he stumbles on the situation he’s been looking for: Trading-post owner Leo Minosa has gotten trapped in a cave while digging for Indian pots, immobile but able to communicate through a narrow hole. Rescuers are ready to remove the rocks imprisoning Leo, but Tatum persuades them to try a “safer” method-which will take days instead of hours, providing the time he needs to whip up a journalistic storm. Which he promptly does, getting sole access to Leo with assistance from a dishonest sheriff and Leo’s unloving wife. His stories attract multitudes, turning the accident site into a morbid spectacle. The whole affair ends miserably for everyone.
This was Wilder’s first picture after breaking with his longtime writing partner Charles Brackett, who had exercised a moderating influence on his more pessimistic views. Perhaps for this reason, “Ace in the Hole” became one of Wilder’s darkest films. This didn’t escape notice by the Production Code censors, but they weren’t too bothered since Tatum gets properly punished at the finale. They did frown on the mixing of “Indian medicine ceremonies” with “legitimate praying” for Leo’s rescue, though. The box-office failure of “Ace in the Hole” stemmed partly from hostility in the press and partly from adverse audience response. Reviewers wielded great power in those days-saturation booking and all-media marketing blitzes weren’t born yet-and reviewers are journalists. It didn’t exactly please them that the movie’s main character is a journalistic hack who enthusiastically risks another man’s life for totally self-centered reasons; accordingly, many of them dismissed the picture as insultingly as they could. After calling it a badly written combination of “unjelled satire” and “half-baked melodrama,” the New Yorker reviewer added that Tatum was “the most preposterous version of a reporter I’ve ever seen.” The influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther respected the picture as a whole, but claimed that the “responsible elements” at any real newspaper would stop a louse like Tatum in his tracks. Such huffy comments show that Wilder definitely touched a nerve. Wilder may have expected press attacks, confident that moviegoers would spread favorable word-of-mouth publicity on their own. But the movie treats audiences as harshly as reporters. The people scrambling for a look at Leo’s living tomb aren’t just duped by Tatum, they’re willingly and cheerfully duped into ogling a calamity that’s depressing, degrading, and bogus. In short, everyday spectators rank no higher than immoral reporters in Wilder’s estimation, and he doesn’t let anyone off the hook. As latter-day critics have noted, the sinister sideshow Tatum engineers is the first media circus, long before that term was invented-and soon it becomes a genuine circus, complete with admission price and fairground rides. In one of the movie’s grimmest jokes, we see a carnival outfit arrive to set up shop, and on truck after truck we read its name: The Great S&M Amusement Corp. That’s mighty scathing humor even by Wilder’s high standards. Ace in the Hole fared better overseas than in its own country, winning the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival and racking up good grosses in European theaters. Although its dismal American run prompted Wilder to choose safer projects during the next few years-adaptations of Broadway hits, mostly-he never lost his faith in the movie’s merit. Running into Newman years later, he admitted that he lost a lot of studio capital when it tanked, but immediately added, “It was the best thing I ever did.” (tcm.com)
About Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who recently arrived in the United States, looking for a better life. His father Herschel (also known as Harry) worked as a ragman, an occupation immortalized in the title of Kirk’s best-selling 1988 autobiography,The Ragman’s Son. Kirk would later name his independent film production company after his mother, Bryna. Kirk was the only boy among six sisters. To help ends meet in his desperately poor family, Kirk took on a variety of odd jobs while growing up. He began acting in plays in high school, where he excelled in both academics and sports. He worked his way through St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, where he was a prominent member of the wrestling team. After graduation, Kirk attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City on a special scholarship. When World War II broke out, he joined the US Navy, from which he received an honorable discharge in 1944. While serving in the Navy, Kirk saw a photo of Bermuda-born Diana Dill, a fellow student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, on the cover of Life magazine and swore he was going to marry her. True to his word, Kirk married Diana on November 2, 1943. The couple subsequently had two sons, Michael, born in 1944, and Joel, born in 1947, before divorcing in 1951. After his discharge from the Navy, Kirk began being cast on the New York stage, as well as in radio. Lauren Bacall, another of Kirk’s fellow students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, insisted that film producer Hal Wallis audition him for the Barbara Stanwyck film “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946). Kirk was cast and played his role to huge critical success, launching his Hollywood career.
Kirk’s early film roles included appearances in two film classics, the film noir “Out of the Past” (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur, and Joseph Mankiewicz’s “A Letter to Three Wives” (1949). In 1948, he appeared with Burt Lancaster in “Walk Alone.” This was the first of a seven-film series of Douglas-Lancaster collaborations, which included such notable films as the Western “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957) and the political thriller “Seven Days in May” (1964), directed by John Frankenheimer. Kirk achieved full-fledged stardom, and his first Academy Award nomination, in 1949, playing a ruthless boxer in “Champion,” directed by Mark Robson. This was Kirk’s first part playing “sons of bitches” and heels. It certainly wasn’t the last, despite the many heroic roles he would also take on. Kirk’s next starring role was as a jazz trumpeter, based on Bix Beiderbecke, in “Young Man with a Horn” (1950), where he played opposite Doris Day. In 1951, Kirk starred as an unscrupulous reporter in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole.” Although the film was not a success on its first release, it is now recognized as one of both Wilder’s and Kirk’s best. That same year, he starred in the successful crime drama “Detective Story,” directed by William Wyler. Kirk also started playing a variety of Western roles at this time, first in “Along the Great Divide” (1951), and then in Howard Hawks’s 1952 film “The Big Sky.” Kirk garnered his second Oscar nomination with another role as a heel, the “bad” film producer in Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 Hollywood melodrama “The Bad and the Beautiful,” opposite Lana Turner. Kirk and Minnelli reunited ten years later for “Two Weeks in Another Town,” a sequel of sorts set in Rome during the ’60s heyday of the international film industry. An earlier European film, “Act of Love” (1953), is notable because he married the film’s publicist, the German-born Belgian Anne Buydens, the following year. This marriage produced two sons, Peter, who was born in 1955, and Eric, born in 1958. Kirk and Anne’s marriage is notable for its longevity, with the couple celebrating a second “recommitment” ceremony on their 50th wedding anniversary. In the year of his marriage to Anne, Kirk appeared in one of his best-loved comic roles, as a sailor in the hit Disney live-action version of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” In 1956, he starred in another memorable role, as Vincent Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s film biography “Lust for Life,” for which he received a third Oscar nomination.
In recent years, it has become common for film stars to form their own production companies. In 1955, when Kirk formed The Bryna Company, the practice was virtually unheard of. The company produced a critical hit early on: “Paths of Glory” (1957), the classic World War I anti-war drama directed by Stanley Kubrick, in which Kirk starred as Colonel Dax, a French commander who faces a life-defining moral dilemma. Just a year later, Kirk took on a very different kind of leading role in the rousing adventure “The Vikings,” a huge box-office hit. The Bryna Company’s finest moment may have been the production of “Spartacus” (1960), again directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas in the title role of what is arguably the greatest “sword and sandal” epic film ever. The film is further distinguished by Kirk’s insistence that formerly banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo be credited under his own name. This effectively ending the McCarthy-era blacklist, an achievement Kirk regards as the high point of his career. In 2012, following the 50th anniversary of the film’s release, Kirk explored the trials and tribulations behind the making of this classic and the breaking of the blacklist in his book “I Am Spartacus!” In 1962, Kirk appeared in one of his favorite roles, as a cowboy whom time has passed by in the intimate “Lonely Are the Brave,” also written by Dalton Trumbo and produced by Bryna. A year later, Kirk began a series of international trips, often accompanied by his wife Anne, as a goodwill ambassador for the US State Department. In 1964, Anne and Kirk established The Douglas Foundation (www.douglasfoundation.org), one of the entertainment industry’s oldest and largest private philanthropic organizations. The Foundation’s work, focusing on health, education, and the disadvantaged, continues unabated.
At about the time he started The Douglas Foundation, Kirk starred as Randall McMurphy in a New York stage adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Kirk eventually assigned the motion picture rights to the novel to his son Michael, who went on to produce a film version that swept the Academy Awards in 1975. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Kirk appeared in a series of major motion pictures, often with international settings, including “The List of Adrian Messenger” (1963), “In Harm’s Way” (1965), “Is Paris Burning?” (1966), “The Arrangement”(1969), “Once Is Not Enough” (1975), and “The Fury” (1978), directed by Brian De Palma. In 1980, he appeared in the science-fiction time-travel classic “The Final Countdown,” produced by his son Peter, and in 1982 travelled to Australia to star in the hit, “The Man from Snowy River.” In the ’80s, Kirk turned to feature-length television films. He played the title role in “Amos” (1985), which was the highest-rated film for television of its year, and then appeared as William Jennings Bryan in an adaptation of the stage play “Inherit the Wind,” which won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama or Comedy Special in 1988. In 1988, Kirk also published his immensely popular autobiography “The Ragman’s Son,” and started yet another career as an author. His books encompass both novels, such as “Dance With the Devil” (1990) and “Last Tango in Brooklyn” (1994), and non-fiction, including “Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning” (2001), “My Stroke of Luck” (2003), and “I Am Spartacus!” (2012). In 2014, he published his first book of poetry, “Life Could Be Verse.” As his books of reflections reveal, even after achieving stardom, Kirk faced his share of adversity and grief. He was seriously injured in a helicopter accident near Santa Paula, California, northwest of Los Angeles, in 1993. He then suffered a severe stroke in 1996, which impaired his ability to speak and from which he has largely rehabilitated himself. His youngest son, Eric, died tragically in 2004. While Kirk never departed from the Jewish faith in which he was raised, he became more deeply involved in Hebraic studies late in life, and underwent a traditional if rare second bar mitzvah at the age of 83. He is also a proud grandparent seven times over. Kirk has received numerous honors in the United States and abroad in recognition of both his film and philanthropic work. He accepted the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1991. In 1999, the AFI also placed him on its list of the top fifty stars of American cinema. In 1996, Kirk won an Honorary Academy Award “for fifty years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.” Kirk has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, one of the few ever to be stolen and replaced. In 2004, a street in Palm Springs, California, was named “Kirk Douglas Way” in his honor. In 1981, Kirk was also presented with the Presidential Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest civilian award, in recognition of his work throughout the world as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department. The French government presented him with the Legion of Honor in 1985. In 2001, he received the National Medal of the Arts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (kirkdouglas.com) Douglas passed away in 2020.
About Cinematographer Charles Lang
During a career that spanned over half a century, cinematographer Charles Lang worked with directors ranging from Dorothy Arzner (“Anybody’s Woman” 1930) to George Cukor (“Zaza” 1939) to Anthony Mann (“The Man from Laramie” 1955) and Paul Mazursky (“Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” 1969). One of the key talents responsible for the look of Paramount Studio’s films during the 1930s and 40s, Lang helped establish the softer, romanticized side of the studio’s ornate, glossy, vaguely European visual style. Some of Lang’s best work features a supple use of camera movement and an atmospheric, translucent lighting which washes gently through interiors, most notably in such tender love stories and wispy light comedies as Frank Borzage’s “A Farewell to Arms” (1932) and “Desire” (1936), Mitchell Leisen’s “Cradle Song” (1933), Ernst Lubitsch’s “Angel” (1937), and Henry Hathaway’s stunning romantic fantasy, “Peter Ibbetson” (1935). Like most Hollywood cinematographers of the classical period, however, Lang worked in all genres, and his work included action epics (“Lives of a Bengal Lancer” 1935) as well as the more brittle, stinging comedy of such classics as Mae West’s first starrer, “She Done Him Wrong” (1933) and Leisen’s delightful “Midnight” (1939).
The latter film seems an appropriate transition to Lang’s 40s style, which saw a deeper use of contrasts between light and darkness and a slightly sharper edge to some of the lighting effects. The delicate sensibility was still there as well, though, and the combination added a great deal to two “haunting” ghost dramas, “The Uninvited” (1944) and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), as well as to Billy Wilder’s evocative portrait of postwar Berlin, “A Foreign Affair” (1948), with Marlene Dietrich crooning amidst blazes of light in smoky cafes. Leaving Paramount in 1951, Lang showed that his talents could fit the moody, violent world of film noir when he collaborated with another Lang, Fritz, on the powerful crime classic, “The Big Heat” (1953). As color became increasingly prevalent in American film during the 50s Lang demonstrated a cool control of color tones in such films as “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957) and “Charade” (1963), while the muted color and deep focus cinematography were among the highlights of the offbeat, Marlon Brando-directed Western, “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961). Lang’s work on Wilder’s hilarious “Some Like It Hot” (1959) showed, however, that he had not forgotten how to evoke a bygone visual style in his work. He continued working until the early 70s (“Butterflies Are Free” 1972, “40 Carats” 1973), bequeathing to the cinema a rich, often poetic, legacy of visual artistry.
About Writer and Director Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in Sucha, a village in Galicia, an Austro-Hungarian province that is now part of Poland. His mother, who was in love with all things American, nicknamed him Billie in honor of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show. (New York Times) In 1929 Wilder had his first break working on the German film “Menschen Am Sontag” (“People on Sunday”). He remained in Germany co-writing and directing films until the rise of the Nazis forced him to move to France, and ultimately to the United States. Wilder arrived in Hollywood in 1934. He worked on and off until 1938, when he began a long and fruitful collaboration with Charles Brackett, which lasted twelve years. His films range from stark melodrama, like “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend” and “Sunset Boulevard,” to antic farce, such as “The Seven Year Itch,” and “Some Like It Hot,” to satiric comedy, like “A Foreign Affair” and “The Apartment.” With over fifty films and six Academy Awards to his credit, he is one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest directors, producers and screenwriters. (pbs.org)