artwork by nacrowe
first full disclosure: my senior honors thesis in college was on this guy. so i'm biased. like really biased when it comes to film director BILLY WILDER.
the guy had a gift for dialogue, specifically his ability to portray the rhythms, cadences and spoken vernacular of the era, which was unrivaled and utterly baffling as he was an emigre who came to the america speaking german. the man who wrote DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) had barely a decade of speaking english under his belt when he began directing his english language scripts. that accomplishment alone is astonishing.
i love all of his early films and some of his later comedies, think films like STALAG 17 (1953), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT (1960), but what i really appreciate about the man was his edge.
being a displaced austrian jew that watched the dismantling of his childhood when europe fell under the spell of the nazis and their anti-Semitic sycophants, WILDER had an instinct for calling out injustice, even in his new homeland. at the early peak of his career he created two films that i hold in the highest regard, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE. both provided a mirror to a growing celebrity-obsessed media culture that favored gross spectacle over human decency. both went after two aspects of mass culture goliath: film and newspapers.
SUNSET BOULEVARD is a case study of the corrosive effects of celebrity-culture, from those attempting to maintain relevancy to those attempting to achieve it. in a total master-stroke, WILDER casted silent-film era siren GLORIA SWANSON as essentially herself in NORMA DESMOND, with her butler/man-servant played by german silent-era director ERICH VON STROHEIM. not trying to spoil this film, but essentially using a has-been to play a has-been to make a commentary on an industry that both worships and discards its icons in equal measure was utterly brilliant and biting at the same time. pure wilder.
while SUNSET BOULEVARD goes after the film industry, ACE IN THE HOLE focuses its ire on that of the general public in the age of a burgeoning mass media culture. this film is essentially the first to question the responsibility of the media in producing a mass spectacle for ratings. a washed-up east coast beat reporter played by the iconic KIRK DOUGLAS finds himself reassigned to new mexico when he comes across the story of a local man that gets caught in the cave. rather than assist the victim or provide help, he milks the story for all that its worth with week's of exclusives designed to gain him relevancy and a shot back at regaining his reputation as a journalist. much like SUNSET BOULEVARD goes into the toxic horse-trading aspects of celebrity-culture, ACE IN THE HOLE digs deeper and exposes how we are all accomplices to the process. by following coverage we are tacitly responsible for the methods and means by which that information was acquired.
nothing has changed. at all. ACE IN THE HOLE was a flop, but in my mind it was WILDER's greatest moment made only the more incredible given his emigre status in the united states.