Quick Shames Part 1: Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole

This is the first of 3 Quick Shames that I’m writing to get back into the mix of CinemaShame.


Ace in the Hole has proven to be an almost prophetic film for me. It is an examination of the media and its relationship with the people who consume it.

Kirk Douglas is Chuck Tatum. Tatum is a newspaper reporter who stumbles upon the story of Leo Minosa. Minosa is trapped underground while gathering Native American artifacts. Tatum manages to manipulate the rescue operation in order to better sell his story until it snowballs into a sideshow that does everything but focus on the task at hand. Tatum even goes as far as convincing the contractor to take a method that’s even longer than needed just to prolong the story.


Douglas is superb as the self-centered Tatum. I find him really good at playing these sort of slimy roles as he is also fantastic as an alienating film producer in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful. He clearly is adept at that type of role. You can see the effect he has on the characters around him including Leo’s wife Lorraine and Herbie Cook, a young photographer who loses his idealism over the course of the film.

Ace in the Hole was Wilder’s first foray as writer, producer and director. He did not have his longtime writing partner Charles Brackett. This film would also prove to be his first failure both commercially and critically. I can see why. In his previous film Sunset Boulevard we see the effects of an industry on an individual who was a part of it. In this film we see how news spreads and what people will do to appease a gullible public. I oils imagine no one as ready for this in 1951.

Ace in the Hole is totally relevant in 2016. The tools may have changed. We now have smartphones and social media platforms that keep us connected 24/7, but the game has remained the same. Ace in the Hole is an prime minister example of why Billy Wilder is one of the greats of cinema by giving us in 2016 a mirror to look at ourselves, yet he gave it to us over 60 years prior.

Dissuaded as a Child – Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot”

THE PROBLEM

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers – Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity and especially Ace in the Hole – so it makes no sense why I haven’t seen Some Like it Hot. I watched The Apartment for the first time about a month ago, which succeeded Some Like It Hot by one year, and I loved it. I guess the pattern is I’ve gravitated to Wilder’s dramas, his noirs, his serious social statements, while avoiding his “slapsticky, light, jazzy fluff.” (At least, that’s the phrase I’d award my prejudice.) One speed bump also were the comic interludes of Stalag 17, a movie I was super excited to see, then was rather disappointed at how much dated, almost obnoxious, material plagued the “serious war movie.” Nonetheless, I was beside myself with how wrong I was about the comedies when I finally saw The Apartment; a hilarious, tightly written comedy about a spineless businessman, taken advantage of by his co-workers and boss for the use of his apartment for their “extracurricular activities.” At some point, the need I felt to see Wilder’s serious cinema extended to The Apartment, and my reaction to that film spurned my want to see Some Like It Hot.

But, why did I miss it in the first place? It’s undeniably a classic. It’s consistently noted as one of the best comedies ever, awarded time and time again, and on many lists, including #1 on AFI’s 100 Years 100 Laughs. However, I think I’ve pinpointed it in a simple way. Even though my father showed me classic films throughout my rearing, including Psycho, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, and On the Waterfront, he steered me clear of anything “questionable.” I should add that my dad is an ultra-conservative. Anything including cross-dressing leaned way too close to homosexuality; something he found no humor in, unless it was at the expense of it. Though he never raised me with opaque homophobia, in retrospect, I see that he never let even skirting the issue enter into the viewing experiences of his boy. For me, it’s funny to think how much violence he was fine with showing me – Robocop, Rambo, numerous horror movies – but again, anything dealing with sex, much less same gender sex, was off the table. He was the type of person the MPAA was made for.

THE SOLUTION

So, seizing the opportunity to wipe this shame off my list, I made it the first film I’d tackle for “Cinema Shame.” (And not the last Wilder I’ll see this year) Written with frequent collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, Some Like It Hot is a snapping, hilarious romantic comedy, the prototype for basically every rom-com we’ve seen I’d bet. In fact, every SNL cast member owes a debt of gratitude to this film for creating the formula of comedian-turn-leading-man – Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, David Spade, Rob Schneider – as well as other talent like Denis Leary. Regardless of their success, which is rare (and only Ferrell has broken out of this, by my count), every film they make is a variation on Some Like It Hot. Take a protagonist in trouble, put them in a disguise, odd occupation, or alien environment, have them find a girl, fall in love with her, and when the trouble reappears, they have to come clean about their secret. Only then can the girl show she doesn’t care about it after all, and wants the joe schmo protagonist for who he really is. (In fact, if I’m being honest, one of my favorite films of the 1980s, Just One of the Guys, is an almost-exact retread of Some Like It Hot too, just gender-flipped.)

The film, beyond its influence, is rather good. A great first 30 minutes, a great last 20 minutes, and including a capper last exchange between Jack Lemmon and his “old money” suitor that had to ruffle some feathers in 1959. In the middle, it slumps a bit. But, I wonder if its the fault of the movie, or how many times I’ve seen this plot done to death in variation. Mistaken identity and the mismatched chase: Tony Curtis pretends to be a rich, yacht-owning snob with a Cary Grant accent in order to woo the status-hungry, sometimes drunk Marilyn Monroe; Jack Lemmon in drag being pursued by the aforementioned elderly, never dissuaded, actual rich, yacht owner. There’s some cleverness there, and even when it’s flat, it’s amusing to see Curtis and Lemmon run between scenes and their alter egos. Overall, it’s a fun film.

But, wait. Is it possible that another shame is veiled in my repentance? It is, indeed. This is the first and only Marilyn Monroe film I’ve seen. I admit, Monroe is well put-together. I dig her. She is watchable but not fantastic in Some Like It Hot. Maybe now that I’m past the “dress blowing up as she stands over the subway vent,” I can look at her performances in films with a differently critical eye, without her image and reputation clouding the proceedings.
Anyway, one in the bag.

1. Some Like it Hot (1959)

2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)

8. Breathless (1960)

9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)

11. Sabrina (1954)

12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)