June 13, 2020

Birthday of an Ace. In the Hole

June 14, 1951 in Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA), the premiere of the film "Ace in the Hole". The director is Billy Wilder. June 29, the premiere of this film took place in New York.

Imagine such a situation: the new film of the Director, who by this time has already received three Oscars, and his previous film received 4 Golden Globes and 3 Oscars, is released on the screens of cinemas. And almost immediately, on June 30, 1951, Bosley Crowther, the famous film reviewer of The New York Times, the mouthpiece of the US Democratic Party, erupted in a review, the quintessence of which is the next passage: « A sordid and cynical drama of a corrupt newspaper man, set against a grisly panorama of mob morbidity, is delivered with all the stinging impact of an angry slap in the face by "Ace in the Hole," the new picture from Billy Wilder which opened at the Globe yesterday. But, regrettably, in his demonstration of the tricks and deceits by which an unscrupulous newspaper reporter pyramids and prolongs a simple cave disaster into a nationally sensational tragedy, 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. Beyond any question, the director has done a spectacular job of visioning the monstrous vulgarity of mob behavior as influenced by a weird catastrophe....Ace in the Hole is badly weakened by a poorly constructed plot, which depends for its strength upon assumptions that are not only naive but absurd.»

And this review is followed with another article in specialized journal – "Hollywood reporter" – which called the new Wilder’s film "ruthless and cynical...a distorted study of corruption and mob psychology that...is 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."

Doesn't this remind you of anything? As for me personally, when I read these articles, I immediately had an association with the report of Comrade Zhdanov, in which he smashed Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko in the same style and with the same expressions. But now we are not talking about the commonality of the American establishment and the Stalinist ruling elite. We say that the American mass moviegoer heeded the arguments of “free journalism”, and, as a result, the film “Ace in the Hole” failed in the American box office.

However, then the film was released in Europe. Moreover, it was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival. Yes, the film did not get either Gold or Silver Lion. And this is understandable, because these awards went to respectively "Rashomon" by Akira Kurosawa and "A Streetcar Named Desire" by Elia Kazan. But the jury of the Venice International Film Festival, recognizing the undeniable merits of Wilder's work, awarded him the International award for best screenplay.

After this success, the producers of “Ace in the Hole” tried again to organize a new release of the film in American cinemas, but under the new name: “The Big Carnival”. But the film failed again.

But the misfortune of the film were not over. Following the film's release, Wilder was sued for plagiarism by screenwriter Victor Desny, who claimed he had contacted Wilder's secretary Rosella Stewart to propose a film based on the story of Floyd Collins in November 1949, with whom in 1925 there was a tragedy similar to that described in the film. The first court hearing in this case ended in favor of the Director and the film company because the Collins case was of a historical nature and as such was not protected by copyright laws.

But Victor Desny was persistent (still would not be persistent at that mad attack of the American journalistic community on a picture of Billy Wilder!) and filed an appeal. Retrial in the Supreme Court of California ended in favor of the Gums, and he received from the film company and Director 14 350 dollars, equivalent to 132 000 dollars in 2018. American business: talked to the Secretary of the world-famous film Director – and, please, get a round sum!

In 1952, Wilder’s colleagues — the filmmakers — nominated the film for the Oscar, but only in one nomination “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay”. But only the nomination case ended. And Oscar in this nomination received a scriptwriter of a very mediocre musical melodrama “An American in Paris”.

Years passed, and now the king of American film criticism, one of the few film critics we respect, Roger Ebert in 2007 tries to pay tribute to the film, and how to explain the reasons for the failure of the film at the box office. Having rated the movie to the maximum - 4 stars out of 4 possible - and including it on his list of Great Films, in his review entitled "Dirty rotten scoundrel" he writes: «The film's harsh portrait of an American media circus appalled the critics and repelled the public; it failed on first release, and after it won European festivals and was retitled "The Big Carnival," it failed again....a portrait of rotten journalism and the public's insatiable appetite for it. It's easy to blame the press for its portraits of self-destructing celebrities, philandering preachers, corrupt politicians or bragging serial killers, but who loves those stories? The public does. .... Although the film is 56 years old, I found while watching it again that it still has all its power. It hasn't aged because Wilder and his co-writers, Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, were so lean and mean [with their dialogue]».

In 2017 (66 years after the premiere!) "Ace in the Hole" was included in the US National Film Preservation Board, which contains the best films of cultural, historical or aesthetic significance. Although the statute of this registry allows you to include in this registry 10 years after the release of the film on the screens. And this is despite the fact that more than 71% of the users of the IMDB and Kinopoisk portals worldwide have rated this film 8 or higher.

According to the FilmGourmand version the movie has a rating of 8.107 and takes 582nd place in the FilmGourmand Golden Thousand. In contrast to the generally accepted definition of the genre of the film as a film-noir FilmGourmand classifies it as a professional drama. It is no accident that this film was hated primarily by the representatives of one profession (somebody says - the second oldest) – journalism.

And – yes – in the USSR the film was not shown.

And else – as a kind of conclusion. American Director Cameron Crowe for a number of years, since 1995, talked with Billy Wilder and eventually all the accumulated conversations, interviews, etc. published in the form of the book "Conversations with Wilder". Among the many other questions Cameron Crowe asked Wilder about his attitude to the accusations of cynicism contained in the aforementioned articles by American film critics in the 1950s. The answer was: "The day we had a preview of the movie (Ace in the Hole), there was an accident on Wilshire Boulevard. I think there was a woman driving. She lost control and got out of the car. They dragged her somewhere. I saw the photographer who was clicking all this and told him: "Find the phone, call the police, call an ambulance!" And he says: "It's not for me, my business — to shoot." That's what cynicism is.»