Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Masters of Cinema - ACE IN THE HOLE and VIOLENT SATURDAY on Blu-ray ""

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Masters of Cinema - ACE IN THE HOLE and VIOLENT SATURDAY on Blu-ray

ACE IN THE HOLE (1951; Billy Wilder)
"Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news."
There are few films that were made 50 years ago that are just as relevant today as they were at the time of their release. Some movies just touch on some things that end up being remarkably prophetic, in this case in terms of the media and journalism and what is news. Two other films that dig into this territory and also the idea of celebrity and what makes it are NETWORK and THE KING OF COMEDY. All three of these films would take a cynical look at the media and end up predicting the future. All three offer up something quite outrageous for the time they were made, but now said outrageousness is more or less an everyday reality for us in the current age of media and the 24 hour need cycle we live in. To think that some psychopath who had kidnapped a talk show host just to get himself on TV for a few minutes would ever become a real celebrity must have seemed quite ridiculous in 1983 when THE KING OF COMEDY was released. And though Billy Wilder might have believed a reporter would do anything (including deliberately stretching out a story) it must have seemed quite shocking to folks seeing the film in 1951. He was more or less predicting things that would commonly occupy news channels to this day and the literal "media circus" as we often see on a regular basis now. ACE IN THE HOLE is probably the most somber of those three films I mentioned. That may have something to do with it flopping pretty hard upon its initial release. 
Kirk Douglas turns in one of his career high performances here as Charles Tatum - a cynical, fast-talking career newspaper man. After being fired off of 11 newspapers he finds himself taking up residence at a small town paper in New Mexico. From the very first he declares his abilities to cover big news and little news and to "go out and bite a dog" if there's no news to be had. Tatum does find a proverbial dog to bite in the form of a man trapped by a cave-in in the "Mountain of the Seven Vultures". When he does everything he can to delay the man's rescue and sensationalize the event to the hilt with his articles about it, he proves himself to be one of the most despicable human beings on earth. Few actors other than Douglas in his prime could make a character like this even remotely likeable through sheer force of charm and charisma (which Douglas had in spades). 
ACE is an interesting way point in Wilder's career in that it was the first film he made after parting ways with longtime collaborator and co-writer Charles Brackett. Wilder and Brackett had collaborated on some great movies like BALL OF FIRE, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, A FOREIGN AFFAIR, THE LOST WEEKEND and of course, SUNSET BLVD. They were even a formidable duo as writers on films that Wilder didn't direct - MIDNIGHT (directed by Mitchell Leisen) and BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (directed by Ernst Lubitsch) being chief among my favorites. So as Wilder was stepping away from that collaboration with ACE IN THE HOLE, he also took on the duties of being his own producer for the first time as well. Those two choices alone could have been major missteps by any other writer/director, but Wilder pulled together a remarkably dark and searing portrait nonetheless. The fact that the film failed and wasn't received particularly well on a critical level at the time would seem to demonstrate that it was ahead of it's time for sure.

Supplements:
-"Portrait of a "60% Perfect Man": Billy Wilder" (59 mins)
This vintage career retrospective documentary from 1982 gives a nice overview of Wilder's filmography, carrying right up to the last movies he made. Includes interviews with Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Wilder himself (who paces energetically about his office as he speaks). As you can imagine, Wilder is a dynamic speaker and storyteller and it's a wonderful thing to spend an hour with him. He gives a lot of insights about both writing and directing throughout.
"Neil Sinyard on Billy Wilder" (33 mins) 
Sinyard (coauthor of 'Journey Down Sunset Blvd: The Films of Billy Wilder) gives a historical context to Wilder and his career just prior to and through ACE IN THE HOLE. He discusses Wilder's working relationship with co-writers Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond and also the new circumstances facing Wilder as he began the production of ACE IN THE HOLE.

VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955; Richard Fleischer)
Richard Fleischer is one of those directors where, if you start digging through his filmography, there are many gems to be discovered. I can't recall which was the first Fleischer film I ever saw (that honor may go to SOYLENT GREEN or 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA), but he immediately impressed me. Something about the kind of films he ended up making and the way he composed his frames grabbed my attention. I think that COMPULSION was another one I saw that caught my attention in a similar way. 
In VIOLENT SATURDAY, Fleischer made a very character oriented heist film. Some might find it dull perhaps as the film really takes its time getting to the action, but I think it's pretty interesting. Feels a bit like it's one part heist film and one part Sirk-ian melodrama which is an interesting combination for sure. The focus is a bit more on Victor Mature and his relationship with his son (same kid as in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER). It's a nice early role for Lee Marvin, wherein he is introduced early as a sadist who enjoys stepping on a little boy's hand. But Marvin's presence alone always elevates a film for me and this is no exception. Also in a smaller supporting role is Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer ( pre-dating DEADLY BLESSING by about 30 years). As little as Marvin and Borgnine are in the film, they have a nice little square off at the end at least. Overall though, VIOLENT SATURDAY is an enjoyable, slow-burn, heist thriller that slots well into Fleischer's canon of movies along with things like MR. MAJESTYK and THE NEW CENTURIONS. 

Supplements:
-"Richard Fleischer, Storyteller(21 mins) 
A  neat little conversation with director William Friedkin who talks about how impressed he was with VIOLENT SATURDAY from a young age, from its narrative structure to the use of CinemaScope. He goes on to call it one of the best "heist" pictures along with Stanley Kubrick's film THE KILLING and to discuss how Richard Fleischer is one of the best storytellers in American cinema. 
-"Melodrame Policier" (28 mins)
This in-depth exploration of VIOLENT SATURDAY by French writer/director Nicolas Saada is quite fascinating. Another excellent extra feature.

The disc also includes some lovely liner notes by Adam Batty, a film programmer and editor of the site Hope Lies At 24 Frames Per Second). It's a great, insightful essay and the booklet also has lots of pictures of vintage advertisements and artwork from the film.


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