Time never lies, and ‘Ace in the Hole’ is by no means a blank in Billy Wilder’s admirable arsenal

 
By Sven Mikulec

This Billy Wilder film was so tough and brutal in its cynicism that it died a sudden death at the box office, and they re-released it under the title ‘Big Carnival,’ which didn’t help. Chuck Tatum is a reporter who’s very modern—he’ll do anything to get the story, to make up the story! He risks not only his reputation, but also the life of this guy who’s trapped in the mine.Martin Scorsese

As it often goes with films ahead of their time, it took a while for Ace in the Hole to garner the respect it deserved. Wilder’s first producer-director-writer project, the film dealt with the troubling, morally grey world of the media and its public. It explored the startling depths of human nature, examined the darkness lurking from behind the blind ambition and selfishness of man. Its message was somber, its critique of American culture too sharp for many but its execution perfect—Wilder delivered a film that should be thoroughly analyzed, if nothing else, for its precision, the acute purposefulness of every scene, for the praise-worthy lack of unnecessary exposition, for to-the-point dialogue and fine writing. Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling and Richard Benedict were perfect.

The director wrote the screenplay along with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, and even though The Big Carnival, as Paramount wanted the film to be released as, commercially and critically enjoyed a shaky start measured by most standards, it championed according to the most important one. The only truly relevant film critic, an expert that cannot be mistaken, is time. Time never lies, and Ace in the Hole is by no means a blank in Wilder’s admirable arsenal.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels & Walter Newman’s screenplay for Ace in the Hole aka The Big Carnival [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 

PORTRAIT OF A ‘60% PERFECT’ MAN

Billy Wilder’s acerbic wit and indomitable talent shine through in this documentary by Annie Tresgot. Michel Ciment, the French critic, interviews Wilder about his life and movie-making, and Tresgot also brings in discussions with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Few directors have been as consistently successful as Wilder who made movies as varied as Ninotchka in 1939, Witness for the Prosecution in 1957, and Casino Royale in 1963. At the time of this interview the director was 74 years old, and emphasizes the fact that his life is not just about movies. Born in Austria, he came to the U.S. to escape Nazi persecution and eventually, to find his own expression in the growing film industry. —Eleanor Mannikka, Rovi

The best extra on the Criterion Collection two-disc DVD set containing Ace in the Hole is the 58-minute interview of Billy Wilder titled Portrait of a ‘60% Perfect’ Man. The interview was conducted by film critic Michel Ciment and took place in 1980 when Wilder was about 74 years old. It starts off at Wilder’s cluttered Santa Monica Boulevard office, where he keeps his six Oscar statuettes and a certificate for winning the top prize at Cannes for The Lost Weekend (1945). Wilder then drives to a high-rise building and goes up to his primary residence, where he shows Ciment his valuable art collection, which includes works by Picasso, Chagall, Kandinsky, Kirchner and Jawlensky. Finally, they conclude the interview at Wilder’s beachfront cottage in Malibu. Wilder talks briefly about his youth in Vienna, the excitement of living in Berlin during the Weimar era and his year in France before settling into a long discussion of his Hollywood years, beginning as a screenwriter, then becoming a director and finally a producer. He was one of the great raconteurs, and he has lots of fascinating things to say about his many movies and the famous stars he worked with, including Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, William Holden, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe. —Ivana Redwine

 

BILLY, HOW DID YOU DO IT?

The Austrian-born filmmaker who would become one of the most important figures of American cinema, Billy Wilder could have been proud of a rich career filled with many movies now deemed true classics. From Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, through Sunset Boulevard and The Seven Year Itch, all the way to Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Wilder is responsible of some of the best works Hollywood ever produced. Respected for his vision and craft, he nevertheless remained something of a mystery to the public. Sometime in the early eighties the great director sent a letter to a young German filmmaker called Volker Schlöndorff, telling him how much he appreciated his film The Tin Drum, hailing it as one of the best works of contemporary German cinema. These two filmmakers then started a friendship that would last for decades and which would, to our immense satisfaction, give birth to a documentary entitled Billy, How Did You Do It? (in the original: Billy Wilder, wie haben Sie’s gemacht?) The title itself is a reference to the famous sign that Wilder proudly held in his office, saying “How would Lubitsch do it?,” a point of reference for Wilder whenever he faced an obstacle in his professional path. Just like he looked at Lubitsch for inspiration, Schlöndorff, who says that during his formative years he was always torn between the nouvelle vague and Wilder, held his role model in very high regard. In 1988, therefore, Schlöndorff brought a camera crew into Wilder’s Los Angeles office with the intention of shooting an “improvised conversation between friends.”

The fascinating result is a true gem of a three-hour documentary: divided into three parts, Schlöndorff’s film is mostly set in Wilder’s office, as the two of them discuss a whole range of themes from Wilder’s incredibly rich career, both in English and German: projects, collaborations, memories, technical details, passions and personal anecdotes. Originally aired on BBC, the film was hidden from public screenings for a very long time, especially in the States, where Wilder the perfectionist didn’t want it to be shown. Schlöndorff and Wilder’s conversations are enriched with clips from Wilder’s numerous films. All in all, Billy, How Did You Do It? is a unique and extremely rewarding opportunity to explore the mind of one of Hollywood’s most significant filmmakers, and we can only express our gratitude to Matt Jones, who pointed us to this invaluable film through Twitter.

 
Scorsese’s risk takers: legendary director, Martin Scorsese, discusses some of cinema’s greatest risk-takers. Director: Rob Gilbert (Rooster/NY for Fast Company, original air date: November 21, 2011).

 

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife,
a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”
—Billy Wilder

 
On the set of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole photographed by Don English © Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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