August 28, 2011

Indians in Ace in the Hole

Kirk Douglas stars in this 1951 movie with a Native subtext:

Ace in the Hole

By Christopher NullBilly Wilder made Ace in the Hole as a follow-up to the acclaimed Sunset Boulevard, essentially writing his own ticket in Hollywood. The story he opted to make was a cruel indictment of the American media, one which has only become more accurate and biting over the years. The film opens with reporter Chuck Tatum, a refugee from big city newspapers who's now stuck in a desolate New Mexico town. Desperate to get back on top (and earn enough money to feed his drinking habit), he stumbles upon the perfect story after toiling away for a miserable year in the sticks: A treasure hunter (a looter, if you will) has gotten stuck in a cave-in in some old Indian caves. Guy in a well: That'll sell papers, right?

What follows is genius, as Tatum engineers the story to be far bigger than it really is: He colludes with a rescue engineer, a smarmy sheriff, and the wife (Jan Sterling) of the trapped caver to ensure that he's kept in the earth as long as possible. Rather than simply shore up some of the cave passages (Tatum can actually crawl to within a few feet of the guy), he convinces everyone to dig a new tunnel all the way to our poor trapped victim. This gives Tatum time to write more stories, sell them at top dollar to other newspapers, become a major celebrity in his own right, and land piles of cash.

Naturally, he's going to lose his soul in the process. The only question is how soon, and how badly.
Ace in the Hole

By Ed GonzalezThe film's genius is the metaphoric impact the pressure outside the cave has on the inside; as the immorality escalates, Leo inches closer to death. And as the drill moves in on the man, its incessant sound serves to punish the people who've deliberately prolonged his suffering. "Why shouldn't we get something out of it," says someone at one point. This is the film's mantra of greed, and Ace in the Hole allowed Wilder to question the very nature of human interest stories and the twisted relationship between the American media and its public. More than 50 years after the film's release, when magazines compete to come up with the cattiest buzz terms and giddily celebrate the demise of celebrity relationships for buffo bucks, Ace in the Hole feels more relevant than ever.The Native aspects

Ace in the Hole (film)The film set constructed outside Gallup was the largest non-combat set ever constructed at the time. It measured 235 feet (72 m) high, 1,200 feet (370 m) wide, and 1,600 feet (490 m) deep and included the ancient cliff dwelling, collapsed cave, roadside stands, parking lots, and the carnival site. More than 1,000 extras and 400 cars were utilized in the crowd scenes. After the film was completed, Paramount charged admission to the set.The cave extends from the rear of a Puebloan-style ruin into the mountain behind it. This ruin looked real to me. I was half-wondering if they'd drilled a hole through an old ruin.

I ruled this out because 1) I figured Indian ruins were protected even in 1951, and 2) the ruin was sitting out in the open, at ground level. Most ancestral Puebloan ("Anasazi") ruins are in hidden alcoves or halfway up cliffs.

The rest of the premise--that ancestral Puebloans dug tunnels into mountains and hid treasure there--is phony. So is the claim that the peak, called the "Mountain of the Seven Vultures," is cursed. But no one in a position of authority confirms these claims. We can believe the white man invented them after the Indians were gone.

Tatum certainly doesn't believe there's a treasure or curse. He exploits the legends to write his ticket out of Albuquerque and back to the big leagues.

Other Indian bits:

  • A couple of Navajos appear in the background as Tatum arrives in town.

  • Tatum passes a man who appears to be an Indian working a newspaper press. He calls the man "chief" initially but later treats him like anyone else.

  • Tatum asks a couple of locals--Indians or Latinos--if they'll enter the cave and rescue the trapped man. They say no because of the curse.

  • As tourists show up to see the spectacle, it turns into a "big carnival" (the title the film was released under). Hucksters set up teepees and pose for pictures dressed as Plains chiefs. Boys "play Indian" and shoot toy arrows. It's plausible that this would happen in a circus-like situation where Indians were involved.

  • Reviews

    More from Wikipedia:At the time of its release, critics found little to admire. In his review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther called it "a masterly film" but added, "Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque . . . [it] is badly weakened by a poorly constructed plot, which depends for its strength upon assumptions that are not only naïve but absurd. There isn't any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible."

    The Hollywood Reporter called it "ruthless and cynical...a distorted study of corruption and mob psychology nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions--democratic government and the free press."
    I guess the media couldn't handle the idea of a corrupt and venal media in 1951. Modern audiences and critics are more open to the idea, and thus the movie:Nathan Lee of The Village Voice wrote, "Here is, half a century out of the past, a movie so acidly au courant it stings."

    Time Out London wrote, "As a diatribe against all that is worst in human nature, it has moments dipped in pure vitriol." TV Guide called it "a searing example of writer-director Billy Wilder at his most brilliantly misanthropic" and adds, "An uncompromising portrait of human nature at its worst, the film . . . stands as one of the great American films of the 1950s."
    Ace in the Hole has a few flaws, but overall it's a fine movie. Rob's rating: 8.5 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

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