Leo don’t despair: notes on Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951)
We're coming, we're coming, Leo
Oh Leo don't despair. While
You are in the cave-in hopin'
We are up above you gropin'
And we soon will make an openin'.
We're closer, we're closer, Leo
And soon you'll breathe fresh air
While you are in the devil's prison,
Keep the spark of life a fizzin'
We'll soon have you out of prison, Leo.
Note: some spoilers.
1) When I first watched Ace in the Hole last year, I was stunned. I watched it again. I’ve been watching it with semi-obsessive interest ever since, and I’ve heard that it is one of the favorites of Sam Peckinpah, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen. Ace in the Hole is rare in that one never seems to get to the bottom of its cheerful cynicism, the ferocity of its unfunny Mad magazine ridicule of American emptiness, arrogance, cultural imperialism, and gullibility. Adapting the story of the media circus created around Floyd Collins, a man who got stuck in a cave in Kentucky in 1925, Billy Wilder trains his satire directly at the audience, the popcorn-crunching crowd eager for amusement, so naturally the film was a bomb (but not in Europe, of course).
2) Ace in the Hole concerns a down-on-his-luck big city journalist, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) who reluctantly takes a job as a reporter for the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin in
3) Why is the film hard to reach conclusions about? For one thing, the drill never does get to Leo. He dies several days when it is only (roughly) ten feet away. In the same way, I find it difficult to get to any final analysis. The film eludes us just as the final significance of death is difficult to pin down. Wilder skillfully juxtaposes the Leo's plight with blithe amusement park music going on outside, perpetually playing the ghastly melody of the trite “Leo” song quoted above, as people ride the Ferris wheels and buy balloons. He implies that Americans are so besotted with amusement, they cannot begin to recognize death even as it forms a basic staple of their entertainment. Leo’s suffering serves as a pretext for a party, not that anyone, except his relatives (and, to be fair, increasingly Chuck), gives a damn about him anyway.
4) Not only are Americans ridiculed for their endless quest for distraction, they also thrive on exploiting each other. Thus, aside from Chuck’s cynical use of Leo, the local sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) proves easily corrupted to join Chuck’s scheme to help with his reelection. The head of the rescue team gives in to Chuck’s and Kretzer’s bullying to keep his job. For her part, the delightfully cynical and noir-bitchy Lorraine recognizes that there’s money to be made at her and Leo’s nearby hamburger restaurant and hotel, not to mention the S & M Amusement Corp who works out a deal to bring the fair to the mountain. Why does Wilder call it S & M? Perhaps because everyone sadistically takes pleasure in Leo’s suffering. Also, there’s a S & M quality to Lorraine’s and Chuck’s relationship, since she’s sexually attracted to his macho manipulations, and his disdainful use of her gets increasingly violent until she stabs him with some scissors.
5) In the excellent Criterion Collection DVD commentary, film scholar Neil Sinyard points out how one can interpret the Leo song in sexual terms. The song ironically celebrates Chuck’s and
6) I enjoy Kirk Douglas’ performance too much to think him as a simple villain, especially since he shows major signs of remorse as the film goes on, and he partially redeems himself by bringing a priest to Leo for his last rites. Oddly, the real villains of the movie are the quintessential American family couple, the Federbers. They are ordinary tourists who show up first to park their mobile home by the mountain. Their son wears an Indian headdress. They eat hot dogs and ride the Ferris wheel. When getting interviewed on the radio, Mr. Federber insists that they were there first, and he also tries to sell insurance. They mean well, but their quest for amusement amidst Leo's entombment makes them perhaps the most responsible for his death. When the story breaks down with Leo’s death, they all go away in despair.
7) When one considers the satire on American cultural imperialism within Wilder’s Austrian vision, one can dwell on how Chuck rudely says “How” to a Native American working in the newspaper offices. The Native American responds with “How do you do, sir,” but all too often, everyone (except for Leo) ignores any notion of an alternate older culture in the area, or the sacredness of the Native American burial ground except when it suits Chuck’s angle for his articles. Americans come off as arrogant cowboys quite happy to befoul, pollute, and drill into the
8) In the end, I don't why I like this film so much. It is desert-bleak, savagely sardonic, and full of contempt, and yet Ace in the Hole still seems truer to the underside of the American spirit, even today, than any other 1950s film.