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.
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% 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: