Tag Archives: Billy Wilder

Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole 1
Ace in the Hole

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 28 April 2014

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Billy Wilder

Writers: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur

USA 1951

111 mins

Kirk Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a born ‘newspaperman’, who used to have desks in New York and Washington, but is now reduced to filing copy for the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin, biding his time, waiting for the story that will get him back in the big leagues. His chance arrives in the form of luckless shmoe Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped by a cave-in while trying to excavate Indian artefacts to sell at his struggling tourist trap cafe in Esquedero (nowhere, New Mexico). Tatum inveigles himself into the centre of the action by force of will and personality, and creates a media sensation with this victim of the ‘curse of the mountain of seven vultures’. The crowds begin to swarm to Esquedero, the rest of the media descend, (there is a literal ‘media circus’ when the carnival rides move in) and Tatum has to do all he can to keep his story exclusive and ongoing, and should that include getting a corrupt sheriff (Ray Teal) re-elected, and interfering with the rescue plans to draw out the ‘human interest’ drama… Well, so be it.

Co-writer/director/producer Billy Wilder’s scabrous broadside against the mentality of the yellow press should really have dated horribly in the age of blogging, twitter and tumbling print sales. Made in 1951, it’s set in a world of manual typewriters and smoky workplaces, where newspapers and radios rule and TV is the new kid on the block. That it still enthrals is largely down to the fact that it’s as lean and mean as a rattlesnake, a bitter parable of hubris and horror with no room for romance or sentiment. It knows what it wants to say and moves relentlessly towards that conclusion. Appropriately enough it has the virtues of a good tabloid hack, quickly establishing the who/what/where of the characters with minimal fuss and an eye for the telling detail. So we quickly get the measure of Lorraine (Jan Sterling), Leo’s wife, sharp of tongue and blonde of bottle, and she quickly gets the measure of Tatum: ‘I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time but you…you’re 20 minutes’. Lorraine is allowed a complexity denied your regulation dumb blonde or femme fatale: she’s disloyal, and mercenary, but it’s hard not to feel something for a smart woman trapped in this ‘sun-baked Siberia’. Wilder was once a journalist himself, and this is a writer’s film, carried by crackling dialogue and in thrall to the logic of story rather than box office. The media landscape may have changed but the tale still rings true.

It’s a film of well-used (mainly dusty) locations and well-cast (mainly sweaty) faces, filled with character actors rather than stars. The exception, of course, being Kirk Douglas, who’s another large part of why the film still plays. Chuck Tatum is an extraordinary creation; from the moment he appears on screen reading the Sun Bulletin in a convertible being towed by a truck, he exudes a dynamic energy, a kind of poisonous charisma that sucks the rest of the cast down with him. He looks fantastic in black shirt, braces and Steve Ditko trousers, striking matches from typewriter carriages or one-handed against a thumbnail, monologuing endlessly, pacing rooms that barely contain him. We feel his frustration at his reduced status and watch his eyes light up at the scent of the tragedy that will set him free. Tatum does awful things, but he’s never a monster, and Douglas gives us moments of insecurity underneath the bluster. This is the bilious flipside to the standard American myth, where a man with the right ‘moxie’ and determination can achieve his dreams. The film ends in nightmare, but the dynamic remains the same.

Mark Stafford

The Eureka release comes with a booklet, original trailer, an informative featurette on the film with Wilder biographer Neil Sinyard, and a great little hour-long 1982 documentary Portrait of a 60&#37 Perfect Man made by Michel Ciment and Annie Tresgott, with Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, and a mischievous Wilder, on the cusp of nothing much, chatting about his life and work.

Watch the trailer:

The Apartment

The Apartment

Format: Cinema

Release dates: 15-28 June 2012

Venue: BFI Southbank, London

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Billy Wilder

Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond

Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray

USA 1960

125 mins

The Apartment is the story of a Manhattan apartment used for illicit sexual liaisons by company executives who in return give its owner, their lowly colleague C.C. Baxter, good efficiency ratings and fast track promotions. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works in the ‘Ordinary Premium Accounting’ department at a large insurance company. His desk is one of many situated in rows of hundreds in an open plan office. Those ‘using’ the apartment are all his superiors with their own offices and keys to the executive washroom, and their liaisons are with their secretaries, the switchboard girls and the elfin elevator assistant Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), with whom Baxter falls in love. Such is the insular world of this office tower block whose employees outnumber the residents of Natchez, Mississippi.

The script (co-written with regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) is so brilliantly crafted you could just sit and marvel at its perfection. It even creates its own syntax, dialogue-wise. There are a smattering of topical 1960s jokes and a few in Yiddish that might need translating but much of the humour is universal and the film is as funny now as it surely was 50 years ago.

Wilder’s films in general are so well written it is easy to credit him as a screenwriter and overlook his talent as a director. For Wilder, the screenplay came first and the other elements worked to support it - his gravestone even reads, ‘I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect’. But that doesn’t mean that mise en scène, cinematography, sound or even editing are without imagination, or that his work is any less cinematic. The editing may be classically smooth and unobtrusive but when the film cuts seamlessly from a suicide attempt to a drunken dance routine with the melodramatic death music morphing into the jukebox’s cha-cha-cha, we can see Wilder taking unobtrusiveness to another level.

The film has a great look - the cocktail bars thick with smoke and bustling with Christmas drinkers (even Santa Claus himself orders a whiskey); the open plan office with its geometric patterned ceilings. The art direction was by the great Alexander Trauner who used forced perspective to show the masses of office staff. The rows of desks were built smaller and smaller with those furthest away being peopled by children in business suits. The apartment itself is a wonderful creation, a quirky combination of thrift-store furnishings and technical innovations, including a very impressive remote control television.

In Jack Lemmon, Wilder seems to have found his perfect star. The Apartment was the second of seven films they were to make together. His C.C. Baxter is anxious, self-pitying, sickly, weak-willed but still the film’s hero. Like his Daphne in Some Like It Hot (1958), he is unable to say no to escalating requests. He is lacking in moral fibre and non-judgemental to a fault. Even Fred MacMurray’s charming philanderer Sheldrake has stronger, if skewed, sense of justice as he complains of how unfair it is for his mistresses to expect him to divorce his wife. The moral world of The Apartment is one of those who take and those who get taken, or of ‘finks’ and ‘schmucks’. Baxter is the latter.

The re-issue material seems to play up the Mad Men connection. The early 1960s inter-office politics (particularly the sexual politics) have a lot in common with Matthew Weiner’s TV show as does the drinking and smoking at work and the after-work cocktails (a Frozen Daiquiri, a Rum Collins or a dozen Martinis). Was every office worker in New York permanently sauced? However, the philanderers in The Apartment are much less classy than Don Draper - actually even less than Roger Sterling. As the switchboard girl complains, she hoped he would take her to ‘Twenty One’ but instead had to settle for ‘Hamburg Heaven and some schmuck’s apartment’. The gulf between the advertising world of Mad Men and the insurance industry of The Apartment is exemplified by Mr Dobisch can-can-ing in sock-suspenders at the Christmas party.

Perhaps more than any of his other films, The Apartment is full of Wilder’s irreverent sense of humour. Although aimed mostly at the corporate business world his scattershot approach hits a wide range of targets, from Wilder’s previous star Marilyn Monroe (a lookalike is picked up in a bar by the aforementioned Dobisch) to Fidel Castro (‘a no-good fink’), from credit card culture to television. Baxter’s enjoyment of one of cinema’s classiest moments - Grand Hotel (1932) - is destroyed by an advertiser’s question - ‘Do you have wobbly dentures?’

Male-female relationships have rarely been viewed with such relentless pessimism. The Apartment has to be the least romantic rom-com ever. However, the film’s darker comedic moments are deftly handled and Wilder side-steps the moral maze he has led us into with yet more well-timed gags. When assessing his own work Billy Wilder described The Apartment as being the film with the fewest mistakes. And he is right: it is as near to perfect as is possible.

Paul Huckerby