Ace in the Hole: a commentary

The following is a slightly edited transcript of the audio commentary I gave for the Criterion Classics DVD release of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. (I was also interviewed about the film on the Masters of Cinema DVD/blu ray release.) This essay will probably make more sense if you have viewed the film recently. I’ve kept the relatively informal style and hope the commentary will be of interest. For a number of reasons, personal and artistic, no director has been more important to me than Billy Wilder.

Sinyard_Ace_1Plain credits on a parched, soil surface: Ace in the Hole announces itself immediately as a gritty film featuring characters with hearts of stone. The name that dominates the credits is writer/producer/director Billy Wilder; and Ace in the Hole (1951) is following on from such hard-hitting Wilder movies as Double Indemnity in 1944, The Lost Weekend in 1945 and Sunset Boulevard in 1950 which shone a harsh spotlight on unsavoury aspects of American life. Like other acclaimed writer-directors of the 1940s in Hollywood, such as Preston Sturges, John Huston and Joseph L.Mankiewicz, Wilder had become a director to protect his own scripts. ‘It isn’t important that a director knows how to write,’ he would say, ‘but it is important that he knows how to read.’

‘Tell the Truth’: Enter Chuck Tatum

Wilder was very adroit at giving his main characters memorable entrances – think of Marilyn Monroe’s first entry as Sugar Kane in Some like it Hot (1959) where she gets a wolf whistle from a train – and Kirk Douglas’s first appearance as Chuck Tatum, as he is towed into Albuquerque, is appropriately unorthodox here. Wilder is establishing three things very quickly: that Tatum is down on his luck; that he is nevertheless good at exploiting even adverse situations to his advantage, so he gives the appearance of being chauffeured into town; and also that he is interested in newspapers – and looking around for the next angle or opportunity.

Sinyard_Ace_4Passing the offices of the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin he will see his chance. As he enters the office, he passes a Native American cutting up pictures for the front page, ‘How,’ he says. ‘Good afternoon, sir,’ replies the man. That’s a slight exchange but a significant one. It shows quickly Tatum’s cockiness, sarcasm, even racial insensitivity, all qualities that are to have some importance in the revelation of his character.

Sinyard_Ace_5Cherish the moment when he enters the office and surveys a scene of busy routine, almost more like a schoolroom than a newsroom: it is one of the few occasions, certainly in the early part of the film, where he is quiet. But he is doing what he often does in such moments: sizing things up. He moves to the front of the frame as if in assertion of his own ego: no question in his mind that he should occupy centre stage.

Sinyard_Ace_6Whereas most people might say ‘Excuse me’, Tatum rings for attention: a slide of the typewriter carriage whose ‘ping’ announces his presence and demands service. It’s an incisive metaphor for the way he uses a typewriter to grab attention (the essence of his profession, in his eyes). When Herbie goes to tell his boss that Charles Tatum from New York is here to see him with a scheme that will make him $200, Tatum uses the typewriter carriage to ignite his match for his cigarette – nothing as ordinary as a matchbox for Chuck: he has, as one might say, flair. The brief exchange with the cub reporter, Herbie, played by Bob Arthur, has a nice moment too, presaging their future friendship. When Herbie returns Chuck’s ‘cagey, eh?’ there’s a flicker of acknowledgement in Chuck’s face as if sensing he has found someone with a little spark.

Sinyard_Ace_7There is another key detail in this scene: Mr Boot’s sign ‘Tell the Truth’ which Tatum surveys with some amusement. There’s a double-edged irony here: in one sense, the sign is a perfect representation of him, because precisely what he does is embroider the truth; but much later in the film, when he does try to tell the truth, nobody wants to listen.

Mr Boot is played by one of Hollywood’s most reliable supporting players of the time, Porter Hall, who was in Double Indemnity as the passenger on the observation car on that fateful train, and whom I particularly remember as one of the studio bosses trying to dissuade Joel McRae’s idealistic director from making ‘O Brother where art thou?’ in Preston Sturges’s dark satire about Hollywood, Sullivan Travels (1941). The scene resembles an early scene in Sunset Boulevard when William Holden’s down-at-heel screenwriter has to make a sales pitch to a potential employer who seems hard to impress. However, whereas Holden’s screenwriter tries at least to charm his way into the boss’s good graces, Tatum wears his arrogance like a red badge of courage. ‘Even for Albuquerque this is very Albuquerque,’ he sniffs, contemptuously, when offering his opinion on Boot’s newspaper. Tatum’s pitch emphasises his big-city expertise. He knows newspapers backwards and sideways and can write to order: if there’s no news, he says, he’ll go out and bite a dog. So what is he doing in Albuquerque, a $250 a week newspaperman offering his services for $50?

Sinyard_Ace_8Wilder once again makes shrewd use of Boot’s ‘Tell the Truth’ notice to make a point. Tatum advertises his credentials but shows how observant he is: he could lie pretty well, he says, but he would never lie to man who wears belt and suspenders, because that betokens a cautious man who would check his facts. (A similar character, incidentally, crops up in Wilder’s The Spirit of St Louis.) Boot is unfazed by this revelation of journalistic brilliance compromised by human frailty, but the character seems extreme even for Wilder (a director famously described by William Holden as ‘a man with a mind full of razor blades’) and at this juncture it might be worth saying something about the casting and screen persona of Kirk Douglas.

Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky and son of an immigrant Russian-Jewish ragman, Douglas had begun his film career after World War Two and had played a range of roles, from the villain in the classic film noir Build My Gallows High in 1947 to a teacher in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning A Letter to Three Wives in 1949 to an exceptionally charming gentleman caller in the film version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie in 1950. But the part that particularly defined his screen personality at this time, which was his first starring role and his first Oscar nomination, was the boxer in Champion (1949), a man who will stop at nothing in his ruthless drive to get to the top. Douglas was one of a new breed of stars who could make an anti-hero fascinating; and, with a director who was also not afraid to go against the grain, it makes for an abrasive combination. Even Douglas asked if the character might be given a bit more charm, but Wilder refused. ‘Give it both knees, right from the beginning,’ he told him.

Sinyard_Ace_9aYet I think Wilder still manages very cannily to suggest a vulnerability in Tatum that just occasionally pierces his armour of arrogance. I’m intrigued by the small detail that during the scene he keeps lowering his price, from 50 to 45, to 40 per week: for all the bravado, he really badly wants this job. He gives the reason why in a striking low angle shot that makes him look menacing but at the same time gives the impression of his momentarily staring into an abyss: that he’s burnt his boats as well as the bearings on his convertible and his only chance back now is a break in a small newspaper that will have the wire services clamouring for his skills. ‘When they need you, they forgive and forget,’ he says. It’s hard not to feel that Wilder might have had Hollywood in his mind when composing that line. When watching Tatum at this point – where there seems to be both fire and fear in what he says – I think of that Scott Fitzgerald maxim in his uncompleted final novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon: ‘There are no second acts in American lives’.

Land of entrapment

Sinyard_Ace_10Sinyard_Ace_11There’s a great shot when he comes out of Boot’s office and they point to his desk. The camera placement actually anticipates the very last shot of the film, when Tatum will be back where he started – only worse. He walks directly to the front of the frame at which point the screen goes black, in a device that seems to me Wilder has stolen directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, his famous ten-minute-take film of 1948, played out in continuous time and where the transition from one reel to the next was contrived through a character walking directly in front of the camera to enable the transition to be made. Whereas Rope used it to maintain an illusion of continuous time, Wilder deploys it to mark a time lapse. When Tatum strides back away from the camera, a year has passed: the camera’s immobility matches that of Tatum’s progress. There’s a nifty touch of costuming too: notice that now he is wearing both belt and suspenders, perhaps in mock homage to Boot’s hold over him; but he is also wearing a black shirt which sets him apart from the other people in the room but also has uncomfortable connotations from Europe’s recent past. He will be wearing it constantly as he begins to exert a dictator-like grasp of the media’s potential to help him develop his scheme; when this grip starts to slip, it will be signalled by a change of clothing.

Sinyard_Ace_12‘Thanks, Geronimo,’ he says to his co-worker when his lunch is delivered. The casually racist remark rankles – as it is meant to do, for later he is to become involved in matters that the Native Americans hold sacred. To Tatum – and to invoke the title of another great newspaper movie – nothing’s sacred. Even the words of President Roosevelt are parodied when he cites that day as one that will live in infamy – they have stopped serving him chopped chicken livers. As he starts complaining about the food, it’s clear that something is eating him. Behind his desk is a sign that reads ‘New Mexico – Land of Enchantment’ – but for Tatum it is a land of entrapment, a ‘sun-baked Siberia’, as he puts it, and it sets him off on what is clearly a familiar tirade against the quality of life there and what he was used to. ‘No Yogi Barra,’ he shouts and then asks Miss Deverish if she knows who Yogi Barra is. (Actually Kirk Douglas himself didn’t pick up that reference and had to have it explained to him by his secretary – that Yogi Barra was a legendary catcher for the New York Yankees. Wilder always delighted in slipping in references to American sports.) ‘Yogi…’ she replies, ‘it’s a sort of religion, isn’t it?’ Tatum picks up the analogy and runs with it, but in her quiet way, Miss Deverish is alluding again to a potential religious sub-theme that will be developed later.

‘What do you do for NOISE around here?’ he shouts – so loudly that we can see newsmen in an adjoining room looking through the window to see what the commotion is about. It’s obviously a much repeated wail, as Herbie points out – ‘Is this is one of your long-playing records, Chuck?’ – but notice how unobtrusively Wilder suggests that at least Tatum and Herbie have grown a little closer over the year: Herbie now calls him ‘Chuck’ and now ignites his match for him by repeating the routine with the typewriter carriage, like the famous routine with cigar and match shared between Fred MacMurray and Edward G.Robinson in Double Indemnity to suggest their friendship. Tatum is still looking for that elusive break, which he evocatively describes as the ‘loaf of bread with a file in it’. He paces the newsroom like a prisoner in a cell, and the imagery of prison, of feeling trapped – literally and metaphorically – is to be a pervasive motif.

Nevertheless, although one might deplore the sentiments, one is drawn to the dynamism: it’s a dichotomy that will provide a major source of the film’s dramatic tension. He is, after all, the only source of movement and vitality in the office: he’ll be the film’s driving force. And as in the earlier scene prior to his meeting with Boot, he will start pulling the leg of Miss Deverish, suggesting she involves herself in a trunk murder (another sly allusion to Rope, perhaps?) and growls, as if wishing to put a tiger in her tank. Miss Deverish, incidentally, is played by one of those infallible Hollywood supporting players, Edith Evanson. She is forever associated in my mind with that figure of Fate she plays in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), limping bravely towards the camera to disclose at great personal risk a crucial piece of evidence to Glenn Ford’s vengeful cop that will set him on the path to justice.

We have seen Boot enter unnoticed by Tatum – not the only time in the film he is to do that, appearing like a headmaster behind a naughty pupil who is acting up in class. He even thinks he has caught out Tatum drinking on the job: earlier he has told him of the drinking ban at work and asked if Tatum drank a lot. ‘Not a lot but frequently,’ is Tatum’s reply. Along with his clothing, alcohol will be another later signifier of his loss of control: he can resist temptation when things are going well, but when things deteriorate, so does he. In this instance, like many a Wilder protagonist, Boot has misread a visual image because he has not seen the complete picture. The bottle is in fact for Tatum’s model ship made out of matches and toothpicks: ingenious, but an object that signifies Tatum’s feelings of boredom and also perhaps of claustrophobia. Coverage of a rattlesnake hunt will at least get him out of the office – and maybe out of a rut.

‘Good news is no news’

Sinyard_Ace_13What I like about the little scene that follows between Tatum and Herbie as they drive to the hunt is its purpose of progression. Ostensibly, it’s just a nice contrast to the Albuquerque scenes which, in their interiority, were getting a little claustrophobic. We see Tatum relaxing, as before being chauffeured to his next assignment. It’s developing a bit further the budding friendship between Tatum and Herbie, with Herbie as a useful foil to Tatum: he gives him someone to talk to; his callow attitudes are contrasted with Tatum’s outrageousness, giving us something to measure it against; but Herbie almost at times becomes representative of the audience, taken aback by the way Tatum’s mind works. Whereas Herbie thinks the rattlesnake hunt might be more exciting than Tatum gives it credit for, Tatum suggests that the thing that would make it really exciting would be if 50 rattlesnakes escaped and they were rounded up until one was unaccounted for. ‘Where’s the last rattler?’ Herbie asks. ‘In my desk drawer, fan.’ Wilder is already preparing the way for Tatum’s handling of the cave-in story (and, in a way, also preparing the way for the appearance of the Sheriff, who keeps a pet rattlesnake in a box). When Tatum stumbles across it, it’s as if the groundwork has already been cleared in his mind. And we’re seeing the contrast between Tatum’s style of journalism and that of Herbie, brought up under the ‘Tell the Truth’ tutelage of Mr Boot. What has Herbie learned from Tatum? ‘Bad news sells best because good news is no news.’

Sinyard_Ace_14There’s a nice sense of pacing and contrast in the next passage as well as delayed dramatic revelation that adds to the suspense. Wilder is close now to the core situation of his drama and he wants to lead you into it gradually and drop a few clues to add intrigue before the full revelation. The shot from inside the store window is an indicator of that. It is the most striking shot of the film so far and signalling something very significant is occurring inside or about to be revealed there.

Sinyard_Ace_15Sinyard_Ace_16Narrative curiosity is sustained a little longer as Herbie comes across an old lady fervently praying. Herbie’s intrusion feels like something of a sacrilege (an anticipation on a minor scale of a future dramatic theme) but our curiosity is furthered by the fact that the woman takes no notice of him and indeed seems unaware of his entry. Clearly the subject of her prayer is the entire focus of her attention which in turns hints at its seriousness. It’s a nice touch that Herbie doesn’t immediately grasp the significance of all this, certainly in terms of its potential for a story: he’s just puzzled and intrigued. But when he comes out to tell Tatum about it, Tatum’s antennae are immediately on the alert (‘Praying?’) and almost simultaneously a police siren is heard, connecting these two things. There’s a dark irony here: a feeling that he instinctively and almost immediately senses that this might be what he’s been looking for – or, in other words, that this might be the answer to his prayer. There’s time for him to make another crack in racially-dubious taste – ‘Maybe they’ve got a warrant for Sitting Bull for that Custer rap’ – before they drive to investigate what is happening, passing the sign that advertises the mine that was discovered by the Indians 450 years ago. Entry is free: it won’t stay that way for long.

Enter the Minosas

Sinyard_Ace_17We are introduced to the film’s other key character, Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) – a sweet-sounding name for one of the sourest characters in the whole of Wilder’s work. Skilful dramatist that he is, Wilder not only uses the character’s appearance for dramatic exposition but to push the narrative a little further, just through one phrase she uses about her husband: ‘dumb cluck’. It’s an immediate revelation of her attitude: that he had it coming, and that she’s more angry than anxious. At this point Tatum goes a bit quiet, letting Lorraine disclose herself in her own words, obviously sizing her up, and picking up not only her exasperation at her husband but her dislike of her surroundings. What he is not picking up – and could not possibly at that stage – is that the character sitting next to him will prove to be his nemesis.

Sinyard_Ace_18A Deputy Sheriff (Gene Evans) is dealing with the situation – and not very sensitively or sympathetically. If he’s the deputy Sheriff, what on earth is the Sheriff like? Wilder again is using cunning delaying tactics to add greater impact to the later introduction of the Sheriff, who will be drawn into Tatum’s plan and whose clear disreputableness will be the yardstick by which the lowness of the scheme will be judged and condemned. I’ve always thought Wilder was taking a great risk here in offering such an unflattering portrayal of the forces of law and order at a time when such subversive characterisations could have been construed as being un-American. Even the Hollywood censor, blind to the blistering criticism of other aspects of the film, was to be perturbed by the fact that no obvious punishment will be meted out to a figure like the Sheriff who seems irredeemably corrupt. But then, as we shall see, the film’s distribution of punishment and retribution will be very idiosyncratic.

We are also introduced here to Leo Minosa’s father, Papa Minosa (John Berkes), who will turn out to be one of the few humane characters we will encounter in the entire film. Through him, we learn that Leo has been trapped for about 6 hours in the cave and is down about 200 to 300 feet. To this, another dimension is added: when the Deputy tries to get the Native Americans to go in after Leo, they won’t – for them it’s a sacred place that has been violated and they are afraid of ‘bad spirits’.

It is the longest time that Tatum has been out of the narrative. It’s not filmed as a point of view shot, but there is a sense that while the scene is playing, Tatum is watching, waiting, listening, taking it all in. It’s the moment when he hears about the ‘bad spirits’ and ‘the mountain of the Seven Vultures’ that something clicks and he gets out of the car: you can almost feel his blood quickening as he senses the stirrings of a story, the possibility of an angle. Nothing is going to keep him out of that cave – certainly not that boorish Deputy Sheriff.

A short scene with the Deputy is a sharp little cameo because it gives a positive thrust to Tatum’s aggression. We know Tatum’s motives for wanting to go into that cave are far from altruistic: the snap of violence when he snatches the torch shows how determined he is. At the same time we enjoy the way he puts down an unpleasant character, exposing the coward beneath the bully. There is something attractive as well as appalling about his audacity and arrogance. At this particular point he is cutting through obstructive bureaucracy, getting something done. One of the ironies here – and it is to gather uncomfortable momentum as the film progresses – is that Tatum’s behaviour attracts the gratitude and devotion of Leo’s father, who sees him as Leo’s saviour. ‘God bless you,’ he says to Tatum as he prepares to enter the cave: that sentiment will be given a vicious twist both by the ultimate outcome of Tatum’s involvement with Leo, and Wilder’s visual handling of it. And like the master dramatist he is, Wilder adds a final twist of the knife. ‘Tell him we’ll get him out, tell him not to worry,’ says Leo’s father, to which Lorraine adds, ‘Tell him we’ll have a big coming-out party and brass band.’ Her sarcasm is a measure of the anger and scorn she feels at her husband’s foolhardiness, but Wilder is also subliminally preparing the ground for the grotesque celebratory carnival that is about to form to greet Leo’s anticipated rescue. We are left with that telling visual contrast: Lorraine smoking – fuming, in fact – and Papa Minosa crossing himself in prayer, a gesture that reminds us of how this whole thing started, when Herbie came across Leo’s mother. As Tatum and Herbie enter that cave, Wilder is deepening the implications of his tale: are we entering a tale of rescue and redemption, or of selfishness and sacrilege?

‘The human interest story’: Herbie and Floyd Collins

Sinyard_Ace_19Tatum leads the way: it’s clearly a master/pupil relationship now, with Tatum giving Herbie another lesson in journalistic behaviour and Wilder taking us closer to Tatum’s strategy. Many people trapped down a mine is a powerful story (Wilder might have been thinking of films like G.W.Pabst’s Kameradschaft or Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down), but as Tatum demonstrated with his rattlesnake analogy, it’s even better when there’s just one: it gives the story ‘human interest’. (The original title of the film was ‘The Human Interest Story’ and an ironic phrase for someone who grows progressively dehumanised as the plan proceeds). There is a significant reference to Lindbergh here; Cecil B DeMille mentions him when he greets Gloria Swanson on the Paramount steps in Sunset Boulevard; and, six years later, Wilder was to make his most all-American film about Lindbergh’s solo cross-Atlantic flight, The Spirit of St Louis. But what brings Tatum up short (so much so that he momentarily stops at this point, forgetting the urgency of the rescue) is the example of Floyd Collins, the reporter who ‘crawled in for the story [about a cave-in] and crawled out with a Pulitzer Prize.’

The Floyd Collins story was basically the starting point for Ace in the Hole and had been suggested to Wilder by one of his co-writers, Walter Newman, at that time a young writer for radio whom Wilder had spotted, later to become a highly regarded screenwriter on such films as The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Cat Ballou (1965). At this point in the film, Tatum has latched on to the Floyd Collins story because a plan is formulating in his mind: the treacherous path inside the cave might actually be the pathway out of his stultifying existence at Albuquerque where he feels as if he’s being buried alive. ‘I don’t like the looks of it, Chuck,’ says Herbie, to which Tatum replies: ‘I don’t either, fan, but I like the odds.’ William Holden’s anti-hero in Stalag 17 (1953) will say much the same thing when he volunteers to smuggle the officer out of the prison camp: the risk is worth taking, because the rewards might be greater.

When Tatum asks Herbie to stay behind, the motive seems sound enough, but you can sense a deeper motive too: he wants this story to himself and he doesn’t want Herbie getting too close to his methods. Wilder’s use of the setting is very expressive here. The occasional rumblings and slippages of soil keep the dangers at the forefront of our mind, but Tatum’s meandering, labyrinthine progress is also a metaphor for the devious workings of his mind and perhaps also a portent that he might be getting into this deeper than he realises. He suspects it might be his way out of being buried alive in Albuquerque: he might actually be digging a hole for himself he can’t get out of.

His meeting with Leo quickly sets up their relationship. As played by Richard Benedict, Leo seems a perfectly ordinary man who has got himself into a jam. Tatum brings him a blanket, coffee, cigar – and hope, becoming visually from now on virtually his only link to the outside world. When Leo is fretting that he might be trapped overnight, Tatum replies: ‘They’ll do it as fast as they can, but they’ve got to do it right.’ The word ‘but’ is very important there: it’s Tatum’s little wedge in the argument, whereby he’s thinking that Leo will be rescued at his required pace. And it’s at this point that Leo introduces the supernatural element (‘I guess they didn’t want me to have it…the Indian dead’). In reaction shot here, Kirk Douglas in reaction shot here suggests that Tatum is not giving him his full attention – part of him is listening, but the other part is thinking of how this can be worked up into the story.

Even Leo is tickled by the thought of media attention – little realising that this will, in effect, condemn him to death. He talks about his fear, the wartime camaraderie he experience, and then starts singing ‘The Hut Sut Song’ – ‘Hut Sut Rawlson an the rillerah, and a brawla, brawla sooit’. This nonsense ditty, supposedly based on a Swedish folk song, was a big hit in 1941; featured in the film San Antonio; and is heard in the background, for example, in Fred Zinnemann’s Pearl Harbor drama, From Here to Eternity (1953) as a kind of marker of the period. It was called a national disease, a song that, once heard, will unfortunately stick in your head until the day you die. Small wonder it nearly causes another cave-in.

Sinyard_Ace_20The song, however, has lifted Leo’s spirits: Tatum’s too. Contact has been made, a bond established: ironic given the fact that Tatum is intending to milk the situation for what he can get out of it; doubly so, because he becomes Leo’s friend and finds himself fatally compromised by doing so. Herbie is struck by Tatum’s cheerful mood as he comes away from the meeting with Leo. ‘What is the story?’ he asks, to which Tatum replies: ‘Big.’ That line always reminds me of the moment in Citizen Kane when Kane says: ‘If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.’ Tatum has not only got Floyd Collins, but Floyd Collins with an angle. ‘It’s Floyd Collins with an angle,’ he muses. ‘King Tut in New Mexico; white man half buried by angry Indian spirits… Collins was buried alive for 18 days… if I had just one week.’ That is almost a giveaway to Herbie, and he has to backtrack quickly. ‘I don’t make things happen,’ he says, ‘all I do is write about them.’ That isn’t what he told Herbie in the car. He is about to embroider the truth. In the light of the preceding events, a shot of Papa Minosa – a personification of trust and honesty – at the cave entry is poignantly timed. Tatum can throw the Deputy’s torch back at him in a gesture of contempt and have our endorsement, but the old man’s trust will continue to be an implicit rebuke to Tatum’s deviousness.

The importance of Lorraine (Jan Sterling)

Sinyard_Ace_21Wilder adroitly picks up the pace now after the steady tempo of the cave sequence to reflect the urgency of the situation and Tatum’s expressed desire to get the rescue operation in motion. Nevertheless, we see how Tatum is still quite disconcerted by Lorraine’s seeming lack of wifely concern. She seems incapable of talking about her home or her situation in anything other than dull tones or without an edge of sarcasm or bitterness. Sometimes it seems to take even Tatum by surprise, partly no doubt because it doesn’t coincide with the story he is already composing in his own head, and partly perhaps because her cynicism is a little too close to his own for comfort. For all his expression of concern about Leo and the urgency of the situation, his first call is to his editor, Mr Boot about his front-page story: no question about Tatum’s priorities. Wilder’s only signal of Tatum’s possible uneasiness about that is his interesting body language around the phone. Firstly he moves to his right and closes the door to the room in which Mrs Minosa is praying: he doesn’t want her listening in to his exclusive story about the ‘Curse of the Mountain of the Seven Vultures’, which in turn implies his recognition that what he is doing is, to say the least, a bit unethical. And then he moves round in the other direction when he notices that Lorraine is watching him. That will make little difference as she is on to him already.

Sinyard_Ace_22There are two great shots when Lorraine wanders on to the porch with her apple. Herbie is offering to pay for the gas; Papa Minosa wouldn’t dream of charging. (Wilder is very good at plotting the moments when Herbie has to leave the narrative, to make his delayed recognition of Tatum’s deceit more plausible.) Then she looks back through the window at Tatum on the phone, smiles and bites into her apple. The ‘innocence’ of Papa Minosa is well and truly undercut: Lorraine, the Eve in this despoiled Eden, knows the score (as Hugo Friedhofer’s music slyly underlines). Cut back to Leo in his mountain-trap, with a lizard crawling across the walls of the cave. It’s a reminder of the physical reality and discomfort of his situation, all the more telling because it’s going to be a good thirty minutes before we see him again: it’s as if he’s almost literally forgotten by some of those above ground who see him only in terms of a golden opportunity. Equally disturbing perhaps, Wilder, in developing his narrative, makes the audience almost forget him also.

It’s at this point in the film that Jan Sterling as Lorraine comes into her own. Wilder is setting up another suspense situation to keep our interest engaged; she’s packed and all ready to walk out, but the bus has not yet arrived. As she waits in the store with Tatum, we learn more about her background before meeting Leo, who has promised more than he delivered: she now wants out of the marriage. It’s the kind of characterisation that has sometimes led to accusations of misogyny in Wilder’s work: for example, Barbara Stanwyck’s murderous femme fatale in Double Indemnity, or the gold-digging ex-wife in The Fortune Cookie (1966), who sees through the scam but who, like Lorraine, will return to her immobilised husband when she senses there’s money in it. Yet Lorraine earns our grudging respect in one regard at least: she’s the one character in the film who can give as good as she gets when dealing with Tatum. ‘Yesterday you never even heard of Leo,’ she sneers, ‘now you can’t know enough about him. Aren’t you sweet?’ Tatum is clearly a bit taken aback by that; that’s just a bit too close to the truth for his liking. And Lorraine is reminding us that Wilder’s heroes are hardly more admirable than his heroines. I’ve always thought his films less consciously misogynistic than comprehensively misanthropic.

At this time in her career married to the actor Paul Douglas, Sterling had first come to screen prominence with her role in the prison drama Caged (1948). She was later to be nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The High and the Mighty (1954), but it is Ace in the Hole where we see her at her best, for this is a fearless, truthful performance of a character who could on the surface just come over as an unfeeling monster. Sterling herself thought her character was not unsympathetic but was acting as she did out of a deep unhappiness at a marriage that had failed to deliver on its promise and whose future looked bleak but for this unexpected development. This is not unlike Tatum, in fact, and she is not slow to point this out. She turns the tables on him when he is expressing his disgust at the timing of her desertion of Leo. ‘Nice kid,’ he says, scornfully, to which she replies: ‘Look who’s talking….Honey, you like those rocks just as much as I do.’ One again one can see from Tatum’s reaction that the point has struck home.

‘There’s three of us buried here’

Sinyard_Ace_23Sinyard_Ace_24The following sequence has always seemed to me an absolute master-class in screen writing and direction. The situation has been set up beautifully. We know the characters now; why Lorraine wants to leave; and why Tatum wants her to stay to add to the ‘human interest’ angle of his story. But what can he do to stop her boarding the bus that will her away? Cue the arrival of the Federbers (Frank Cady and Geraldine Hall) who have read about the story in the paper and have come to visit the site. Tatum comes out to join them and Wilder frames all four – hypocritical instigator, embittered deserter, morbid general public in the same frame. Wilder now cuts to a closer shot of Tatum and Lorraine as they both seem to grasp the significance of this arrival – when Tatum describes his relationship to Leo as ‘friend’, the word seems both ironic and sinister. ‘Wake up the kids,’ says Federber, ‘they should see this. This is very instructive.’ Off they drive to stake their claim to the best spot, as if they were attending a show – as it soon will be. In the meantime, Tatum makes one last pitch to Lorraine, his gestures becoming a little more violent to reflect his determination. (His inner violence will become less controlled as the film draws on and lead finally to his downfall.) There’s no pretence here, no appealing to emotion or sentiment: it’s entirely to do with what’s in it for them. ‘There’s three of us buried here’ he tells her, ‘only I’m going back in style.’ With a last crack about how they must have bleached her brains as well as her hair, Tatum returns to the store.

Sinyard_Ace_25Having laid it all out, Wilder can now let the camera do the rest. Lorraine stands still, like the camera, but, as we hear the bus approach, she backs away slightly, suggesting a tiny weakening of resolve. Bus stops, blocking our view, adding to the suspense, then moves off and out of frame, like a horizontal wipe. Camera stares implacably as Lorraine walks back to the store, Tatum in long shot opening the door, the two now accomplices more than antagonists, the closed door sealing the bargain.

When Herbie returns later that morning, we can see that Escudero is coming alive, something adroitly underlined by Hugo Friedhofer’s score, which won a prize at that year’s Venice Film Festival as the score of the year and seems to me flawless and alert throughout in conveying atmosphere, momentum and connecting musical tissue. A supreme musical arranger for Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, Friedhofer had begun writing his scores in the 1940s, winning an Oscar for his magnificent score for William Wyler’s The Best Years of our Lives (which Wilder, incidentally, thought was the best directed film he’d ever seen and which was the first film score ever to be receive an extended analysis in a classical music magazine). According to the composer, Wilder was disappointed the score had no themes, to which Friedhofer replied: ‘Would you want me to soften the blow?’ Certainly Wilder is not softening anything here. Lorraine has immediately slapped an entry charge for anyone driving to the mountain; the carnival is beginning.

Tatum’s conversation with the doctor about Leo’s state of health has a sub-text that we see, but the doctor doesn’t: on the surface, solicitous, but underneath he’s checking on his investment. Herbie’s growing excitement at the way the story has developed is well conveyed by Bob Arthur. ‘You like it now, don’t you?’ says Tatum, to which Herbie replies: ‘Well, everybody likes a break. We didn’t make it happen.’ That’s the second time Herbie has quoted Tatum’s words back at him (remember ‘Cagey,eh?) and there’s a momentary double-take from Tatum, finely observed in Douglas’s performance: it could suggest his recognition that Herbie is on his side, but also a subliminal apprehension that these words might come back to haunt him. News of the sheriff’s arrival and his displeasure clearly doesn’t faze him, however: indeed he is ready for the next phase of his plan.

Dissolve to rattlesnake in a box, which cues in the appearance of the Sheriff, played by veteran heavy Ray Teal: the combination of those two things leaves us in no doubt how we are meant to view this character. Lorraine’s pointed disrespect seems entirely justified. Enter Tatum who is now ready to play his next hand, what he will call his ‘ace in the hole’ and explain how extending Leo’s entrapment for publicity purposes could be to the benefit of both of them. Tatum knows who he’s dealing with and is under no illusion that the sheriff’s re-election would serve anyone’s best interests other than their own. His opinion of the sheriff is conveyed in a gesture – he drops his cigarette in the sheriff’s drink.

Wilder is soon to bring into play two other crucial characters in this scene, Lorraine and Mr Smollett, the construction contractor. But before that, Tatum answers the sheriff’s query about what’s in it for him. ‘This is my story,’ he says. ‘I want to keep it mine.’ It’s striking how Wilder and Douglas play that line. It’s not said directly to the sheriff, it’s said more to himself, like that similar moment in Boot’s office; and it goes to the root of his motivation. This is not about money per se, this is his route back to self-esteem, recognition, his revenge on those back in New York who had put the boot in when he was down. There’s a neat bit of dramatic structuring at this point. The construction contractor, Mr Smollett (Frank Jaquett), has entered and, in calling for a coffee, he will bring Lorraine over to the table: she is to hear what passes between them and recognise what Tatum is up to. Smollett seems a decent working man and at first does not grasp the significance of Tatum’s question of how long the rescue operation is going to take. He asks the question twice and then cues in the sheriff with an almost imperceptible nod of the head, at which point the sheriff’s ‘HOW LONG?’ resounds as a threat. When Tatum suggests on health and safety grounds that they should drill an entrance from the top of the mountain and Smollett protests that that would take six or seven days, the sheriff is not slow to point out the consequences for him if he doesn’t do as he’s told: ‘You were a truck driver, now you’re a contractor, do you want to be a truck driver again?’ Tatum seals the bargain by attempting to assuage Smollett’s fears and sweetening his coffee (‘Sugar?’). You can’t help but be reminded of Lorraine’s rebuke to Tatum about his sudden interest in Leo – ‘Aren’t you sweet?’ So it’s appropriate then for Wilder at the end of the scene to move over to Lorraine at her till, able to change a $50 bill (which one suspects has not been a common occurrence in her life at the trading post) and watching Tatum move into a more comfortable room that has been vacated by Leo’s grateful father. Her look will carry us forward to the next scene – one of the most disturbing of the film.

When Tatum enters the room, one of the first things he notices are the two bottles that Herbie has brought for him and he’s vigorously rejected. It’s a temptation that must be resisted because his drinking got him in trouble in the past; and one of the later signs that things are beginning to unravel is the moment he starts drinking again. Enter Lorraine. Wilder can’t dislike the character that much, for he gives her some of his best lines. ‘I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life,’ she tells him, ‘but you, you’re twenty minutes.’ We’re in film noir territory here. The hero’s face is in shadow, to suggest his shady schemes; and the heroine is a blonde siren turned on both by the money and by Tatum’s dynamism, even if it is at her husband’s expense. Disturbingly at this moment, she has never looked prettier, more alive: perversely, this is what Tatum can do to people, even decent ones like Herbie. Things are more exciting around him; he makes things happen. Lorraine makes a play for him; his response is to slap her across the face. That slap is shocking, much more so than Jimmy Cagney’s famous grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face in Public Enemy. After all, Clarke was grumbling: here Lorraine has been anticipating a romantic embrace. To use a movie analogy, it’s like a brutal director getting the expression he wants from an unwilling actress to fit his conception of the role; and Tatum may be lashing out because he sees in Lorraine’s greed and ruthlessness something of himself, and he doesn’t like what he sees.

The big carnival: misery into spectacle

Three days have passed and, as we hear the voice of a radio broadcaster (Bob Bumpas), we can deduce that Leo’s predicament has become a media event. Indeed the disaster site now looks more like a drive-in, complete with cars parked in orderly rows, entrance fee, and even kiosks that sell hot dogs and popcorn. Wilder is developing a dark allegory of the morbidity of the film audience that might in some ways be said to anticipate Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). A superb aerial shot from the top of the mountain discloses what the commentator calls this ‘new community’ that has sprung up. The cameraman on the film, Charles Lang Jr was one of Hollywood’s greatest and one of Wilder’s favourites, having previously worked with him on A Foreign Affair (1948) and later to photograph Sabrina (1954) and Some like it Hot. Intriguing and ironic that one of Wilder’s visually most spectacular films is at the same time one of Hollywood’s most corrosive attacks on the media’s capacity to turn human misery into visual spectacle.

Human morbidity surfaces in the interview with the increasingly appalling Mr Federber, who Tatum has earlier described as ‘Mr America’. His children are wearing Indian head-dress and licking an ice cream, and there are balloons in the background. Some pretty vigorous merchandising is obviously in full swing whilst Leo is trapped below. Federber is keener to insist that he and his wife were first on the scene than worry about Leo’s welfare, and he isn’t slow to advertise his business in insurance, a man who takes no risks, in other words, in contrast to Tatum (and an artist like Wilder).

Sinyard_Ace_29When Tatum sees Lorraine and suggests she attends a special service that is being performed for Leo’s benefit, she retorts; ‘I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.’ Wilder always credited his wife with that line; it catches the character to perfection. ‘Another thing, mister,’ she adds. ‘Don’t ever slap me again.’ Originally Wilder had added another line to that: ‘I might get to like it’. He cut it, possibly because it hinted at a sado-masochistic dimension to their relationship that would have been too daring for the times (it would have certainly have been in contrast to her relationship with weak and uxorious Leo). As it stands, the line has a different inflection: it’s a warning from a woman who won’t be pushed around – and it’s an omen.

The following brief scene in the car between Tatum and Herbie (and one notices that the admission charge to the mountain has doubled since we last saw it) is a reminder of the earlier car scene in the film just before the story broke, and offers a nice contrast. Herbie was a bit dubious about Tatum before: now he is completely under his spell. ‘Isn’t anything you can do wrong as far as I’m concerned,’ he tells Tatum, who seems slightly to back away from that: he doesn’t want anyone that close. Incidentally Tatum has changed his top from his striking black shirt, and this is the day his fortunes are to change also – and not entirely for the better.

Sinyard_Ace_30Sinyard_Ace_31The scene in the press tent serves as a reminder that Wilder himself was a journalist in Berlin before turning to screenwriting (and before the political situation in Nazi Europe prompted him to flee Berlin. Germany in 1933 was, as he put it, ‘not a place for a nice Jewish boy to be.’). It seems less press tent than bear pit, each man snarling his desires. Wilder was to revisit the press pack in The Front Page (1974), and they are no more sympathetically presented there. Kirk Douglas always felt that this was one of the reasons why the film got unfavourable reviews. As he put it in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, ‘critics love to criticize but they don’t like being criticized.’ Enter Tatum. This is payback time and how he relishes being able to turn the tables on his journalist colleagues. When one of them attempts to plead collegiality and says that they’re all buddies and all in the same boat, he replies with pointed relish: ‘I’m in the boat, you’re in the water.’ As he indicates when he displays his badge, he has the law on his side (he has it in his pocket as well). And just before he leaves to see Leo (this gloating has made him a bit late for his usual visit), he drops the news that he has quit his job but retains exclusive rights to this story and is open to the highest bidder.

Sinyard_Ace_33Yet even Tatum is taken aback by the sight of the ‘Re-Elect Sheriff Kretzer’ banner draped across the mountain. Even by the sheriff’s standards that’s a bit blatant and seems to draw attention to the mountainous proportions of the deception. Tatum is now a media star and consents to a brief interview with the radio reporter, though, as he says, with unconscious irony: ‘Every second counts.’ Tatum is the one who has extended this situation for his own benefit so there’s more than a little hypocrisy here; but what he doesn’t realise is that time is running out. And he pauses on his return to the cave when someone in the crowd, a Mr Cusack queries the rescue methods, Wilder emphasising the tension of the moment by moving into close-up to show Tatum and Smollett momentarily in uneasy complicity, before Smollett gets the nod from Tatum to get back to work while he handles this. A woman’s inappropriate intervention breaks the tension and lets them off the hook; and then Tatum, like the gambler that he is, takes a risk, betting successfully that Mr Cusack’s recommended method of rescue was not successful in the case he remembered. The danger passes, but it’s been a tense moment. We see Tatum giving the gullible crowd a wave before entering the cave – it’s an anticipation of William Holden’s cheery farewell wave to the fellow prisoners he despises in Stalag 17 before disappearing down the escape tunnel.

Sinyard_Ace_34The cheer fades into the sound of the drill and we are in Leo’s world now. This is a great shot, because it’s a contrast and a shock. It’s the first time Leo has been seen in the film for a good thirty-five minutes. By delaying this reappearance, Wilder has ensured that we have almost forgotten him as well as the crowd above and we might feel a bit guilty. His deterioration is alarming, and the pounding of the drill is understandably shredding his nerves. ‘I can’t stand it,’ he says, ‘it’s enough to wake the dead.’ The line is a reminder of Leo’s original feeling that this is some kind of punishment for defiling an Indian burial-ground. There is also the almost obsessive use now of the word ‘friend’, which during the film has become progressively devalued (remember Lorraine’s disdainful look when Tatum has described himself to the Federbers as Leo’s ‘friend’; or the sheriff’s phrase ‘friend of the family’ to the other journalists to defend his ploy of giving Tatum exclusive access to Leo). The word is assuming ominous overtones and making Tatum feel a bit queasy. Like Tatum’s second scene with Herbie in the car, his second scene with Leo is distinctly different from the first. Tatum seems less sure of himself: no rallying sing-song here. Leo’s reference to his imminent fifth wedding anniversary is significant, for it will bring things to a crisis. This dismal scene has been ironically prefaced by Tatum’s cheery wave to the crowd; Wilder brutally rounds it off by cutting from Leo’s ‘She’s so pretty’ to a shot of Lorraine, in bright sunshine in contrast to Leo’s gloom, actually looking quite pretty. Leo’s absence is doing her good. The carnival is arriving. When Papa Minosa is protesting, she barely bothers to make eye-contact with him: she’s too busy counting in the trucks and calculating the profits. A siren announces the appearance in their press car of Tatum with Herbie. Kirk Douglas’s performance here eloquently conveys that his encounter with Leo has left him shaken. His response to Lorraine’s ‘Means everything’s going to be fine, doesn’t it, Mr Tatum?’ is a look of utter distaste at her lack of genuine concern, but not far removed either, one surmises, from a barely suppressed self-disgust.

That feeling is to be carried forward into the next scene, modifying his ostensible triumph, nagging away at him like an aching tooth. There’s another window shot from inside the trading post, but in complete contrast to the one earlier when Herbie had stopped for gas. Now the room is teeming with people, a measure of the success of Tatum’s scheme. Yet when he enters his room, there is a strong sense that he’s still troubled by his meeting with Leo. A sign of that uneasiness is his taking the bottle, but hesitating still to pour a drink. It’s at that point, when his conscience is beginning to bother him, that Boot appears again – the very symbol of journalistic probity – and Tatum takes a drink almost in defiance. What will follow is an argument about journalistic ethics but also, to some degree, about old and new, about honest reporting as opposed to sensationalism to promote sales. Pointing to Tatum’s deputy sheriff star, Boot recognises that he has bought his exclusive coverage as part of a deal to get the sheriff re-elected. We know, of course, that’s only half the story; and Tatum seems a bit relieved he doesn’t know more. The phone will punctuate the argument at key points, with big-city editors bidding for his services and with Tatum waiting for the one call that will justify what he’s done – the call from New York.

When he tells Boot he has resigned from the Albuquerque paper, Boot’s reaction is one of regret. ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Chuck,’ he says. It’s the first time he’s called him ‘Chuck’ in the film and the sorrow feels genuine: partly because he thinks Tatum is a good reporter; and partly because he thinks he’s going in the wrong direction. Tatum raises the subject of that embroidered sign again and Boot takes it as a sign that it still troubles him, but Tatum brushes this aside. What he doesn’t brush aside is the moment when Boot wonders whether there is anyone buried down there at all. ‘Yes, there is,’ Tatum replies, grimly. ‘I’ve made sure of that.’ It’s a terrific line and marvellously framed and acted. When he says it, Tatum has his back to Boot – he doesn’t want him to see his expression – but the comment is almost made to himself as an accusation, the one thing about this situation that is making him uneasy. It’s also an answer to a criticism that is sometimes made of the film: that Wilder doesn’t create a strong enough antagonist to challenge Tatum and that the film suffers dramatically as a result. In fact, Wilder’s heroes are very often their own best antagonists, well aware of the dubiousness of what they are doing and wondering at what point they might feel they’ve gone too far.

Sinyard_Ace_36Herbie’s entrance causes a distinct increase in tension, because, if Tatum is a lost cause, Boot thinks, Herbie isn’t: which way will he jump? At that particular moment Tatum does look a much more exciting and charismatic example and prospect than Boot. There is a particularly fine shot when all three of them are in the frame at the point where Tatum gets his all-important third call, this time from New York, as it brings all the tensions in the air to a point of crisis. Porter Hall’s performance here is terrific, as Boot never takes his eyes off Herbie, staring probingly like a stern father; for his part, Herbie won’t look at him. ‘He wants to be going, going,’ says Tatum about Herbie’s future, to which Boot replies, pointedly: ‘Going where?’ He exits, hat slightly awry, a physical sign of his emotional discomposure. Tatum dismisses him with a little nod of the head – Kirk Douglas’s head movements throughout the film are incredibly expressive, incidentally – but then deals with some relish with his old boss, Nagel.

The role of Nagel provides a ripe cameo from that fine character actor, Richard Gaines, who played the pompous boss in the insurance office in Double Indemnity whom Edward G. Robinson was always cutting down to size. He’s quite a contrast to the sombre civility of Boot – no wonder Tatum found Albuquerque so quiet by contrast – and the very manner of the man suggests the kind of journalism he represents: the journalism of screaming headlines. I always think that Wilder had some Hollywood moguls in mind here and, in that context, greatly enjoyed the squeal of pain he extracted from someone over a barrel. (‘Don’t you know there’s a war on? Somewhere?!’) However, again it is noticeable how Kirk Douglas changes his tone when Tatum is dictating terms: this isn’t simply about money, it’s about self-esteem: he wants his desk back. At this point, he seems to have achieved what he wants and for almost the first time, he can relax slightly. He has a drink, and he throws his suspenders in the bin, as if confident he no longer needs that kind of a safety net. He can even give Herbie a little hug. And at that moment, with a fine sense of dramatic timing, Wilder turns the scene around, bringing in Mrs Minosa to cut short their celebration, implicitly in dramatic terms offering a rebuke to their gaiety, and reminding us of Leo’s worsening predicament. Tatum, appropriately, loosens his grip on Herbie.

From the sacred to the profane. The following few minutes are probably the most extraordinary in the film, where Wilder pulls out all the stops. I am struck particularly by three things. There is now a hastily composed song about Leo (buy the sheet music for 25 cents), a tasteless little ditty entitled ‘We’re coming, we’re coming, Leo’. In a Film Quarterly article, Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington thought the lyric was daringly sexual in implication, particularly when occurring in a section of the film where Lorraine’s attraction to Tatum is very apparent.

We’re coming, we’re coming, Leo
Leo, don’t despair
While you are in the cave a-hopin’
We are up above you groping
And soon we’ll make an opening
O, Leo!

The song is by the fine song-writing team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, composers of such classics as ‘Buttons and Bows’ and ‘Que Sera, Sera’, and who appear as themselves in the New Year’s party scene of Sunset Boulevard.

Sinyard_Ace_37Sinyard_Ace_38Then there’s the carnival itself, whose set was huge – 235 feet high, 1200 feet across and 1600 feet deep, with over 550 extras whose numbers grew, as Wilder calculated, because of curious onlookers who came of their own accord to have a look. It is possibly the most spectacular set-piece of Wilder’s career, to convey his horror at the way human tragedy has been transformed into a mass spectacle. When the film flopped in America but did well in Europe, the head of Paramount, Mr Y. Frank Freeman (whose name Wilder, in conversation, tended to turn into a question) changed the title of the film, without consulting Wilder, into something he thought sounded more commercial, calling it The Big Carnival. In so doing, he highlighted the very aspect of the situation that Wilder was most strongly criticising. And then there’s the special train to the event, the Leo Minosa Special, people jumping off it before it has even pulled to a stop and swarming like locusts over the disaster area. ‘Who are these people?’ Leo has asked innocently, enquiring about the people up there who are taking such an interest in him. ‘They’re your friends,’ replied Tatum, but to Wilder, they’re a sensation-hungry mob, sunning themselves above Leo’s tomb and who will soon- albeit unwittingly- be dancing on his grave. ‘There’s the terrifying fact,’ said Wilder once in an interview, ‘that people are people.’

Sinyard_Ace_39Against this disturbing backdrop of mass mentality, the personal stories continue. While Papa Minosa passes round drinks to the workmen on the mountain, Lorraine is being warned by Tatum against selling her story to the papers: she might make a slip. We see a slightly different side to Lorraine in this scene, someone with aspirations, a sort of tentative and defensive self-pride. But Tatum’s response is once again violent. ‘Why don’t you wash that platinum out of your hair?’ he sneers. The close-up of his fist in her hair is again shocking. In this context, it’s the equivalent of a screen kiss, or the nearest this dark film gets to one; and it crystallises in an image his pent-up aggression, tension, and inner turmoil. Why is he so obsessed with Lorraine’s hair? Because it’s fake: like him.

To follow that scene – the nearest to a love scene in the film – with Leo in the cave is very daring, particularly when one is very aware of the pounding of the drill. The sexual connotations are clear, but you feel that something is similarly pounding inside Tatum’s head. Leo’s condition is deteriorating rapidly and, with it, Tatum’s own scheme, which is beginning to show signs of faulty structuring. When Leo starts asking for a priest and talking about the ancient curse which he believes has brought his downfall (‘They’ll never let me go’), that what he did was sacrilegious and now he’s paying for it, Tatum gets angry, partly because he’s now afraid, and partly because his clever angle – Floyd Collins plus King Tut, the Mountain of the Seven Vultures – is beginning to curse him too.

‘You wouldn’t lie to me, would you, Chuck?’ says Leo when asking him about whether he’s going to survive. This is Boot’s motto ‘Tell the Truth’ coming back to haunt him with a vengeance. For once Tatum is at a loss for words. The whole foundation of their so-called friendship is built on a lie, and it’s a fascinating dramatic touch that Leo will die without ever knowing of Tatum’s treachery. This is unusual in a Wilder film. His films are invariably structured around some sort of deception or masquerade and the person who is being duped generally discovers it, with all the attendant consequences. This is not the case in Ace in the Hole, and consequently there is no real catharsis for Tatum, for he never has the release of confessing his sin. It’s one aspect of Wilder’s bold, harsh resolution of the fate of his characters in this film. Dissolve to the sheriff, who’s always been less interested in the well-being of Leo than that of his rattlesnake: Leo might be dying of pneumonia but at least his rattlesnake is putting on weight.

Sinyard_Ace_40Tatum’s explanation for changing tactic here has a compelling application. ‘When you’ve a human interest story, he says, ‘you need a human interest ending’, and the priority now is to get Leo out alive, even if it will call into question their initial rescue methods. But Wilder is not going to be able to deliver a happy ending any more than Tatum; and it may be that he was unwittingly foreseeing the fate of his own film here. As T.S. Eliot said: ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ Closer to home perhaps it reminds me a little of Alfred Hitchcock’s comment about his film Sabotage where he said: ‘I should never have let that bomb go off…’ If you build an audience up in a certain way, they demand relief from that tension: if you can’t deliver, they get angry with you.

As we’ve seen, Tatum has become progressively violent during the film, but there’s a certain satisfaction here when he punches the sheriff, who’s been asking for it. However, the satisfaction is short-lived. When Smollett tells him that they can’t rescue Leo the other way because the drilling has weakened the foundations, there is a shot of Tatum where, naked to the waist and sharing the frame with the sheriff, for the first time in the film he looks vulnerable.. The chatter of his teller-type machine – until then an indicator of his energy and activity – suddenly sounds like a mockery of his ambitions, and rattles his nerves like the drill in Leo’s cave. He lashes out at it in futile rage.

Sinyard_Ace_41It is the next morning and the teller-type machine is unattended to: the star reporter has deserted his post. Another machine is now preoccupying him more: the oxygen machine that is alone keeping Leo going. Tatum now really seems squeezed for space in the frame as his options recede. While Leo is deliriously talking of his anniversary present to Lorraine, Tatum has other preoccupations. ‘Breathe!’ he shouts, but the shout is surely as much for himself as for Leo: if Leo dies, then Tatum is effectively finished too.

Sinyard_Ace_42‘Up the stairs, up the stairs,’ Leo whispers deliriously. His words serve as a sound dissolve to the following scene as Tatum climbs the stairs on Leo’s behalf, the words still playing in his head. Lorraine’s behaviour towards Tatum here is intriguing. She’s changing her hair again as if in response to his previous criticisms and seems altogether more casual and friendly, the film surely implying that something has happened between them, which makes Tatum’s self-loathing even more acute and her surprise at his behaviour more intense. ‘It’s your anniversary, Mrs Minosa,’ he says, giving particular emphasis to ‘Mrs’, as if she – and maybe him too? – needs reminding of it. And there’s no sentimentality here. The fur piece that Leo has bought her is surely intended by Wilder to look pretty hideous, and Tatum’s insistence on her wearing it despite her protests a case of displaced guilt and anguish on his part as well as cruel indifference on hers. It is at this point that Tatum’s steadily increasing violence now oversteps the mark and, like seemingly everything else at this point, starts striking back at him. A struggle ensues; and as he starts to choke her, she stabs him with a pair of scissors. At this point Tatum becomes the third Wilder hero – like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard – whose change of heart will also be followed by his murder at the hands of the woman he has involved in his scheming.

There is an interesting moment when Tatum has gone for the priest and, whilst he is in the church, some boys from the area gather round his press car in curiosity. Wilder probably just wanted to suggest a brief passage of time until Tatum reappeared without needing to cut, but to me it has something of the look of contemporary Italian neo-realism or the Buñuel of Los Olvidados (1951) in its quick evocation of a community of deprivation. The siren one of them sets off by accident will carry forward into the next scene, competing for attention with the sound of Leo’s theme that is blaring out from the fairground. To put it another way, a distress signal is almost drowned out by brash commercialism: the theme of the film in a nutshell.

The circus is over

The brief moment when Tatum and the priest enter the cave is filmed in a way that reminds us of Tatum’s first entrance there six days ago: how much has happened and changed since then. That feeling is taken a step further when they reach Leo, now singing the ‘Hut Sut’ song in a delirious, barely audible croak, in contrast to that first scene between Leo and Tatum when the song is sung to boost his spirits. ‘Bless me, father, for I have sinned,’ says Leo, but the camera there is on Tatum, emphasising the applicability of the words to him and implicitly convicting him of Leo’s death. Yet there is an added twist of the knife there, for if Tatum is now being driven to confess his sins, he has no one to confess them to and no one who wants to listen.

Sinyard_Ace_43Tatum now addresses the crowd from the top of the mountain to tell them of Leo’s death. It’s only three days since he was waving to the crowd as a national hero on entering the cave; and before this particular day is over, he will have crashed to the floor. I am reminded of two roughly contemporary dynamic anti-heroes here: James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1948), spontaneously combusting, as it were, when he’s on top of the world; and Orson Welles’s Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), who has looked down contemptuously on humanity from a vast height on the Great Wheel in Vienna but who will perish in the city’s sewers. When gigantic egos overreach themselves, their fall should be correspondingly massive. Tatum’s address to the crowd is like Moses castigating the worshippers of the Golden Calf; and I also have an image of what Leland Poague called a ‘demoniacal Cecil B. DeMille’ addressing his cast and crew. The ‘director’ is in a way dismissing his audience, having lost control of the plot and with a message too painful to bear. ‘Now go on home… all of you,’ he says. ‘The circus is over.’ In referring to it as a circus, Tatum almost gives the game away there, but the criticism is lost in the general melee; and in a sense he has handed a scoop to his rivals in the press, who scramble for their phones. That might be an act of penance and small redemption, but Wilder is dramatically quite canny here, I think, for he leaves Tatum with another ace in the hole (the truth about the deception) that could trump the news of Leo’s death.

In the meantime we have seen Lorraine, pointedly not wearing that fur stole that was Leo’s anniversary present, turn away from the window when she hears the news of Leo. We know she will not be sticking around. Even the Federbers are upset; this is not the ending they have been expecting, and their original reason for staying – that it would be ‘quite instructive’ for their boys – now looks even more hollow: goodness knows what ‘instruction’ they will take from all this. Friedhofer’s score now goes into a dirge – like version of Leo’s song, which could now be entitled: ‘We’re going, we’re going, Leo’.

Even today it is still perfectly possible to imagine the dismay the film provoked as it moved with unerring logic to its tragic conclusion. For several years after its release – really until the storm over the controversial sexual politics of his 1964 film, Kiss me, Stupid – it was regarded as the most cynical film of Wilder’s career and one of the most cynical ever to come out of Hollywood, almost perverse in what one critic, Axel Madsen called its ‘utter disregard for box-office values or potentialities’ and in its seemingly antagonistic attitude to both press and public. A highly influential critic of that time, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times voiced the opinion of many of his profession when he wrote that in his view the film ‘presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque.’ If audiences in America stayed away, it might have been because, as Wilder put it, ‘they went to the theatre with the idea that they were going to get a cocktail whereas instead they got a shot of vinegar.’ He stubbornly stuck to his guns, always thinking of it as one of his best films; and over the years the film has come to be championed by some of his succeeding generation of directors, like Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Sam Peckinpah, who have all listed it as a particular favourite. Certainly the excesses of tabloid journalism are very familiar to us now. Even at the time, the film found more of an audience in Europe whose audiences, having recently witnessed and endured the horrors of war and ambition, probably thought Wilder’s portrait of human depravity and mass manipulation all too chillingly convincing.

Lorraine’s departure here clearly echoes the earlier intended departure, and our last sight of her – an unsteady walk away from the camera, unsure of her destination or transportation – makes one wonder what will happen to her, one of a number of plot strands Wilder refuses to tidy up at the end. (Another is: what will happen to Sheriff Kretzer?) When Tatum is down, his ‘buddies’ from the press come swooping like vultures to gloat and gorge over his failure. Now they’re in the boat and he’s in the water; and what we have is a replay of the scene in the tent except in reverse, where now Tatum’s words (not for the first time in the film) are thrown back in his face.

Sinyard_Ace_44Sinyard_Ace_45Tatum still has an ace up his sleeve (the truth), and one that might serve a dual purpose in both assuaging his guilt and topping all the other stories. But, alas, this time he has gone too far; the game is over. Gaines (like so many newspaper editors these days) isn’t interested in the truth if it doesn’t make a good story. I like very much the moment when Tatum asks Herbie if he believes him and Herbie says yes. A shadow suddenly falls across Herbie’s face for the first time, and in complete contrast to the open innocent face we have seen throughout the film: the curtain of experience has suddenly dropped and his vision of life darkened. As they leave, Tatum’s comment to Herbie about re-electing the sheriff is surely ironic: he knows that his revelation of the truth, if he ever gets to make it, will sink the sheriff’s political hopes. And the last shot of Papa Minosa amidst the debris of the deserted carnival is like the ending of Chaplin’s The Circus and every bit as forlorn: a tragic figure of solitude in a drama that, in no time, has just become yesterday’s news.

Sinyard_Ace_46We are returning to where we began, when Tatum first entered the office. It’s as if nothing has changed and the staff at the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin are so immersed in their work – or stuck in their ways – that no one seems to notice that a dying man has just staggered into the newsroom. Tatum will never deliver his story, but maybe Herbie will.

Sinyard_Ace_46aSinyard_Ace_47Tatum’s final call is to Mr Boot, the film’s symbol of dull old-fashioned journalistic integrity, with an offer he can’t refuse. ‘How would you like to save a thousand dollars a day?’ he shouts, as Boot appears from the newsroom. ‘I’m a thousand dollar a day newspaperman. You can have me for nothing.’ And with a wonderful visual flourish, Wilder’s low-angle shot dumps Tatum in our lap, and delivers the film’s bleak moral with the emphatic thump of a Tatum headline: CORRUPT CAVE-IN REPORTER DIGS HIS OWN GRAVE.


Neil Sinyard

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It’s the Pictures That Got Small

Book review: Anthony Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (New York: Columbia University Press, December 2014), £23. 95.


After a brief spell at RKO, Charles Brackett became a staff writer then producer at Paramount from 1934 to 1949; and his journals covering that period provide a riveting perspective on the daily routine of a Hollywood studio in its prime. Brackett also became half of the most celebrated screenwriting partnership in Hollywood history. In just over ten years he and Billy Wilder collaborated on thirteen screenplays, most of them critical and commercial successes, some of them enduring classics of the screen. They wrote two of the greatest screen comedies of the late 1930s, Midnight for Mitchell Leisen and Ninotchka for Ernst Lubitsch (both 1939). After scripting Ball of Fire (1941) for Howard Hawks, they became a producer-director as well as writing team, with Brackett as producer and Wilder as director; and proceeded to make audacious trailblazing dramas such as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). As most film buffs will know, the title of this book is a famous line from Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden’s down-at-heel screenwriter has recognised a former star of the silent screen, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and said: ‘You used to be big.’ ‘I am big,’ she has retorted imperiously, ‘It’s the pictures that got small.’ Less well known is the fact that it was Charles Brackett who was savvy enough to see the importance of that moment and recommend that the line be re-shot in close-up, probably also sensing how it foretold the devastating final close-up of that magnificent film.

Sunset Boulevard was the culminating triumph of the Brackett-Wilder collaboration and it begs the question: why then did they split up? Shortly before his death in 1969, Brackett was asked that very question by the writer and biographer, Garson Kanin and, according to Kanin, he replied as follows: ‘I never understood it….it was such an unexpected blow, I thought I’d never recover from it….I loved working with him. It was so stimulating and pleasant.’1 Whether this is verbatim what Brackett said, or whether Kanin was creatively glossing the gist of what he thought he meant, or whether he was just giving his own spin on what he thought was the truth, has never been fully established. What is beyond dispute is that Kanin’s account of the break-up’s being sudden and unexpected could not have been wider of the mark. From Maurice Zolotov onwards, Wilder’s biographers have plotted in detail the persistent strains of the collaboration, but this is the first time that we have been told the tale entirely from Brackett’s point of view. From this account, the surprising thing is not that they split up but that they managed to stay together for so long.

On August 17, 1936, Brackett writes that ‘I am to be teamed with Billy Wilder, a young Austrian I’ve seen about for a year and like very much… He has the face of a naughty cherub.’2 Brackett can help Wilder with his then imperfect English, but it is not long before he is becoming irritated by what he sees as the young man’s pedantry, his arrogance, and his tendency to claim credit for ideas that have originated from his partner. As early as September 1938, he is welcoming the possibility of a permanent severance from Wilder, and this will develop into an almost annual refrain. On August 2, 1942, he is ‘wondering whether our successful collaboration is over.’3 On March 18, 1943, he writes: ‘Gravely doubt that I can ever bring myself to work with Billy again. At the moment the idea of doing so takes all the joy out of life.’4 Even after their Oscar-winning success with The Lost Weekend, the tensions in their fraught relationship show no signs of abatement. On August 18, 1947, Brackett records that ‘I am gloriously sure I will never write with him again’;5 and a little later he writes that ‘to work with Billy again is a prospect that makes my innards curl.’6 Contrary to Garson Kanin’s interpretation, by the time Brackett and Wilder got round to their greatest collaboration, Sunset Boulevard (which Brackett’s friend Christopher Isherwood was justifiably to call ‘the best thing ever done about Hollywood’), neither they nor anyone close to them seemed to have any doubts that this would prove the parting of the ways.

In any long-standing collaboration, one can expect occasional differences and even passionate disagreements, but this particular partnership seemed unusually volatile. On one occasion, Brackett, who was generally a mild-mannered man, became so incensed that he pulled the flute Wilder was playing from out of his mouth and broke it over his knee. A principal reason behind the constant conflict was that, in almost every way, they were complete opposites: temperamentally, emotionally and politically. Brackett was quietly spoken, modest and reserved; Wilder was loud, egotistical and extrovert. Brackett kept details of his personal life very much to himself; Wilder was constantly bringing his personal life into the office. Brackett was a diehard Republican; Wilder was a left-leaning Democrat. Unusually for a writing team such as this, the relationship was conducted entirely within office hours, for they were so different that their social lives very rarely intersected.

However, the fact that their partnership was entirely professional might go some way towards explaining why it endured for over a decade. Success helped, of course; but there is also no doubt that a bond they did share was a mutual professional respect. For all that Wilder drove him crazy, Brackett never doubted his exceptional talent nor the fineness of his dramatic mind. At one point he does acknowledge in his Journals that ‘he is not as good without Billy’, though, significantly, he adds that he thinks he is still ‘pretty good – and more self-respecting’.7 Some critics have felt that Wilder also was not as good without Brackett, who, as well as being creative in his own right, was a valuable touchstone and restraining influence, curbing his partner’s wilder excesses, as it were. This view was supported when Wilder’s first film after his break with Brackett, Ace in the Hole (1951) was a resounding flop. Wilder always insisted it was one of his greatest films (and I agree with him), but some felt that, away from Brackett’s civilised script counselling, he went too far in his tough critique of journalistic exploitation and gullible humanity and only succeeded in alienating both critics and audiences.

The book would be worth acquiring alone for its disturbing yet dazzling portrait of Billy Wilder, an authentic Hollywood genius if ever there was one. But this is only a part of what it has to offer. There are few more compelling accounts of the reality behind the romance of the Dream Factory, the daily grind of working in a big Hollywood studio, hammering away at your own scripts; occasionally being required to doctor other people’s; having to re-write after unsuccessful previews; or being at the behest of temperamental stars and tempestuous studio heads. At one stage he writes: ‘I am actually filthy of hair and scraggy of finger nail and unbarbered, to try and get something done for Paramount.’8 He never loses that sense of dedication and professional pride amidst all the entanglements of finance and ego with which he has to contend. Yet, for all his conservative leanings, he is no blind respecter of authority. He describes the head of Paramount, Adolph Zukor as ‘a tiny, dim little man sitting in his enormous office, like a mouse in a cake-box.’9 He is contemptuous of the way Goldwyn and DeMille bully and berate junior employees. And there are no stars in his eyes (and indeed a notable absence of heroes or role-models in the whole text) when it comes to dealing with Hollywood royalty. He is effortlessly unfazed when Joan Fontaine is having a critical spasm over a perfectly grammatical sentence which she claims is ungrammatical. On Ginger Rogers, he will write: ‘It is the old trouble with Ginger: she hasn’t a very good brain but she insists on using it.’10 He is tactfulness personified when pacifying Jean Arthur, who feels she is being deliberately upstaged by Marlene Dietrich in the Brackett-Wilder collaboration, A Foreign Affair (1948). In his Journal he reports the encounter thus: ‘“I have sex appeal,” she said calmly, but inaccurately…’11

What steadily emerges from the Journals is not simply a picture of Wilder and of Hollywood but also an unwitting self-portrait. Brackett was forty years old when he first came to Hollywood in 1932. A Harvard Law School graduate and a former drama critic of The New Yorker, he was a fringe member of the Algonquin Circle and had published a handful of short stories and novels, which these days are largely unread and almost totally forgotten. Even his most famous novel, Entirely Surrounded (1934), satirising the Algonquin set and personalities such as Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott, was to be upstaged by the Moss Hart and George Kaufman Broadway hit, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), with its thinly disguised portrait of Woollcott possibly influenced by Brackett’s portrayal. He might have come to Hollywood in a disdainful frame of mind (in his excellent introduction, Anthony Slide does suggest that Brackett was something of a snob), but he also recognised that what he had achieved thus far in his career was unspectacular. ‘I have an interesting, scattered life,’ he wrote in 1942, ‘and have gotten nowhere, and I am getting nowhere.’12 Whatever else could be said about his time in Hollywood, he certainly got somewhere.

In his deeply sympathetic and loving Foreword to the book, his grandson, Jim Moore describes Brackett as ‘a lonely man, prone to deep introspection and self-loathing.’13 Certainly the impression given in the book is that of a serious, rather mysterious person who in Hollywood commanded respect more than affection. He does not give much of himself away. We learn next to nothing about his social life away from the movies or the kind of music he likes, say, or the kind of reading he enjoys in his spare time. He is discreet about his sexual life to the point where a number of commentators on the Hollywood scene have concluded, without any evidence other than conjecture, that he was a repressed homosexual. (Anthony Slide deals with this matter thoroughly in the Introduction; Jim Moore more or less says, ‘So what?’). His family life certainly seems to have been an unhappy one, involving the alcoholic depression of his first wife and the violent death of his elder daughter; but we must await Jim Moore’s promised biography to learn more of this.

If all this might suggest that the Journals are unexciting and unrevealing, this is certainly not the case, for although he might seem evasive on some personal issues, he is remarkably outspoken in his opinions and preferences where people are concerned. Indeed, in contrast to the way he seemed to present a façade of gentlemanly calm to his employers and peers, the Journals positively bristle with invective, as if they are letting something out of his system. Dr Johnson always professed to like a ‘good hater’ and Brackett was a very good hater; mere dislike never seemed sufficient. So he describes Charles Laughton as ‘the most repellent human being with whom I have ever had to share a table’,14 a dubious accolade he will transfer to Charlie Chaplin a decade later. ‘A day at Howard Hawks’s is always a day of hell’, he writes, as they confer on the screenplay for Ball of Fire.15 Anatole Litvak is described as ‘detestable’;16 and he dislikes Frank Capra ‘intensely’.17 He is equally rude about a whole range of actors and actresses. Some of these outbursts perhaps derive from a sense of personal frustration but many of them seem prompted by his antipathy to anyone belonging to the political Left. ‘He had no problem in dealing with, and maintaining a friendship with those fellow writers with a strong liberal slant,’ writes Anthony Slide in his Introduction.18 This is certainly not the impression one gets from the text, where Brackett loses no opportunity to disparage the views and even the dress sense of the likes of, for example, Clifford Odets, John Dos Passos, John Garfield, Elia Kazan, Orson Welles and Philip Dunne.19 Yet one always suspects that we are being made privy to private thoughts here rather than public utterances. He might have been steadfast in his views, but there is no record of his being dogmatic or discourteous: quite the contrary. Indeed, as a counterbalance, one should also note his horror at hearing over the radio Adolph Menjou’s despicable denunciation of all Democrats as Communists during the HUAC investigations of Hollywood.20 Solid Republican that he is, even Brackett balks at the extreme right-wing utterances of the appalling Hedda Hopper, feeling the need, after two meetings with her in one week, to be, as he put it, ‘disinfected… and to divide my goods and give them to the poor.’21 In January 1938, he wrote: ‘Wish I didn’t suspect in myself a nasty rightishness, and hope devoutly I never let it make me unfaithful to Democracy, who is really my lady.’22 This commitment will have been tested during the post-war political turmoil in Hollywood, but he appears never to have deviated from this fidelity. He was a man of conviction, but also a model of fairness and integrity, with an engaging streak of self-criticism and self-deprecation.

Will there be a second volume? One hopes so, for what happened to Brackett and Wilder after their split is equally fascinating. Wilder went on to even greater successes and discovered a writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond who was to prove completely compatible (or maybe Wilder had mellowed by then). It culminated with Wilder achieving a personal triple-Oscar triumph with The Apartment (1960), after which, like most directors of his generation, he found the going increasingly tough in a changing Hollywood. Although they were less prestigious, Brackett also had his fair share of successes post-Wilder: an Oscar for his contribution to the screenplay for the 1953 version of Titanic; the producer of solid and varied mainstream hits such as the thriller, Niagara (1953), the musical, The King and I (1956) and the fantasy adventure, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). His final years were dogged by ill-health; and his brutal (and unlawful) sacking by Twentieth Century Fox following the reinstatement of Darryl Zanuck could only have fuelled his disillusionment with the industry.

In a Journal entry of August 29, 1942, he records that he has been to see Holiday Inn, best remembered now as the film which first featured Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’. ‘It is the type of picture,’ he writes, ‘which, while not unpleasant in the least, makes one ashamed of being connected with the pictures.’23 Why? Throughout the Journals there is a sense that Brackett never really adjusted to the film world or respected or valued his contribution to it, and might even have had delusions of a more respectable and successful literary career that corresponded more closely to his idea of personal fulfilment. Yet he had no reason to be feel any disappointment with his achievement. His work with Wilder will endure for as long as cinema itself; and even without Wilder, his name on the credits invariably guaranteed a film of taste and integrity. This superbly edited and annotated book is a worthy testimony to a troubled individual in an industry he unjustly denigrated but which he undoubtedly enriched.

Neil Sinyard

  1. See Garson Kanin, Hollywood, p. 164. 

  2. Anthony Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), p. 87. 

  3. Ibid, p. 189. 

  4. Ibid, p. 213. 

  5. Ibid, p. 302. 

  6. Ibid, p. 328. 

  7. Ibid, p. 216. 

  8. Ibid, p. 7. 

  9. Ibid, p. 122. 

  10. Ibid, p. 246. 

  11. Ibid, p. 314. In fairness to Jean Arthur, she may have had a point. Andrew Sarris never quite forgave Wilder for what he called his ‘needless brutalisation of Jean Arthur in A Foreign Affair‘ – see Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film: History and Memory, 1927-1949, p. 327. Richard Corliss wrote that ‘she is made to wear what, after much morbid consideration, I can only describe as the ugliest dress in a forties movie’ – Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, p. 146. I would nominate Jeanne Craine’s dress in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) as a close runner-up. 

  12. Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”, p. vxv. 

  13. Ibid, p. xvii. 

  14. Ibid, p. 60. 

  15. Ibid, p. 61. 

  16. Ibid, p. 356. 

  17. Ibid, p. 233. 

  18. Ibid, p. 5. 

  19. The writer (and later director) Philip Dunne was one of the most prominent liberals in the American film industry at this time, particularly admired for his screenplays for John Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green was my Valley (1941) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s romantic masterpiece, The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947). Whenever he appears within Brackett’s sights, he is disparaged as being at best ‘dull’ and at worst ‘the most unendurable young man I know, an absolutely stinker’ – Ibid, p. 379. Ironically, in Dunne’s own memoir, Take Two: Life in Movies and Politics, a superb account of politics and power in Hollywood, his references to Brackett are unfailingly respectful, even though he recognises they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. They were to work together in the 1950s, even though in his Journals, Brackett thought the prospect unimaginable. 

  20. Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”, p. 295. 

  21. Ibid, p. 219. 

  22. Ibid, p. 110. 

  23. Ibid, p. 191. 

Aspects of Innocence and Experience: some reflections on literature and film analogy, with particular reference to Henry James and Billy Wilder

One of the finest and most influential books of film theory, Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) has, I think, one particularly fine but not very influential sentence. At the end of his chapter on the auteur theory, he writes: ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts: Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, or Hawks with Faulkner.’1 I used that observation as the starting point of one of the chapters in my book, Filming Literature (which is itself nearly 30 years old now) and it was always my favourite chapter of the book. I called it ‘Kindred Spirits’; and the kindred spirits I compared were Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and John Ford, Joseph Conrad and Orson Welles, and Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock.2

Such comparisons have continued to interest me; and certainly in those particular cases I’ve discovered many more points of contact than I realised at the time. In the case of Dickens and Chaplin, I’d no idea at that time that Chaplin had actually given a talk to the Dickens Fellowship in London in 1955, attracting a record attendance of over 300 members and calling his talk ‘The Immortal Memory of Charles Dickens’; or that, during the last year of his life in 1977, Chaplin had obsessively read and re-read Oliver Twist, obviously because it reminded him so sharply of his own appalling childhood and experience in the workhouse. In the case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, at time of writing that chapter and comparing Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I had no idea that Hitchcock had tried to buy the rights of Our Man in Havana nor that he had once approached Greene to write the screenplay of his most overtly Catholic film, I Confess (a fact, incidentally, that is still surprisingly omitted from most Greene biographies). I was later to expand on this comparison in my book on Graham Greene;3 and, in fact, the writer-director Neil Jordan has commented on the connection between these two and wondered about what he called Greene’s ‘strange miasma about the work of Alfred Hitchcock’, without doubt Greene’s biggest blind-spot as an otherwise exceptional film critic, which he never corrected and which Jordan rightly thought seemed a little suspect: ‘And there must be another book to be written,’ as he put it, ‘about the lack of contact between these two poets of English criminality and bad conscience’.4

Strangely, though, comparative books between literary authors and film auteurs have not happened, perhaps because the whole notion of authorship – what constitutes an author – has become more complicated, in both literary and filmic terms, since Wollen wrote his book. In revisiting this territory, particularly in relation to Henry James and Billy Wilder, I thought at the outset I should revisit the personal question of why this continues to interest me, and the motives and strategy behind the comparison. I was, and remain, fascinated by what J. Dudley Andrew, in the context of adaptation, referred to as ‘the dialectical interplay between the artistic forms of one period and the cinematic forms of our own period.’5 I like the notion of ‘dialectical interplay’ as a way of discussing connections between literature and film and between the literary artist and the film artist: it permits a broader, more open-minded perspective than had often gone on before. It offered the prospect of going beyond the ‘film of the book’ strategy, with that tired tactic of scoring points between the two, generally at the expense of the newer medium; at going beyond qualitative comparisons that became a form of cultural elitism, with the critics either using the aesthetic and cultural capital of literature to attack film for simplification or sentimentalising the original, or of being accused of surreptitiously trying to raise the prestige of film through comparison with literature or the older arts. Robin Wood was attacked for the latter, I remember, when he had the audacity to compare Vertigo with Keats in his first book on Hitchcock, but I always thought it was a very suggestive comparison, and if it has occurred to him and he can justify it, why shouldn’t he articulate it?6

I am heartened to think that critical attitudes towards adaptation have become much flexible. The touchstone of so-called ‘fidelity’ to the original is invoked much less often; adaptation is seen not as simple ‘visual reconstruction’ but much more imaginatively as, among other things, translation, transformation, re-location; and the idea of the text itself has become much more fluid, implying a recognition that any text is made up of a lot of pre-existing texts and that, as readers and viewers, we ourselves bring to it a multitude of texts from our own experience – an interaction which becomes then a form of renewal and enrichment.

In my own experience, one of the things I’ve always loved about the cinema (and maybe this accounts for my fascination with adaptation) is its multi-disciplinarity, its capacity to draw on and synthesise features of the other arts whilst still producing something uniquely cinematic. Film has elements of drama (e.g. the power of performance), the novel (its momentum of narrative), painting (its visual composition), music (its integration of image with soundtrack, use of rhythm and counterpoint). That great film critic, Raymond Durgnat had a phrase for this aspect of cinema: ‘the mongrel muse’ he called it.7 That multi-dimensional aspect of film has always had an enormous appeal for me, partly because it chimes in with something that Leonard Bernstein said at the opening of his marvellous series of Harvard lectures on music in 1973 called ‘The Unanswered Question’ and which has since become something of a critical mantra of mine: that one of the best ways to get to know a thing is in the context of another discipline. It’s sometimes said rather patronisingly of the directors of the Nouvelle Vague that they discovered Shakespeare through Orson Welles: well, what a wonderful way to discover Shakespeare. This isn’t, in the awful phrase, ‘dumbing down’ (which is often said about film adaptations) but ‘opening up’ and indeed opening vistas of artistic possibilities, journeys and adventures.

I want to undertake one such journey now by exploring connections between two great artists in their respective fields – the novelist Henry James and the film writer-director Billy Wilder – who might at first glance not seem to have that much in common. Indeed one could hardly imagine two more disparate artistic personalities on the surface: Henry James, the refined literary aesthete; Billy Wilder, the uproarious cinematic satirist. They both had elder brothers called William, though that seems at best a tenuous connection, particularly when you recall Henry’s brother William was a brilliant psychologist (often credited with the invention of the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’) whereas Billy’s brother, Wilhelm was a B-movie director, W. Lee Wilder whom even Billy described as ‘a dull son of a bitch’. Unlike Wilder, you cannot really imagine Henry James writing a part for Marilyn Monroe (unless it be Daisy Miller?). So at first you might think that this is just a case of two very different artists in different eras and media expressing themselves by very different means and whom, coincidentally, you just happen to admire and who have the occasional thing in common: you might think that, and you’d be absolutely right. But why is it, then, that when I think of one, I invariably think of the other? It’s that strange connection that I want to say more about now; and I should at the outset say that I’m in not in any way talking about conscious influence – there’s no evidence I know of to indicate Wilder had read any Henry James let alone was deeply affected by his work.

Initially one might list incidental aspects of their personal and artistic character that they (along with other artists) had in common. They were both great raconteurs. Wilder was a famously good interviewee, full of waspish witticisms about Hollywood and stars, notably on Marilyn Monroe (‘My God, there’ve been as many books on Marilyn Monroe as on World War Two – and there’s a great similarity…. She had a brain like Swiss cheese, full of holes – and she was never on time: mind you, my Aunt Ida is always on time, but I wouldn’t pay to see her in a movie’). James was noted as an inveterate one-way conversationalist, whom a young Virginia Woolf remembered as a frequent and loquacious visitor to their house, sounding forth as he leaned back in his chair and apparently on one occasion leaning back so far that he actually fell off, though, as Virginia Woolf recalled it, still continuing to declaim even as he sailed backwards through the air.

On artistic matters, there were two characteristics they shared which I just want to comment on briefly here. They were both perfectionists and absolutely meticulous in their attention to the written word. James’s Prefaces to his novels constitute an extraordinary document of the thought and care that went into the construction and articulation of his work. T. S. Eliot called this quality in James ‘an integrity so great, a vision so exacting that it was forced to the extreme of care and punctiliousness for exact expression.’8 It would not be an exaggeration to make the same claims for Billy Wilder, who went into direction essentially to protect his scripts and who, when he was filming, would ensure that his co-writer from the mid-1950s, I. A. L. Diamond was seated on the set, ensuring that the actors had not deviated from the script by a single syllable: if they had, the scene would have to be done again. Both of them were sticklers about form and structure. I remember once trying to count the recurrent motifs and leitmotifs in Wilder’s The Apartment that bind the whole thing together in this beautiful structure – I counted 28. Too schematic? ‘Maybe construction is frowned upon these days,’ Wilder would say in the 1970s, ‘but that’s the way we’ve been doing it and that’s the way we’re going to do it until they take the cameras away’.9 In the case of Henry James, one thinks of his reply to Hugh Walpole who’d just been reading Dostoyevsky and was suggesting that surely the most important thing was what the artist was actually saying and that form was secondary to substance. In strenuously disagreeing, James countered: ‘Don’t let anyone persuade you that Form is [not] substance to that degree that there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds, and preserves, substance.’ His objection to Dostoyevsky and to Tolstoy was that they created, in his famous phrase, ‘loose, baggy monsters’, with a leakage of substance caused by an inadequacy of form.

Another thing the two men had in common: they were both art connoisseurs. James was an art critic of great discrimination, and Wilder had one of the finest art collections of anyone in Hollywood: when he came to sell it towards the end of his life, it fetched more than $30 million. Because of his insistence on the primacy of his scripts and his hostility to overt visual effects, Wilder has been underrated as a visual stylist, but he had a very precise eye and just occasionally one can see the influence of his artistic tastes in his own compositions (for example, in The Apartment, there’s a conscious and thematically significant allusion to Henri Rousseau’s ‘Sleeping Gypsy’ in one of the shots after the Shirley MacLaine character has attempted suicide). Similarly, although James was the most densely verbal of novelists, he was very sensitive to visual detail, and some of the greatest moments of revelation in his novels are essentially pictorial. For example, in The Portrait of a Lady, the first inkling that the young heroine, Isabel Archer has that her husband Gilbert has had a former intimate relationship with Madame Merle is an occasion when she comes upon them unexpectedly and there is just something in their posture – nothing as flagrant or obvious as an embrace – that strikes her as disquieting in Chapter 40:

She perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends, in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected.10

It’s an image that will later trigger her tormented self-communing across the whole of that wonderful Chapter 42, as she sits alone in front of the fire, mentally analysing the agonies of her marriage, a scene that will build to that devastating last sentence when, at 4 in the morning, she exhaustedly starts to go to bed: ‘But even then she stopped again in the middle of the room and stood there gazing at a remembered vision – that of her husband and Madame Merle unconsciously and familiarly associated’.11

One more comparative example of their visual astuteness: in one of James’s late great novels, The Ambassadors, where his style has become very tortuous and elaborated (I always remember reading a volume of Alec Guinness’s memoirs where he said he’d started to read James’s The Wings of the Dove and after the first page, he’d gone so dizzy with the exhaustion of trying to follow the sentences that he had to lie down). Nevertheless, as in Portrait of a Lady, the key moment of revelation is visual not verbal: an act of seeing, when its hero, a middle-aged American in Paris, Lambert Strether catches sight of what seems like a courting couple in a boat on a lake, recognises them as two people he has idealised on coming to know them, and suddenly realises they are engaged in a furtive and ignoble affair. As in Portrait of a Lady, the vision is not only a moment of revelation but a moment of self-revelation, where the watcher becomes aware of his naïve gullibility as well as the others’ worldly corruption. An equivalent moment in Billy Wilder would be that astonishing moment in The Apartment, when Jack Lemmon’s clerk, on the path to promotion in his job through blithely lending his apartment key to his superiors so they can pursue their extra-marital affairs, learns that the woman he loves, Shirley Maclaine’s elevator operator, is having an affair with his boss (Fred MacMurray). Again it’s an exquisitely planned moment of seeing. She lends him her compact case to check his executive bowler hat in its mirror and the mirror is broken; and he suddenly recognises it as something he has found in his apartment and returned to his boss to whom he has lent his key. The shot of his fractured reflection- which is the moment of recognition – not only signifies the shattering of his illusions about her but also is the moment when he is compelled to see himself and the dual role he has been playing. Like the Jamesian moments I’ve described, it’s a moment of maximum disillusionment – what James in the Preface of The Ambassadors calls the ‘terrible fluidity of self-revelation’ – and they are moments prepared for and delivered by two consummate masters of dramatic structure.

There are numerous other points in common that I could mention – their social comedy, their sophisticated use of often unreliable narrators, their desire for popular success mingled with the tasting of the bitterest failure – in James’s case, his play, Guy Domville, where, coming to take his author’s bow at the end, he was booed off the stage; or in Wilder’s case, Kiss me, Stupid, which was critically reviled – but I want to come now what seems to me the core connection between them. Let me state it as a blunt proposition: that Billy Wilder could be seen as Henry James in reverse, a sort of mirror image, distorted by different perspectives of personality, time and artistic form, but at the same time and in an odd way strikingly reminiscent of each other.

To sketch this out a bit: Henry James is an American, a New Yorker of the 19th century who travels to Europe and eventually settles there, becoming in a way more European than the Europeans, though never, as it were, shaking off his American accent. He never desires to return to America – as he put it in a letter to his sister-in-law Mrs William James,12 ‘I could go back to America to die, but never, never to live’ (he will, in fact, die in London); and yet he never loses his American perspective; and the contrast and conflict between America and Europe becomes a key theme of his work (I’m thinking of novels like Roderick Hudson, The Europeans, The American, The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, Portrait of a Lady – a far from exhaustive list). By contrast, Billy Wilder is a 20th century European, born in Sucha which is now in Poland but which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who emigrates to America from Berlin when the Nazis come to power (as he put it when he left in 1933, ‘Berlin was not a place for a nice Jewish boy to be’) and settles there. He becomes more American than the Americans – he develops a legendary passion for baseball and a compendious knowledge of American popular songs that will find its way into his films – but he never loses his European perspective and, like James, the America/Europe conflict and contrast is at the core of many of his films (The Emperor Waltz, A Foreign Affair, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, One, Two, Three, Avanti!). For all his nearly seventy years in America, he literally never loses his European accent, about which he is to the end of his life very sensitive. His accent apparently became particularly pronounced at moments of stress, like the first day of shooting a new film; and there’s a famous occasion when he begins shooting The Fortune Cookie and starts barking out heavily accented instructions: Jack Lemmon, who by that time has worked with Wilder on three previous films, is unfazed, but Walter Matthau, who has never worked with him before, is at first baffled and then intrigued. ‘Say,’ he says to Wilder, ‘You’re from outta town, aren’t you?’

To put this comparison in another way: Henry James is a supreme American master of the great artistic form of the 19th century, the novel, a century that could be called the ‘European century’; Wilder is a supreme European-born master of the great artistic form of the 20th century, the cinema, a century that could be called the ‘American century’. ‘One day the world will be yours,’ says Emperor Franz Joseph in Wilder’s fin-de-siecle musical comedy, The Emperor Waltz to Bing Crosby’s American phonograph salesman in Vienna, to which Crosby replies without batting an eyelid, ‘You bet it will.’ This cultural, social and artistic contrast between America and Europe will give both of them their big theme: what James would call the ‘International theme’ and what Wilder might call ‘A Foreign Affair’. To put it in James’s words at the beginning of his book, William Wetmore Story and his Friends (1903): ‘The social, personal, aesthetic relation of the American world to the European made as charming a subject as the student of manners, morals, personal adventures, the history of taste, the development, need wish to take up.’ Wilder’s work would also completely confirm that.

In James’s case, he will become enthralled by, and will work infinite variations on, the situation of American ‘innocence’ coming up against European ‘experience’ and watching the interaction. There is a very funny passage early on in James’s study of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1879) where he writes:

One might enumerate the items of high civilisation, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it would become a wonder to know what was left… No sovereign, no court… no aristocracy, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles… nor old country houses, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; nor little Norman churches; no great universities nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; … no museums, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom nor Ascot! The natural remark in the almost lurid light of such an indictment would be that, if these things are left out, everything is left out.

This [heavily edited] evocation of the then emptiness of American culture and heritage, as James saw it, always reminds me of that moment in Citizen Kane when Kane is off to Europe for a break and Bernstein is pulling his leg about the pictures and statues he hasn’t bought yet: ‘You can’t blame me, Mr Bernstein,’ Kane replies, ‘They’ve been making statues for 2,000 years and I’ve only been buying for five.’ In other words, if we Americans can’t acquire culture and heritage through experience, maybe we can buy it, turn it into a commodity. Money, acquisitiveness and greed will become key themes in James, as they are in Wilder, but at that stage, I think, the conflict is between American innocence (which can connote idealism but also ingenuousness) coming up against European experience (which can connote culture and civilisation but also corruption and decadence). Behind it all, I think, are two crucial things for James, as they will be equally crucial for Wilder: firstly, a vision of an ideal society, which is something he sketches in The American Scene (1907) and which would combine the best of American vitality and enterprise with European culture and sophistication; and, secondly, an exploration of his own identity as a Europeanised American.

Wilder’s 20th century equivalent to that outburst of James against the shallowness of 19th century America might be something that Marilyn Monroe’s character says in The Seven-Year Itch when she’s talking about her appearance on a tv commercial: ‘Every time I show my teeth on television, more people see me than ever saw Sarah Bernhardt. It’s something to think about, isn’t it?’ It certainly is; and the critic Stephen Farber in a fine Film Comment article on Wilder, made a potent observation on this: ‘That line crystallises Wilder’s disenchanted vision of today’s world, Americans with “kissing sweet” toothpaste grins, who haven’t the slightest shred of culture, refinement or elegance.’13 Up to a point that’s true, but I also think that part of Wilder loves that kind of vitality and indeed vulgarity: it might not be that refined, but it’s close to real life. If Henry James is the 19th century American who has gone to Europe and been completely seduced by its culture and refinement, Wilder is the 20th century European who has gone to America and been bowled over by its energy and drive (one can see that particularly in a film like Some like it Hot). He falls in love with the country (according to his first major screenwriting collaborator, Charles Brackett: ‘in love with America as I have seen few people in love with it’), yet he also sees the flaws more bitingly than any other director of his generation and seems to hanker occasionally for an injection of ameliorating European civilisation and humanity, which I think he also recognises has probably gone. Like James, he evokes a lost ideal more than a prospective reality or aspiration. In James, the America/Europe theme will culminate in The Ambassadors; in Wilder, it will culminate in his 1972 film, Avanti!, ostensibly a light romantic comedy with Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, actually an epic personal contemplation, lasting around two-and-a-half-hours, of America/Europe interaction and his own identity as an Americanised European. As it is in James, the European landscape is felt as a moral as well as a physical presence. Indeed you can not only feel and see this America/Europe interaction, conflict and contrast in Wilder; you can also hear it over his soundtracks which often counterpoint American popular idioms with European classics: e.g. the popular song ‘Fascination’ with a Haydn symphony in Love in the Afternoon; the song ‘Tangerine’ with Schubert in Double Indemnity; Bing Crosby warbling sentimental lyrics to Johann Strauss waltzes in The Emperor Waltz.

This kind of duality – between high culture/ popular culture, America/Europe, Innocence/Experience – set me thinking about something that Graham Greene wrote in an essay on James in 1936: that

to render the highest justice to corruption, you must retain your innocence; you have to be conscious all the time within yourself of treachery to something valuable. If Peter Quint is to be rooted in you, so must the child his ghost corrupts; if Osmond, Isabel Archer… These are the points of purity in the dark picture.

You do get these figures in Wilder as well as James: there are the predators, like the William Holden heroes or Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, but there are also the more pure in heart, like the Audrey Hepburn heroines of Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon – and this is the essence of the tension. James is constantly drawn to the theme of Innocence in danger, or lost, or betrayed, in works like Washington Square, What Maisie Knew, The Turn of the Screw, The Spoils of Poynton – and that activates Wilder too, as he contrives situations where there are very rarely two completely innocent lovers in Wilder who meet on equal terms: one is invariably deceiving the other in some way or is more worldly-wise, and that might be precisely the attraction. Innocence is attracted to experience and vice-versa- experience is attracted to innocence, perhaps in order to corrupt it, but perhaps also as a reminder of what has been lost. In one of his early stories, The Last of the Valerii, James will divide people into two categories: people who were, or who were not, as he put it, ‘susceptible of the moral life’. Wilder has a similar division in mind, but usually puts it a bit more bluntly: in The Apartment, he divides people into those who take and those who get took; and in The Fortune Cookie, he divides people into those who will do anything for money and those who will do almost anything for money (and there are characters like that in James too, notably in Washington Square and The Aspern Papers). In both cases, all this adds up to a world-view that is very much connected to their feelings as artists, outsiders and exiles, and bringing, in James’s case, an American perspective to the European scene and in Wilder’s case, a European perspective to an American scene, which will translate into rich and complex reflections on innocence, experience and morality.

I want to illustrate some of these points by showing and commenting on extracts from two Billy Wilder films. The first is his classic film noir of 1944, Double Indemnity. By now Wilder had lived in America for ten years; had established himself as a screenwriter (particularly for Ernst Lubitsch and Mitchell Leisen) and then as a director. This is his third film as director but the first to offer the kind of dark view of America with which, particularly over this and the next decade, he will be associated, Just to set the scene: an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) has plotted with an American-style femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband; fake it to look like an accident; and then claim the insurance. It seems at first like the perfect murder. But the claims investigator (Edward G. Robinson) is beginning to smell a rat; also Stanwyck’s stepdaughter, Lola has revealed to MacMurray that her mother also died in suspicious circumstances – and the nurse in charge of her was Barbara Stanwyck. The tale is being narrated in flashback by MacMurray, who is now mortally wounded.

These are not nice people, and because the characters were so unpleasant, nobody wanted to play them. Wilder had a lot of trouble casting the roles. He remained confident, however. ‘When George Raft turned it down,’ he said, ‘we knew we had a good picture.’ At this point in the film MacMurray has arranged a secret assignation with Stanwyck to warn her off claiming the insurance because Robinson is getting too suspicious:

The supermarket setting is, on one level, a nice use of dramatic counterpoint – an image of normality and order, set against a hushed discussion of the consequences of murder. On another level, it is an extension of the two protagonists: a cold and concentrated image of commerce, money, profit, precisely the forces that are driving them. There’s a sign in the shop that says ‘We Deliver- More for Less’. Meanwhile, the characterisation of the heroine is a kind of Americanised corruption of the European femme fatale: a figure allied, as Molly Haskell argued in her book, From Reverence to Rape, ‘not with the dark forces of nature, but with the green forces of the capitalist economy.’14 Yet the hold she has over the hero is still definitely sexual; and I would contend that, whereas it would be hard to imagine more indigenous American directors like Ford or Hawks, say, so convincingly creating such a devouring female siren, she could emerge from the darker cultural heritage of European émigrés like Wilder, Lang or Siodmak. There is one detail that is particularly relevant here: Wilder changes the surname of her character from Nirdlinger (in the James Cain novel) to Dietrichson – surely a conscious reference to Marlene Dietrich, the sexual siren of The Blue Angel tempting the previously upright hero to his downfall. Finally, the music drifting up from the Hollywood Bowl – as MacMurray prepares to quiz the daughter of the man he has murdered to find out how much she knows – is Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, its incomplete nature perhaps a wry analogy to a murder scheme that they are finding themselves unable to push through to a successful conclusion. More than that, though, it seems a poignant, almost subliminal memory of the European culture Wilder has left behind – and the war has now shattered- as he now begins to strip the New World of its innocence with a sardonic satirical savagery worthy of his Viennese idol, the writer Karl Krauss. It’s a wonderfully evocative and concentrated image of the Old World/New World conflict in Wilder – art and culture of the past in the dim background, a distant music, as it were: upfront grim venal greed.

I want to jump forward around 30 years to a film Wilder made towards the end of his career, Avanti!, made in 1972. The America/Europe contrast is now not only more overt but indeed the central theme of the film. Wilder’s favourite actor, Jack Lemmon plays a conservative American businessman called over to Italy to collect the body of his father, who has been killed in car crash while holidaying in Ischia. When he arrives, he is shocked to discover that not only has a woman been killed in the car along with his father, but that his father had been having a holiday affair with this woman for the last ten years. Juliet Mills plays the woman’s daughter, who has come over from England to arrange for her mother’s funeral.

The scene I want to show is the scene at the morgue where they go to identify their parents. Just two quick things by way of preface: I would argue that Avanti! is Wilder’s most Jamesian film in two respects at least: a) the Italian setting and the way it is used: it’s a kind of paradise in the film and it recalls James’s love of Italy above all other countries: as he says in his Preface to Roderick Hudson: ‘One fact about it indeed outlives all others; the fact that the loved Italy was the scene of my fiction- so much more loved than one has ever been able, even after fifty efforts, to say!’; and b) the other Jamesian touch here is the tempo. There’s a funny bit in James’s Portrait of a Lady where the brash American Caspar Goodwood grumbles that ‘Italian trains go at about the rate of American funerals’ and this scene seems almost a droll evocation of that: Jack Lemmon’s finger-snapping executive keeps trying to speed things up, but is compelled to adjust to a more leisurely tempo and to a less cynical, more romantic tone:

[Extract begins at 34:00]

Being Wilder, that scene is very funny. I love the characterisation of the coroner, this automaton who only knows one word of English (‘Okay’- rather like the Lemmon character, in fact, who only knows one word of Italian, ‘Ciao’), but who, towards the end of his appearance, with that sodden sponge in his pocket, shows a touching human fallibility; just as later, with the Jack Lemmon character, a little bit of humanity will start leaking through. I like the detail of Juliet Mills’s daffodils – which Lemmon doesn’t know the name of, in English, let alone Italian; they add colour and warmth to what could have been a chilly scene. I love the discreetness of the camerawork, which for the most part keeps a respectful distance from the action, only moving into close-up when Juliet Mills is identifying her mother and putting flowers next to her, a poignant shot that is cannily defused of sentimentality when Lemmon noses his way into the frame to sneak a curious peek at the corpse. (By contrast, she has had the discretion to look away when the corpse of Wendell’s mother has been uncovered.) I love Lemmon’s acting in this scene – overall, I think this is possibly his greatest screen performance, and that’s saying a great deal: his abashed expression when she tells him the name of the flowers; the way he can intimidate the coroner through that distinctive quizzical raising of the left eyebrow; his vocal skill to suggest how decorum is only just keeping the rein on his impatience; ‘Come on – just sign, please’/’May I make a suggestion?’/‘No’. All of this is building up to that excruciating moment when, as a casual afterthought when he is leaving and with unpardonable American brusqueness, he murmurs to Carlucci (Clive Revill): ‘Ask fat-ass if she wants a ride.’ It is a tiny detonation of exasperation and meant to be a private aside, but even Carlucci is taken aback by the rudeness; and she hears it in all its repulsiveness, replying with dignity: ‘Tell him, “No, thank you”.’ And then comes perhaps the most beautiful significant moment of all, when she goes over to the window and opens it, and suddenly the interior becomes suffused with warmth, radiance and sunlight, as if life has started up again.

Wilder aficionados might particularly sense the significance and even symbolism of that last gesture, which has occurred in Ninotchka, the famous 1939 film which Wilder co-scripted for Ernst Lubitsch; and also in Sabrina, when in both cases the heroines open the window to let in the air, a gesture of emotional and spiritual release. In both cases there the setting is Paris – ‘Paris is a place for changing your outlook, for throwing open the windows,’ says Audrey Hepburn to the jaded, plastic American executive played by Humphrey Bogart, who will indeed be heading for Paris at the end of the film. And in Henry James’s The Ambassadors, there is a comparable moment and sentiment in the open air of a spacious garden in Paris when, as if stirred by the atmosphere around him, the stuffy middle-aged American hero, Lambert Strether makes a similar plea to his young friend: ‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have had your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?’.15 It is exactly the same feeling in Wilder – a feeling of emotional release stimulated by the air the character breathes.

At one point in Avanti!, Jack Lemmon notices a 90-year-old man who is able to rise from his chair and dance with two beautiful young nurses. Musing ruefully that ‘this place must take years off your life’, Lemmon is told that the old man has been coming to the hotel ‘since before World War 1’ – in other words, before Europe tore itself apart. Although Wilder might be offering Europe as a source of spiritual rejuvenation in Avanti! to set against the materialist values of the American, the reference to the Great War signals an awareness of the way the war represented a watershed in terms of European identity and self-belief, politically and socially as well as emotionally and psychologically. For Henry James, the outbreak of war – and he did not live to see the end of it, for he died in 1916 – was a terrible shock: ‘an abyss of blood and darkness,’ he called it. To him it seemed both an awful premonition of what the new century was in for, but also a terrible betrayal of what he thought the 19th had stood for, with its promise of continual progress and betterment in which he had so fervently believed. T. S. Eliot characterised this outlook as James’s ‘Romanticism’ and he went on to elaborate on what he thought this meant:

His romanticism implied no defect in observation of the things he wanted to observe; it was not the romanticism of those who dream because they are too lazy or too fearful to face the facts; it issues rather from the imperative insistence of an ideal which tormented him. He was possessed by the vision of an ideal society; he saw (not fancied) the relations between the members of such a society. And no one, in the end, has ever been more aware – or with more benignity or less bitterness – of the disparity between possibility and fact.

In some ways I think Billy Wilder takes James’s romanticism to its next phase – now even more bruised and battered after World War Two. It might seem odd to use the term ‘Romantic’ about a film-maker so often associated – branded even – with the label ‘bad taste cynicism’, but even Andrew Sarris had to revise his assessment of Wilder in view of his later films and the light they shed on earlier works: so a director he had castigated in 1968 as ‘too cynical to believe even in his own cynicism’ was described thirty years or so later in a completely different way, when Sarris says that ‘critics [including himself?] failed to realise that his apparent cynicism was the only way he could make his raging romanticism palatable.’16 I’m not sure I would go so far as to call Wilder a ‘raging’ romantic, but I do think there’s a strong element of romanticism in classic early screenplays of his like Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939) and particularly, Hold Back the Dawn (1941), with its astonishing idealisation of an imagined America that will wash its hero – a corrupt European gigolo – clean, and which Wilder then has to adjust to the harsher realities he sees. Yet he never entirely loses this romanticism and which is connected to his European heritage, and indeed seems to flower in Europe: so that for every Double Indemnity there’s a Sabrina; for every Lost Weekend there’s a Love in the Afternoon; for every Ace in the Hole there’s an Avanti!

Remember that speech that Greta Garbo has to give towards the end of Ninotchka in 1939 when the world is on the brink of another war and where a mood of melancholy has overtaken the film. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘wars will wash over us… bombs will fall… all civilisation will crumble… but not yet, please… wait, wait… what’s the hurry? Let us be happy… give us our moment.’ Almost like the 1913 poem ‘Grantchester’ by Rupert Brooke (whom James so wildly admired), Garbo’s speech seems to be exhorting time to stand still in the hope that the drift towards war can be arrested and the world might come to its senses. It doesn’t, of course, and it’s disquieting to think about the films Wilder makes in the immediate aftermath of World War Two: editing a documentary on the concentration camps at Auschwitz, where a number of his family (including his mother and grandmother) had perished; a musical The Emperor Waltz (1947), set in the fin-de-siecle Vienna of Wilder’s youth, as if recollecting what has just been destroyed; and A Foreign Affair (1948), a black market comedy that, in the phrase of the critic Richard Winnington, ‘illuminates as well as stings’, about the American occupation of post-war Berlin, shot on location in a city that Wilder loved but had to escape from 15 years earlier and which was now little more than a heap of rubble. He will return to Berlin in One, Two, Three (1961) at the time of the erecting of the Berlin Wall, another dubious milestone of 20th century European history. But when he returns to Europe in his final films – like the Victorian London of Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or the idealised Italy of Avanti! – the vision is more mellow, nostalgic even, an affectionate evocation not only of a ‘visitable past’ (in James’s phrase in The Aspern Papers) but also of a vanished world. Even in his great penultimate film, Fedora (1978), whose setting is contemporary and which is mainly set in Corfu, the mood is more elegiac than bitter, and the situation rather Jamesian, notably the James of The Aspern Papers, with a duplicitous American hero who for his own career purposes tries to trick his way into the confidence of an old woman and her daughter, who have something he wants but are not what they seem; whose scheme will fail; but who will nevertheless find reconciliation of a kind at a funeral in Paris.

To summarise: looking at James and Wilder together, I have tried to sketch how a supreme novelist of the 19th century and a supreme film maker of the 20th have dealt with one of the big themes of their respective epochs: the contrast between America and Europe, its general significance, but also its personal meaning for them. The word ‘sketch’ is deliberately chosen: there are nuances of contrast and difference in terms of theme and style that would require much more detailed consideration. However, I would like to return to the point about the value of this kind of study and the way this value might touch on what we are doing when enthusing about adaptation.

I began by quoting from Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema about how more books were needed on film and the other arts as well as, he said, books that lead to greater clarification of debates in the context of film authorship, notably to do with the nature of collaboration, industrial and generic constraints etc. Wollen wrote this over 40 years and much of the things he asked for then have come to pass. ‘We need not two or three books on Hitchcock and Ford,’ he wrote, ‘but many, many more.’ Well, we have certainly had that, but when he went on, ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts, Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, Hawks with Faulkner’,17 that hasn’t happened, and I suggested early on why I thought this was so. But it also raises the question: why do we need this? Is it simply to see authorial similarity or influence in artists working in different artistic forms? To see where film fits in a wider artistic tradition? To see what it has in common with other arts and can learn from them- or vice-versa?

For myself, I like to think that it is another form of ‘throwing open the windows’ – of enlarging the artistic field. One of the ideas about adaptation that has always appealed to me has been, on the one hand, the idea of continuity – of a text being circulated and re-circulated amongst an evolving generation of recipients, who bring their own perspectives to it which generate and guarantee the text’s continual growth, renewal and transformation, The other great appeal for me has been the idea of the broadening community: that is, that to transform a text from one artistic form to another brings into play a whole new community that might not otherwise have encountered it. And, to take it closer to James and Wilder, it relates to the way artists across different media connect and- sometimes you feel almost by a process of osmosis- communicate with each other, discover an inter-relationship quite unconsciously.

One of the projects I was going to do a long time ago (my book on Billy Wilder intervened) was a study of the interrelationships between the arts and artists responding to something in the air in the period immediately before World War One: comparative essays that drew out connections between Picasso and Stravinsky; Kandinsky and Schoenberg; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes and the music of Ravel; Gustav Mahler and Thomas Mann, particularly the Mahler of the 9th Symphony and the Thomas Mann of Death in Venice; H.G.Wells’s novel, Tono-Bungay and its impact on Vaughan Williams’s ‘London’ Symphony; E.M.Forster’s Howards End and Elgar’s 2nd Symphony – all contemporaneous works that have an enormous amount in common: even though they cross different disciplines, they are responding to the same artistic, social and political currents, to similar themes and tensions of the times. When I find some free time during retirement, I might one day get back to that, as I might with another project that has preoccupied me over a number of years and is another film project that goes beyond film and would embrace the other arts – specifically, on the film, Vertigo and what it owes to, and throws light on, Romantic poetry, Impressionist painting, Gothic literature, Wagnerian opera, French Symbolism, and many other things beside. It’s almost like the feeling behind Alexander Sokurov’s single-shot tour of the Russian Hermitage in his film, Russian Ark (2002), which emphasises continuity and evolution in a single camera movement that travels through centuries and epochs and gives, as he put it, the feeling of ‘each artist sensing a whole civilisation of artists standing behind him.’ (It recalls for me too another quote from the French writer Anatole France about what critics did and indeed what they were for: ‘A good critic is one who relates the adventures of his [or her] soul amongst masterpieces.’) In a Sight and Sound piece on Sokurov and Russian Ark, Ian Christie contended that Eisenstein belonged to this same tradition, and that Eisenstein even saw it exemplified by the popular 1940s Hollywood movie, A Guy Named Joe (re-made by Steven Spielberg as Always), where dead pilots serve as guardians for the living and symbolise what Eisenstein called ‘the creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ In some ways, I like to think that is what we are doing when studying adaptation. From our own individual angles and perspectives, we are considering and discussing – even deconstructing- the ‘creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ May I then just offer Henry James and Billy Wilder as my own eccentric example of this glorious transmission.

Neil Sinyard

A version of this talk was first given at an Adaptations Conference at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, and more recently at the University of Dundee. It is respectfully dedicated to my special American friend, Tom Leitch, and to the memory of the late Jim Welsh, founding editor of Literature/Film Quarterly and an exceptional scholar and gentleman who will be greatly missed.

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  1. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 115. 

  2. Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature

  3. Neil Sinyard, Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 

  4. Foreword in Quentin Falk, Travels in Greeneland Third Edition, p.7. 

  5. Dudley Andrew, ‘Adaptation’, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (editors), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 454. 

  6. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (1965). 

  7. Raymond Durgnat, ‘The Mongrel Muse’, in F.H. Marcus (editor), Film and Literature: Contrasts in the Media (Seranton: Chandler, 1971, pp. 71-82. 

  8. T. S. Eliot, ‘A Prediction in Regard to Three English Authors: Henry James; J. G. Frazer; F. H. Bradley’, Vanity Fair, 1924. The James section of this piece is reproduced, for example, in Dorothea Krook, The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), pp. 1-2. 

  9. ‘Dialogue on Film’ in American Film, August 1976, p. 36. 

  10. Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, Chapter 40. 

  11. Ibid, p. 435. 

  12. 1 April 1913. 

  13. Film Comment, Winter 1971, p. 11. 

  14. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, p. 197. 

  15. Book 5, Part 2, p. 173. 

  16. See Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet, p. 326. 

  17. Wollen, p. 115.