Welcome back to BCB After Dark: the secret speakeasy for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. So good of you to stop by. I hope we can make your night a little more pleasant. Bring your own beverage. We have free nachos tonight for those that qualify. Unfortunately, you don’t qualify.
BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.
The Cubs had their seven-game winning streak snapped on Tuesday, but they started a new winning streak with 4-1 win over the Reds on a walk-off home run by Jason Heyward in the bottom of the tenth. The Cubs also got a great start out of Alec Mills. Again, these guys may have more heart than talent, but they are at least fun to watch again.
Last time I asked you which Cubs starting pitcher who is currently “auditioning” for a spot in next year’s rotation is the most likely to get it. Or at least, which one will get the most starts next year. In an extremely close vote, you picked Justin Steele with 48% of the vote to 44% for Adbert Alzolay.
Before we get to the jazz and movies, I’ve been remiss in failing to acknowledge the passing of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Michael K. Williams. Had I not already written on Breathless, it would have been a good time today to remember Belmondo’s most famous role. And of course, Williams was more than just Omar on The Wire, but some parts are so iconic that they just overshadow everything else. I just want to thank both of them for bringing joy into people’s lives.
Here’s the place where I talk about jazz and movies. You’re free to skip ahead to the question at the end. You won’t hurt my feelings.
I’ve got a lot of movie tonight. I promised you that after I bailed on Monday.
I’ve got a lot of movie tonight, so today’s jazz track will be a quick music video from Jon Batiste, whom you are most likely already familiar with as the band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. You are surely already familiar with the song as well, a beautiful and haunting version of the Louis Armstrong classic, “What A Wonderful World.”
The Austrian-born director Billy Wilder was unquestionably one of the greatest American directors of all time. In 1951, he already had Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard behind him and he had Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven-Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment ahead of him. But in 1951, he released one of the few flops of his 50-year career in film, Ace in the Hole. But Wilder loved the film and while he readily admitted what went wrong with some of his other failures (such as his final film, 1981’s Buddy, Buddy), he always felt that Ace in the Hole was a masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece on the level of his best work, but it really is a fantastic overlooked gem that is just now getting the praise it deserves.
Ace in the Hole was inspired by the events surrounding the 1925 death of Floyd Collins, a man who was trapped by a cave-in as he was looking for a new tourist attraction near what is now Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. While Collins was waiting for help, a reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal named William Miller crawled down the hole and got close enough to Collins to interview him as he lay beneath a pile of rock and dirt. The story got picked up by all the wire services and soon, every reporter in the country was heading to Kentucky to check in on the rescue of Collins. Radio, then a new medium, had its first live breaking news reports from the scenes outside of the cave. It was what we would call today a “media circus.” For his efforts, Miller won the Pulitzer Prize. But for Collins, he died before the rescuers could reach him.
Wilder had worked on some yellow journalism newspapers in Berlin before getting involved with the film industry, so the story of Floyd Collins appealed to him. Wilder had just broken up with his longtime script co-writer Charles Brackett, and hired a radio veteran Walter Newman to help him with the script. In the lead, Wilder got one of the rising stars of Hollywood at the time, Kirk Douglas. It seemed like a surefire hit.
There are two archetypes of journalists in film. One is the crusader who speaks truth to power like in All The President’s Men or Spotlight. And then there is the cynical tabloid scandal-monger of Citizen Kane or, humorously, in The Front Page/His Girl Friday. In Ace in the Hole, Wilder leans heavily into the latter and there isn’t any humor to lighten the acid.
Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a cynical East Coast newspaper man who admits he’s been fired from 11 papers for various infractions such as drinking on the job, libel and sleeping with the boss’s wife. He’s heading west to look for work when his car breaks down in Albuquerque. He shows up at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin to ask for a job. He sneers at the paper’s slogan of “Tell the Truth” so wryly that the locals don’t catch on that he’s mocking them. Tatum tries to impress the straight-arrow publisher, Jacob Q. Boot, with his big-city bona fides and vows “if there’s no news, I’ll go bite a dog and make some.” Boot is unimpressed with this, but he believes in second (or 12th) chances and takes him on.
(Spoilers for a 70-year-old movie to follow): After a year of Albuquerque boredom, Tatum gets sent out to cover a Rattlesnake Festival in rural New Mexico along with Herbie, a young cub photographer. (“Even for Albuquerque, that’s pretty Albuquerque,” Tatum grumbles about the festival.) Along the way, they stop at a trading post/restaurant/gas station where they discover that the only person there is an old woman who is praying before a shrine. Wondering what’s up, he and the kid follow the official vehicles out to rural mountain where they discover that a man is trapped inside a cave. On the way there, the two meet the man’s wife, who is walking back to the trading post and is suspiciously unconcerned about her husband being trapped in a cave.
The man, Leo Minosa, was going through some ancient Navajo burial grounds looking for artifacts that he can sell. (The fact that Leo is a grave robber goes unremarked upon in thefilm.) Remembering the story of Floyd Collins, Tatum and Herbie work their way through the tunnels to reach the small grotto where Leo is trapped. He’s pinned to the floor by some large boulders on his legs and the entrance to the room has been reduced to a small opening, about the size of a human face. Tatum has Herbie take his picture and gets Leo’s story from him. They also bring him some food and coffee while he waits for his rescue. After they return to the trading post, Tatum sends the story and the picture back to Albuquerque with Herbie. He invents an ancient Navajo curse upon the graves that Leo is plundering and writes about his sad, grieving wife, Lorraine, played by Jan Sterling. Again, Lorraine really doesn’t seem to mind that her husband is trapped in a cave.
Lorraine, it turns out, was a Baltimore bar girl (which is as close as they could get to “prostitute” in films made under the Hays Code) who married Leo under the promise of his thriving business and 1600-acre ranch. Of course, she was disappointed to discover that the 1600 acres were all desert and the “thriving business” was just this little rest stop. She’s only been sticking around long enough to make enough money to leave him, but the trading post doesn’t make any money.
With dreams of a Pulitzer and a return to a major East Coast newspaper floating through his head, Tatum immediately tries to manipulate the story. He talks to the man in charge of the rescue operation who tells him that the whole thing will take 14 to 16 hours to shore up the tunnels and dig him out. Nope, that’s not going to work for Tatum. He needs a longer story and convinced everyone, through bribes, threats and maniacal energy, that they need to drill through the top of the mountain to get to Leo. That’s going to take six days to accomplish, which is the perfect length for Tatum’s quest for a Pulitzer. He also promises the corrupt local sheriff favorable coverage if he keeps all the other reporters away from Leo and the rescue operations. The sheriff makes Tatum a deputy, and he continues to crawl in the hole with food and medicine and convincing Leo that he’s his friend. All the other reporters will have to stay outside.
Lorraine, on the other hand, finds this to be the perfect time to leave Leo. Played with icy coldness by Sterling, Lorraine is a perfect match for Douglas’ Tatum. They are both East Coasters who feel they are too good to live in a place like New Mexico. But Tatum needs a grieving wife for his story and he convinces her that the money will start rolling in if she stays.
Sure enough, the Federber family drives up to the trading post just as Lorraine is about to leave. They read the story about the trapped man and the Navajo curse and they want to see for themselves what’s going on. In a delightful Easter egg, Mr. Federber (played by Frank Cady, who was later Sam Drucker on Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies) is a salesman for the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company, which is the same job with the same fictional company that Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) had in Double Indemnity. Mr. Federber and his family are the rubes that Tatum is targeting with his stories. They’re rubberneckers who have stopped by for a little excitement in their lives. The moral implications of their vacation has becoming waiting to see if a man trapped in a cave lives or dies are lost of the Federbers.
Soon the Federbers are joined by thousands of other visitors as well as newspaper and radio reporters from all over the country. Tatum’s stories have gone nationwide and he’s determined to ride it to fame and fortune. He begins to negotiate his return to his old job in New York in exchange for an exclusive.
Back at the ranch, Lorraine couldn’t be happier with her husband buried alive. The trading post is making money hand over fist as tourists stream in and they need food, supplies and a place to stay. She starts charging admission to the area around the mountain and brings in food trucks and amusement park rides. Leo’s ordeal has become an amusement park.
Lorraine is also attracted to Tatum, as not only does he look like a young Kirk Douglas and her husband doesn’t, but like her, Chuck is a cynical East Coaster who hates New Mexico and is only in it for himself. She’s smiling for the first time in the film as she comes on to Tatum, who only proceeds to slap her twice in the face. As Lorraine cries from the pain, Tatum stares at her and says “That’s what you’re supposed to look like.” He can’t have the wife in his story happy that her husband might die.
There’s also a subplot about Herbie the young photographer, who is corrupted away from the honesty of his editor into the darkness of Tatum and scandal-driven journalism.
Leo, on the other hand, is getting worse and worse trapped in the cave. He’s developed pneumonia and the doctor gives him maybe 18 hours to live. The drill at the top of the mountain. is still at least 24 hours away from reaching him. Tatum doesn’t want a sad ending to his story. So Tatum tells the rescuers to stop digging and go back to the original plan that would only take 14 hours. But he’s told it’s too late. The hammering from the drill has weakened the walls. They can’t go in the original way anymore. Leo is doomed.
At this point, Chuck Tatum develops a conscience. He realizes that his actions have killed a man. He goes back to Leo to say goodbye. Leo still thinks his wife loves him and his final wish is for his “friend” Chuck to tell Lorraine he loves her and to give her the anniversary present he bought, a cheap fur shawl.
By this time, Chuck has been taking up with Lorraine and that makes him as angry with her as he is with himself. Tatum tells Lorraine to wear the shawl and she rejects it as a cheap bit of “rat fur.” With the full-on intensity of Kirk Douglas at his best, he starts to strangle Lorraine with the shawl and tells her that she’s going to wear it or else. Lorraine stabs Tatum with a pair of scissors in self-defense. The wound to his abdomen doesn’t kill him, but it does get him to stop the assault.
Tatum returns to the mountain to discover that Leo has died. He grabs the microphone on top of the mountain and angrily announces that Leo is dead. Thousands of people, none of whom knew Leo at all, go through the motions of grief. But for them, it was just another story with a sad ending. Tatum scornfully announces “Now go on home all of you! The circus is over!” A man has died and it was nothing more than a few days entertainment for these people.
With Leo dead, everyone packs up and leaves. Lorraine grabs all the money she has made and heads out of town. The job offers that Tatum had the day before are gone. He tries to confess that he was the one who killed Leo to New York editor, but the editor is having none of it and hangs up in anger. It’s just another con by a corrupt ink-stained wretch.
With nowhere else to turn, Tatum returns to the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin where his boss, Jacob Boot, has been upset about the entire affair from the beginning, even though the circulation of his paper is way up. He begins to give the same spiel that he gave Boot at the beginning of the film about hiring him, but he drops dead midway through it from the wounds of Lorraine’s scissors.
This is a really intense and cynical film that is a nasty commentary on journalism and its audience. Tatum is about as cynical as they come and Douglas portrays him with the usual force-of-nature energy that he put in most of his performances. There’s very little redeeming about Tatum, but he exudes the attitude that “everything is going to work out and I’m going to end up on top” that way too many people have. He’s an ends-justify-the-means man and it ends up getting a man killed.
Sterling isn’t as well-remembered today, but she had a fine career playing hard women in bleak dramas of the fifties. She was Julia in the original film version of 1984, for example, and she got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1954’s The High and the Mighty. Sterling’s character is even less appealing that Douglas’s. She plays Lorraine as just as cold and calculating and with a hard intensity that is as quiet as Douglas’s is loud. Unlike Tatum, Lorraine never has an epiphany about her behavior. She just takes her profits and leaves as a wealthy widow.
This film bombed upon its release. For one, movie critics who worked for newspapers took great exception to the way that reporters were portrayed and were unafraid to say so. The film also had no real redeeming characters other than Leo (who died and whom we should emphasize was a grave robber) and the editor Boot, who is a really minor character.
But the other reason audiences rejected it was that it is just as hard on them as it was on the media. The Federbers (and the other tourists) are really shown as clueless rubes for whom a man’s death is just an interesting story to tell. Tatum isn’t giving the public anything they don’t already want.
The studio also hated the film and Paramount renamed the film “The Big Carnival” without Wilder’s permission in an attempt to try to market it. I can imagine audiences being angry at seeing that title, thinking they were getting something like State Fair and getting this instead.
Without Wilder’s longtime writing collaborator Brackett, the film’s dialog lacks some of the crispness of his earlier films. It’s not bad and Douglas does get off some good lines, but it’s nothing like the searing words that MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck had in Double Indemnity or Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. And there’s no humor to leaven the darkness, unless you want to count cruelly laughing at the clueless Federbers.
The cinematography isn’t fancy and Wilder didn’t want it to be. It gets the job done. But there are some great shots of Tatum talking to Leo though the hole in the rubble that conveniently just happens to be the size of a human face.
But over the decades, the reputation of the film has risen. Roger Ebert gave it four stars out of four in 2007. Jack Shafer loved it in Slate the same year when the DVD came out. You can find many similar modern rave reviews around the internet. Spike Lee loves it.
It’s easy to say that sunny, postwar America wasn’t ready for a film like Ace in the Hole and that modern audiences are more accepting of its cynicism. There’s certainly something to that, of course, but there’s also an ability for modern audiences to distance themselves from Wilder’s targets. Certainly we wouldn’t be as cruel and clueless as those people back then were. But in truth, Wilder’s shots ring even more true today than they did 70 years ago.
Here’s Chuck Tatum bemoaning his fate in Albuquerque early in the film with some mentions of Yogi Berra. Douglas gives it all he’s got here, chewing every piece of furniture he can get his hands on. But my wife points out that in Tatum’s contrast here between New York’s chopped chicken livers and New Mexico’s chicken tacos, the people of New Mexico would win out in the end.
Welcome back to those who skip the movies and jazz. Tonight’s question is a basic one, because I already used two good ones earlier this week.
Today I’m asking who is going to be the second wild card in the National League. I’d ask about the American League, but no one has a wild card spot sewn up in the AL and there’s no mechanism in our polls for “vote for two.”
But in the NL, it’s clear that the first Wild Card team is going to be whichever team finishes second in the NL West. The Giants and the Dodgers have the two best records in the majors (the Dodgers are tied for second-best record with the Rays) and one is going to win the division and the other one is going to host the Wild Card.
But there are five teams within five games of the final playoff spot with about 22 games to play. Currently holding down the final playoff spot is the Padres, who have failed to live up to our lofty expectations earlier in the season. Still, they make the postseason if the season ends tonight.
But the Reds are only one game back and they play in the easier division. Although the Cubs did deliver a big blow to their hopes by taking two of three from Cincy this week. Fangraphs currently gives the Padres a 44% chance to win the Wild Card and the Reds a 39% chance. So pretty close to a toss-up.
The Phillies had been hot and have played themselves back in the playoff hunt. They’re three games back of the Padres and have a 6% chance to make the postseason according to Fangraphs.
The Cardinals are two games over .500 and 3.5 games back at 70-68. They’ve got a 4% chance according to Fangraphs. And finally, I’m including the Mets and their 2% chance. They’re 4.5 game back of the Padres with a 70-70 record. I don’t know whether I’m doing the Mets a favor by including them in the poll or just taunting them. But since I want to see El Mago in the postseason, maybe I’m just pulling for them for once in my life.
So it’s time to vote finally. Who will be the second wild card team in the NL?
The second NL Wild Card team will be . . .
San Diego Padres
St. Louis Cardinals
102 votes total
Thanks again for stopping by. I hope I made the wait worth it. Be sure to tip the waitstaff. We’ll be back again next week with another week of BCB After Dark.