Ace in the Hole: Old Movie or a Mirror?


Ace in the Hole (1951)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Paramount, 111 minutes, Not-rated (but Hollywood Code in place)




 Ace in the Hole is on the National Film Registry, though it shows up in some platforms as The Big Carnival. That would “carnival” as in messy sensationalist hype, not lame rides and bad food. The brief title change­ had to with script writer Victor Desny’s lawsuit against director Billy Wilder who likely used insider information to sandbag Desny’s planned Floyd Collins project.


The name Floyd Collins might not ring many bells now, but his sad tale was one of the most ballyhooed stories of the 1920s. Collins was trapped in a Kentucky mine and died there while yellow journalists hyped his story to the skies. Ace in the Hole is a thinly veiled Collins tale set in New Mexico. That's where the free-wheeling, high-living Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) lands after being fired from a series of jobs in the newspaper business. In essence, Tatum is an egomaniac who believes he’s better than anyone else, but he is unreliable and too much trouble to keep on staff. He drifts to Albuquerque, where he settles for a paltry $60 a week job and he probably is better than anyone else on the paper, though he commits the unpardonable sin of telling them so. After a year on the job, he is still being handed grunt jobs such as covering a rattlesnake roundup.


 He is on his way to the venomous wigglers with photographer Herbie Cooke (Robert Arthur) when fortune seemingly smiles upon him when Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a mine. Tatum rushes to the scene and finds that Leo is suffering from pneumonia. He clears enough rubble to get within talking distance from Leo, gains his confidence, and is able to bring in some supplies to buy more time. On the surface, Tatum is hailed a s hero. In truth, he’s an S.O.B. who finds himself in relatively good company. Leo's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is a floozy with big dreams of her own that don't include a hick like Leo. She wants to leave him and head for a big city, but that doesn't mesh with Tatum 's plans. He wants her to play the role of grief-stricken spouse and collude with him to delay rescue efforts to keep the story alive so he can milk it for financial gain and sell his talents to either a Chicago or New York publisher. He is even willing to woo Lorraine. You could call this shark versus shark. Given that this is a film noir production, you probably recognize Lorraine a classic femme fatale and won’t need to call Las Vegas for betting odds.


The rating system wasn’t in place in 1951, but the infamous Hollywood Code was. Originally the script called for law enforcement officials to be in on the fix of delaying Leo’s rescue. Under the Code however, censors insisted that police should always be on the side of good, so the script was changed. In my estimation, this weakened the film and reduced it to several cynics playing with a working man's life. The Floyd Collins story involved the systemic collusion between disreputable journalism and the public’s yearning for lurid news.

Kirk Douglas was very good in the role of Chuck Tatum, as was Robert Arthur as a photographer whose loyalties were uncertain. Jan Sterling is a largely forgotten actress, but she won an Academy Award in 1954 for her role in a film The High and the Mighty. I suspect though, that modern audiences will find her performance a bit like something from the old racy magazine True Confessions. Not to mention that the floozy role is decidedly problematic today.


Nonetheless, Ace in the Hole is another of those old movies that seem strangely familiar when we strip away 70-yar-old backdrops, costumes, and mannerisms and imagine it in modern garb. There are many recent stories that are tabloid-style in content. Perhaps you recall the hype of baby Jessica McClure, who fell down a Texas well, or the 24/7 coverage of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster. Do you remember how people were glued to social media, newspapers, and televisions during the 2018 incident in which a group of scouts was trapped in a cave in Thailand? As I always remind people, look beneath the surface. When we do, t’is often the sad case that we gaze into a mirror.


Rob Weir


The Dsecendants: Okay but Overrated


The Descendants (2011)

Directed by Alexander Payne

Fox Searchlight, 115 minutes, R (for prolific F-bombs)




I keep an eye out for lists of critically regarded films that I’ve not seen. Sometimes I find gems, other times duds best left to molder. Mostly, I find a lot of dead ordinary efforts. The Descendants falls into the third category notwithstanding its five Oscar nominations in 2011, including Best Picture, Best Director (Alexander Payne) and Best Actor. It was bypassed for those, but won for Best Adapted Screenplay and that was a stretch.


Overall, The Descendants feels like a weepy destined to be edited for the Hallmark Channel. An opening sequence of a woman recklessly water skiing sets the table; Elizabeth King is about to suffer an accident that will leave her in a coma. Her husband Matthew (George Clooney) hopes that she will awaken, but it doesn't look good and he faces the possibility of becoming a single dad to two daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and nine-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). How will a workaholic lawyer in Honolulu who has been only tangentially involved in his daughters’ lives cope?  Alex, in fact, has to be retrieved from a private school where among other things, her drug habit was addressed, though she remains an angry, disrespectful, foul-mouthed enigma. For inexplicable reasons, she wants the seemingly clueless happy-go-lucky Sid (Nick Krause) present at traumatic family events.


Matt has a lot on his plate, including serving as the sole trustee for 25,000 acres of undeveloped land on Kauai that his cousins, including good-time Hugh (Beau Bridges) are urging him to sell before the trust dissolves in seven years. (They stand to make a veritable fortune from such a sale.) Matt has other things on his mind, but it’s what escaped his mind that comes back to haunt him. In an angry outburst Alex reveals that her mother had been having an affair, something confirmed by the Kings' best friends Kai and Mark. Now Matt is both angry and scared, as doctors inform him that Elizabeth will not come out of her coma and under her living will, they are obliged to pull the plug.


The Kings leave the Big Island for what is ostensibly an escape to Kauai, but it's really a search for Elizabeth’s lover. It leads to Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), but Matt’s revenge fantasy cools when he discovers that Brian is married to the very sweet Julie (Judy Greer) and has two children. Brian insists that he did not love Elizabeth and begs him not to destroy his family. He's a sleazebag, but Matt simply informs him of Elizabeth’s impending death and lets that sink in. But Matt is not about to forget that  Brian is a realtor who would make scads of money if the trust lands go to a particular developer. Cue a tearful deathbed scene and observe how Matt resolves the trust.


There is a back story involving how a white family came into the possession of so much land on an island that was once the domain of native Hawaiians. The King surname connects to actual historical events, namely the 19th century relationship between missionaries and sugar barons, though the movie’s King family link is purely a script contrivance.


The Descendants has been labeled a tragicomedy or a dramedy, hybrid terms which often indicate a movie is neither fish nor fowl. That is indeed true in this case. The Descendants is often touching, but in predictable ways and it’s hard to determine why Clooney's performance was lauded. He’s actually flat in the film, which is appropriate for earlier sequences, but Clooney seldom sounds a different note. In my view, critics were too enamored of his mystique to see that there wasn't much depth to his performance. Woodley was rail-thin in presence and a brat for much of the movie. It doesn't speak well when you are out acted by a nine-year-old. Nor is there any particular reason why Sid is in the script at all other than providing goofy comic relief and later leading Matt to see that snap judgments are not always reality. Not sure that comes as a great revelation to anyone.


We are left with a movie that might make some reach for the tissue box, and is perfectly fine as a diversion. It’s worth watching if nothing better presents itself, but don't buy into the hype; it is indeed very ordinary.


Rob Weir


Babel is a Brilliant Novel

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution

By R. (Rebecca) F. Kuang

Harper Voyager, 2023, 549 pages.




What a fantastic book! And I mean this on several levels. R. F. Kuang is a fantastic writer and scholar. Babel is set at Oxford and there are some gratuitous pokes at Cambridge, but she has degrees from both places and is working on an East Asian language PhD at Yale. Yes, she's that kind of smart and a gifted novelist to boot. Babel is fantastic in that it's a mix of magical realism, imagination, and English society, a veritable alt.history of the 1830s. In such a novel, Kuang departs from what actually happened–parts of the novel feel like a darker adult version of Harry Potter­–but she's also fantastically confident. After noting some of the liberties she has taken, the last line of the forward is one of the best disclaimers ever: “If you find any other inconsistencies, feel free to remind yourself this is a work of fiction.”


The Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian Library the likely model 


In the 1830s, robust England is in a throes of a silver industrial revolution. Britannia rules the waves, the global economy, and commands much of the world's wealth because it harnessed the secret of Ag. As you might know, silver has the highest potential for conductivity of any metal. That’s where Oxford comes into play, along with alchemy and abracadabra-like magic. University College–Britain's oldest–contains a domed eight-floor building whose top level is filled with silver bars that run or support everything from trains, carts, machines, sewage systems, bridges, building foundations, clocks, communications, and factories. Think parts of the 21st century transported to the 19th. For the bars to work, though, they must be activated by finding the correct pairings of words and engraving them onto the bars. They must be philologically compatible to work and mistakes can be volatile and dangerous. Hence, this task is left to translators who go to the roots of words, which requires extensive knowledge of ancient and foreign languages. Oxford, not coincidentally, has grown wealthy from its silver work.


The novel centers on the education of four students: Robin Swift, a Cantonese lad plucked from China as a boy and raised by Oxford don Robert Lovell; Ramiz “Rami” Mirza, an Indian Muslim; Victoire Desgraves, a black woman of Haitian heritage; and Letitia “Letty” Price,  a wealthy admiral's daughter who was only allowed to enter Oxford because her brother died. To some degree Robin can pass for white, but not Rami or Victoire and the latter, along with Letty, are women. Let’s just say that ethnocentrism,  racism, and sexism were not banished by silver bars! Each was trained from childhood for a stated destiny–success at Oxford–and a hidden one: service to British imperialism. As Kuang writes, most Babel students, “had nowhere in this country to go. They had been chosen for privileges they never could have imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment.”


Read “trapped in a gilded cage” in that. Babel follows the four from their early giddy days of bonding as only outcasts can do, through their academic rigors and their awakenings. Their stories take place against a backdrop of what is about to happen: Queen Victoria's coronation, the suppression of worker movements, and the Opium Wars with a silver twist. The plot involves incantations, underground rebellions, personal revelations (especially for Robin), and veritable “which side are you on?” choices. All of those details are richly described and resolved in ways too delicious to reveal.


One of the more hackneyed ways to end a review is to say, “I'm sorry that this book had to end.” I mean it, though. This novel is intelligent, engaging, well plotted, thrilling, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. It is also a lesson in the interconnections between megalomania, social class, virulent nationalism, war, slavery, and racism. As its rather lengthy title suggests, it also probes several very old human conundrums, including the alluded logic behind the Biblical Babel and philosophical musings over what (if anything) justifies the use of violence. I would have gleefully read another 549 pages.


Rob Weir