Ace In The Hole (1951)

What is it about the New Mexico heat that drives men to complete moral collapse? Long before Walter White took to the desert to cook crystal meth in his underpants, washed-up Big City reporter Charlie Tatum (Kirk Douglas) was kicking his heels in the orderly offices of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, dreaming of his ticket back to the big time. And then he found it. 

Charlie exploits the case of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a local man who has become trapped in a cave while potholing for Indian relics, a routine accident that Tatum whips up into a media frenzy, which soon goes national and benefits all concerned. Except of course poor Leo, slowly dying in the dark while the punters roll up outside to watch the protracted rescue operation, happily paying the ever-rising parking toll, chewing hot dogs and riding the Ferris wheel while they wait. Charlie positions himself at the heart of this queasy carnival, with exclusive access rights to the invalid. He's in cahoots with corrupt sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal), the sort of man to delight in a pet rattle snake, which he keeps cooped up in a shoe box, not unlike old Leo. Tatum and Kretzer ensure that Minosa's rescue is affected in the most time-consuming manner possible, by drilling downwards into the cave from above rather than through its blocked ground level entrance, thereby ensuring that their "human interest" story gets a full week's run, regardless of what's in Leo's human interests. 

Part of the tragedy of Leo Minosa is that he takes solace from the belief that his wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), with whom he runs the nearby diner and gas station, is grieving for him and doing all she can to engineer his release. This isn't so. Lorraine, a bored, dishwater blonde in the vein of Cora from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), is actually planning to leave Leo and only relents when Charlie points out how much she stands to gain from the situation. Like Tatum, she's an urbanite from back east who feels as buried alive in the desert as her husband is beneath those rocks. She's disgusted by the fur stoll that Leo instructs Charlie to give her as a present and is clearly attracted to the journalist's ruthlessness and dynamism. It's the greed and self-interest of Tatum, Lorraine and Sheriff Kretzer that ultimately seals the injured man's fate, not the boulders crushing his legs.

Billy Wilder's Ace In The Hole is often branded with adjectives like "cynical", "acidic", "corrosive" and "vitriolic" and was angrily attacked by The New York Times and Hollywood Reporter upon its original release. But, in my humble opinion, this is one of the few really honest depictions of the amoral world of journalism out there. I'm not even sure it's a satire. Wilder is merely following the cosily embroidered dictum of Tatum's editor, Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall): "Tell the truth". Charlie's knowingly exploitative tactics and crowd-pleasing turn of phrase are still run-of-the-mill today in a profession that thought it justified to hack the voicemails on a murdered girl's phone, even if it meant hindering the police investigation into her killer.

It's no surprise to learn that Ace In The Hole was in fact based on a real incident - the tale of W. Floyd Collins, alluded to by Charlie Tatum in the film, who was trapped in a Kentucky cavern by a landslide and turned into a star by Louisville Courier-Journal reporter William Burke Miller in exchange for a Pulitzer. Wilder's film has lost none of its relevance in the online era, with widespread coverage of recent mining disasters in Chile, China and Turkey showing that its story still has currency with sensation-hungry readers. Wilder would return to the subject of murky hack work in 1974 with a remake of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Depression-era play The Front Page, which has a more comic flavour but is nonetheless full of devastating lines. As fine as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are, that film lacks the tour de force that Kirk Douglas displays here. The man is simply incredible throughout, driving the film just as Charlie drives his media circus. When Tatum finally slumps to the floor - following in the footsteps of Walter Neff from Double Indemnity (1944) as a walking wounded desperate to make confession - we feel as exhausted as he is. Charlie's tragedy is that his grand masterwork has cost a man his life and all been for nothing: New York newspaper boss Nagle (Richard Gaines) has lost interest and won't take his calls.


Calamity Jane (1953)

Is Calamity Jane the gayest thing that's ever happened? Well, perhaps not. But between ancient Sparta and this 80's music video by Baltimora, Doris Day was butching it up in deer skins and a cavalry cap and belting out 'The Deadwood Stage' for the ages.

Within the first ten minutes of David Butler's celebrated musical for Warner Brothers - an answer to the box office success of MGM's Annie Get Your Gun (1950) - we've already been treated to the sight of Day's seemingly asexual tomboy heroine roughing up barflys and mild-mannered thespian Frances Fryer (Dick Wesson) entertaining the liquored up patrons of The Golden Garter in full drag.

Fryer has been mistakenly booked when the punters wanted vaudeville pin-up Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins), prompting Jane to head east to Chicago to rectify matters. Her subsequent fish-out-of-water scenes in the Windy City include an extraordinary episode in which an amused prostitute catches Jane's eye with a come-hither glance, to which she responds with bemused but unmistakable curiosity, the first stirrings of a sapphic sexual awakening. Her return with Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), another wannabe mistaken for Adelaid, results in the sudden blossoming of an intimate friendship between the two women, which in turn serves to rouse Jane's dormant femininity. The ladies, soon looking every inch the lesbian couple, give Jane's dilapidated cabin a makeover and sing a duet entitled 'A Woman's Touch' while Jane hammers together the furniture and Katie finesses the interior decor. And then, to cap it all, Jane ventures out onto the hillside alone, wearing manly duds, to close the film with 'Secret Love', apparently about her feelings for Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel), that Mr Darcy of the Black Hills. Yes, but is it though, Jane darling?

However much of a delight this campest of romps is for its first two-thirds, the fun couldn't go on forever. This was 1950's Hollywood, after all, and so, inevitably, a conservative moral is tacked on demanding that Jane put down her phallic six-shooter, start wearing pretty dresses, cease all that "female thinking" and settle down with Bill. It's a disappointing if predictable conclusion to a joyous production whose gender-bending antics would prove a gentle forerunner to Nick Ray's weirdo feminist Western Johnny Guitar, released the following year.

What is ultimately most remarkable about Calamity Jane - apart from its cheery disregard for historical accuracy (see the real Jane above) - is Doris Day. The singer turned actress is so astonishingly bright, so swashbucklingly athletic and so utterly unselfconscious, it's quite breathtaking. She swings in and out of moving stagecoach windows with all the carefree ease of the young Errol Flynn, leaps onto saloon bars mid-song and is even lassoed from the ceiling at one point. No leading lady working today would be capable of a comedic performance of this sort and it's a crying shame that Day is so terminally out of fashion. A talent to be treasured, whether or not this sort of business is your bag.


Poppy (1936)

"What a gorgeous day... what effulgent sunshine... yes... 'twas a day of this sort, the McGillicuddy brothers murdered their mother with an axe!"

W.C. Fields here starred as Professor Eustace McGargle for the second time on celluloid - having already appeared in a silent version of Dorothy Donnelly's play directed by D.W. Griffith in 1925, Sally Of The Sawdust (below) - and the umpteenth time in his career, the great clown a regular in the role on Broadway in 1923, reportedly treading the boards of the New York Apollo Theatre 346 times.

Eddie Sutherland's Paramount Poppy presents us with the image of Fields that has come to define him. Decked out in billowing check trousers, spats and a towering Mad Hatter's chapeau and cane, Fields travels the countryside with his faithful daughter in tow (Rochelle Hudson), pulling cons and hawking tonic at medicine shows until the idea of posing her as the long-lost progeny of a missing heiress enters his mind and real trouble ensues. The film provides W.C. with a welcome opportunity to dust off and repurpose some of his most cherished routines in a period setting: his Golf Specialist bit now takes place on a croquet lawn, his talking dog trick this time fools a bewhiskered publican while his fleeing from the scene here involves a getaway on a penny-farthing bicycle (a particularly joyous sight). There's also plenty of new business, including a failed recital on a cigar box violin that is continuously interrupted by the seemingly malevolent machinations of the aforementioned topper.

It's marvelous stuff, but don't take my word for it. Graham Greene, the English novelist whose work has inspired a number of cinematic classics from This Gun For Hire (1942) to Odd Man Out (1947), Brighton Rock (1947) and The Third Man (1949) - started out as a film critic for The Spectator and reviewed Poppy highly favourably on July 17th 1936:

"To watch Mr Fields, as Dickensian as anything Dickens ever wrote, is a form of escape for poor human creatures: we who are haunted by pity, by fear, by our sense of right and wrong, who are tongue-tied by conscience, watch with envious love this free spirit robbing the gardener of ten dollars, cheating the country yokels by his own variant of the three-card trick, faking a marriage certificate, and keeping up all the time, in the least worthy and the most embarrassing circumstances, his amazing flow of inflated sentiments."

Greene further applauds Fields, in opposition to Charlie Chaplin, for winning our affection, "not by class solidarity (he robs the poor as promptly as the rich), but simply by the completeness of his dishonesty." A brilliant insight from a very fine writer indeed.


His Kind Of Woman (1951)

It’s no surprise to learn that RKO boss Howard Hughes had a meddling hand in this oddball noir from John Farrow. What starts out as a fairly routine hot climate crime caper - in which Bob Mitchum’s no-luck gambler is dispatched to a Mexican holiday resort to greet a powerful mystery man arriving by sea – ends up becoming a wildly eccentric soapbox for Vincent Price, the great ham grandstanding as film actor Mark Cardigan, who overcomes a sunken dinghy to lead a motley crew of hotel workers to Mitchum’s rescue from a boatload of gangsters.

The bountiful Jane Russell provides the love interest, wearing little and prowling about the place like a lynx. Until, that is, she is unceremoniously locked in a closet by Price, whose whimsical thesp longs for a real adventure after a lifetime of playacting. The supporting cast is of a high calibre too, with Tim Holt, Charles McGraw, Raymond Burr and Jim Backus all showing up to add menace and texture. It’s a strange concoction, all told, and hard to know where Farrow’s work ends and Richard Fleischer’s begins (the latter drafted in by Hughes to tinker). His Kind Of Woman has gained a cult following over the decades and I’d say it deserves it. The closing metaphor of the steam iron burning a hole through Mitchum’s pants sums its humour up nicely.


Stormy Weather (1943)

Andrew L. Stone's busy little musical for 20th Century Fox is a rare showcase for many of the great African American showbiz stars of the day, its cheery, celebratory tone and top notch songs enough to gloss over an extremely slight plot. What story there is is loosely taken from the career of Stormy Weather's star, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, whose "educated feet" enabled him to dance his way to stardom through vaudeville to Broadway and Hollywood and is best remembered today for appearing alongside the late Shirley Temple and, unfairly, as something of a beaming Uncle Tom figure.

Robinson is given the charming Lena Horne as a love interest here, she a veteran of MGM's similar venture Cabin In The Sky (1940). Her Selina Rogers gives Robinson's Bill Williamson his start in music hall after she encounters the former G.I. waiting tables in a Beale Street bar. Selina falls for Bill before relocating to Paris to further her career, only to return in time to dish up the title song (mournful and at odds with the film itself) and the anticipated reconciliation. All of which Bill accepts with the same broad grin. I suppose you can't keep a good man down. There's also some tidy support from Dooley Wilson, fresh from playing it again as Sam in Casablanca (1942), as Bill's perpetually broke army buddy Gabe, the owner of a curbside shoe shine stand who prefers to pose as a swell to impress the ladies.

But rather like Frank Tashlin's later rock 'n' roll musical The Girl Can't Help It (1956), this is really an excuse to gather together a wealth of related talent to run through their greatest hits on the Big Screen. Despite the occasional cringe-inducing diversions into minstrelsy - female dancers wear golliwog-faced sunflower hats during a cakewalk, Robinson and cast dress as Zulu warriors to bang tom-tom drums in a jungle sequence - it's wonderful to have a record of stride piano hero Fats Waller mugging his way through 'Ain't Misbehavin'' (above) and likewise Cab Calloway doing his peculiar thing. The Harlamaniac-in-chief is here given more time to demonstrate his megawatt charisma and outlandish tailoring than he was in the Paramount ensemble comedy International House (1933) and makes full use of the opportunity to show off a zoot suit a lesser man would have got lost in. Both are heroes in their field, but it's the Nicholas Brothers who finally steal it. Their wild tap routine has to be seen to be believed.

Like Horne, Fats and Calloway, Harold and Fayard Nicholas were seasoned veterans of Harlem's famous Cotton Club and their extraordinary athleticism and invention are immediately apparent. Fred Astaire considered this "the greatest movie musical number" he'd ever seen. Praise indeed. Astaire also famously admired Robinson and had already paid tribute to him with the 'Bojangles Of Harlem' sequence in Swing Time (1936).


Hobson's Choice (1954)

Behind every great man, there's a great woman. In the case of Salford leathersmith Will Mossop (John Mills), that lady is Maggie Hobson (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest daughter of his boss, the blustering Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton). Whom she's also behind.

Unbeknownst to anyone but herself, the headstrong Maggie has decided to make a project of Will, marrying him, teaching him to write and encouraging him to found his own bootmaking business to build a better life for both of them. In so doing, Maggie realises both his potential and her own, the ploy enabling her to break free from a life of thankless toil beneath the heel of her complacent father, who expects her to pick up where his late wife left off. For Hobson has loudly and publically written Maggie off as a Plain Jane, an old maid, a young spinster. His is a cruel and entirely selfish line of reasoning because Hobson knows all-too-well how invaluable Maggie's managerial skills and good sense are to the running of his house and business. This pompous boozer has held her back for too long while his youngest girls (Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales) are rewarded for their uselessness with independence. For the ageing patriarch, faced with mortality and the demise of his cobbler's empire, this is King Lear. For Maggie, this is a simple Cinderella story in which her own sudden self-realisation stands in for the want of a fairy godmother.

Hobson's Choice was the celebrated David Lean's final black-and-white film and his last to be set in England. Made for Alexander Korda's London Films, it shares some of the grime of his earlier high gothic masterpiece Great Expectations (1946) but, sadly, little of that work's magic, despite the best efforts of its star and the endearing earnestness of the underrated De Banzie, touchingly vulnerable beneath her forthright veneer. Hobson's Choice is too reliant on accents for charm ("By gum!") and too modest and insubstantial a tale to stand up to scrutiny. Laughton's biographer Charles Higham pinpointed the problem when he said: "Neither David Lean nor Alexander Korda was suited to the task of turning this timeworn regional farce into a satisfactory film. Lean's chilly, academic, and formalised approach, and Korda's tendency to opulence and exaggeration combined to create a highly artificial, lush and overripe version of a story which should have been treated with warmth, simplicity and austerity if it were to work at all". Higham goes on to argue that Lean was the wrong class to be making a film about the "harsh decency" of plucky Lancastrians, but perhaps that is taking matters too far.

Laughton is said to have lost confidence in the project midway through and had a lifelong loathing for alcoholics deriving from a childhood spent growing up in his parents' Scarborough hotel. The scene in which Hobson drunkenly pursues the moon's reflection through a series of puddles in the cobblestoned street is nevertheless a lovely bit of silent clowning, even if it does appear to belong to another film entirely.


Kiss Of Death (1947)

Henry Hathaway's gorgeous Fox noir Kiss Of Death continues to be one of the genre's most underrated entries, benefitting from a trio of brilliant character performances from Victor Mature, Brian Donleavy and especially Richard Widmark. It's far from perfect, and more than a little inconsistent, but has enough original flourishes to startle.

Hard-up hoodlum Nick Bianco (Mature) is busted carrying out a jewel heist on Christmas Eve, but refuses to squeal on his accomplices when pressed by D.A. Louis D'Angelo (Donlevy). Professional pride and the failure of mob lawyer Earl Hauser (Taylor Holmes) to make good on his assurances condemn Nick to the Big House. When news of his wife's suicide reaches him, Nick relents and agrees to strike a deal with D'Angelo, naming names so that he can get free and take care of his young daughters, since confined to an orphanage. With the subsequent prosecution successful, Nick manages to build a new life for himself with the girls and their former babysitter Nettie (Coleen Gray), eventually finding work as a bricklayer. But D'Angelo pushes him to continue serving as his stool pigeon, commissioning Nick to gather dirt on sadistic killer Tommy Udo (Widmark). When Tommy is unexpectedly acquitted by a sympathetic jury, Nick knows that the giggling, manic psychopath will come gunning for him.

Upon its release, Kiss Of Death was highly praised for its documentary realism, an opening title card assuring us that its events take place in real New York locations where these sorts of characters might actually operate. Shots of Mature's world-weary anti-hero playing with his daughters on the residential streets of Queens bear this out. Mature was meanwhile sent to Sing Sing prison, in true Method style, to get a flavour of the place and better inform his performance. While such striving for authenticity is commendable, the film quickly undermines itself by introducing a string of larger-than-life hoodlums and cynical cops, all of whom belong on the pages of pulp paperbacks rather than the evening news (although they're all the more entertaining for that).

A more serious inconsistency is Kiss Of Death's frustrating failure to develop the social criticism introduced by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's script. Unusually for a noir, the traditional first-person voiceover is here spoken by a woman, Nick's new bride Nettie. She assures us that the sole reason Nick and his gang are knocking over a department store in the opening scene is so that he can buy Christmas presents for his children, Nick having been unable to find straight work as a result of a common reluctance among employers to hire ex-cons, "reformed" or otherwise, meaning they're passively condemned to an ongoing life of crime. This is a fascinating and no doubt all-too-accurate observation, but Nettie then goes on to explain that Nick has been a career criminal from boyhood anyway and is merely following in the footsteps of his own no-good father, unhelpfully confusing us about his real motivations and never returning to the matter. Much more biting is the film's depiction of Donlevy's pragmatic D.A. routinely cooking up deals with crooks, arranging for them to betray fellow gang members in exchange for lighter sentences.

While Mature is as sympathetic and bruised as he was playing Doc Holliday and Donlevy as dependable as ever, it's Richard Widmark in his feature debut that steals the film. Tommy Udo pushing helpless Ma Rizzo (Mildred Dunnock) down the stairs in her wheelchair deserves to be remembered in the same breath as Cagney's grapefruit assault on Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy (1931) among the great acts of violence in crime cinema. Widmark's cackling coke freak turn, railing against "squirts", snapping his fingers to the jazz drumming at Club 66 and quaffing champagne before threatening darkly against his girlfriend, has influenced everything from The Joker to the weasel gangsters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and has to be seen to be believed. Hathaway's masterstroke is introducing the idea that Tommy will seek vengeance against Nick and then having the exact opposite occur. Nick sends his young family away on the train, tools up and hides in the shadows, waiting for the laughing kid to come knocking, anticipating Max Cady's sick pursuit of Sam Bowden in Cape Fear (1962). But Tommy never shows up, too crazy for anything so obvious. Most interestingly of all, it's suggested that Tommy isn't even the real villain here. After all, he's just a mad stick-up man, with none of the power wielded by Earl Hauser, a lawyer as crooked as a country lane.