Monday, February 16, 2009

Noir City Northwest: Ace in the Hole (1951)/Cry of the Hunted (1953)

In a festival devoted to newspaper noir, the inclusion of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, aka The Big Carnival, is a no-brainer. Perhaps the most scathing critique of the media ever made, from an undisputed master of the genre.

Wilder was coming off an enormous success with Sunset Blvd. Yet his follow-up was condemned by critics and sank into oblivion for decades. To paraphrase Eddie Muller’s introductory remarks, attack the culture of celebrity, as Wilder had done in Sunset, and you will be lionized. But attack the culture, and you will be vilified. Luckily, Wilder would have the last laugh.

A ruthlessly unsentimental Kirk Douglas plays disgraced reporter Chuck Tatum, stranded in dusty New Mexico and angling for a return to the big time. His meal ticket comes in the form of a man trapped in a cave. Tatum orchestrates a press frenzy around the poor bastard. But he soon learns that controlling the story doesn’t mean you get to write the ending. Jan Sterling gives one of the great supporting performances as the wounded man’s wife willing to play along with Tatum’s huckster act. And Wilder’s storytelling, keeping the focus tight on Tatum as the tumult slowly builds around him, is masterful.

The movie’s themes have been disseminated so broadly in this media-savvy society that its DNA is everywhere. Wilder’s problem was that he was too far ahead of the curve. A vaccine must contain elements of the disease in order to effect a cure. But releasing concentrated cynicism on an unprepared world in 1951? It could have damn near killed the patient.

How do you follow Ace in the Hole? That, too, is obvious. With swamp noir. Cry of the Hunted is grade A B-movie hooey about L.A. prison warden Barry Sullivan hunting down an escaped con (Vittorio Gassman) in the Louisiana bayou. Joseph H. Lewis worked low-budget magic with Gun Crazy, but here he’s saddled with a scenario in which the only thing riper than the vegetation is the dialogue. At least he’s got the good sense not to take things seriously.

Eddie alluded to a notable homoerotic subtext, but I didn’t see it. A pair of hard cases who’d rather play backwoods grabass than stay with their wives? An extended dream sequence after Sullivan glugs swamp water in which Gassman seems imprisoned in Sullivan’s bed, flexes for him in silhouette, and beats him about the face and neck with an andouille sausage*? That’s just two men celebrating each other’s strength.

*Caution: sausage sequence may have been imagined.