Criterion Sunday 396: Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951)

I’m sitting here, late at night, trying to figure out what to write because I have a bit of a blind spot for classic era Hollywood films of the past (even the slight failures, as this one was, at least commercially, though I gather contemporary critics didn’t much like it either). Billy Wilder is very much a great Hollywood director, particularly known for his comedies, and while this does function somewhat as satire, it can also be nasty and manipulative when it needs to be, because it’s about cynical people gaming a system that is, sadly, very much still in place. In fact the idea of reporters twisting the truth to make newspapers (or the media in general) more saleable to the public is pretty much the dominant paradigm now, and though this film would have us believe there were honourable men (they’re always men) in positions of power, I’m not quite sure that’s ever been the case, which probably makes me even more cynical than the film. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, who is very clearly a Bad Guy, but he’s charismatic and, though not likeable particularly, gets results because he’s pushy and persistent. Generally I think the film hits a lot of targets, and does so very capably, but it can be hard going perhaps precisely because of how well it captures a media circus, even a hard-boiled film noir 1950s one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels and Wilder; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 February 2021).

Criterion Sunday 57: Charade (1963)

This is, unquestionably, a bit of late-Golden Era Hollywood silliness, as Audrey Hepburn plays a wealthy widow to a man found dead under mysterious circumstances. Returning to their home in Paris, now stripped of all its furnishings, she finds herself being stalked by a trio of dangerous American felons (led by James Coburn), and helped — perhaps — by Cary Grant, whose name constantly changes throughout the film. All of these men believe she has access to some enormous wealth that her husband left behind ($250,000!). Things progress from there in a largely comedic (if not screwball) way, and if the film never seems particularly concerned with any profound depths of emotion (even the Criterion Collection likes to lighten things up occasionally), it’s also never particularly boring, thanks to the on-screen charisma of Hepburn and Grant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Donen; Writer Peter Stone (based on his short story “The Unsuspecting Wife”); Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 October 2015.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

I already have a habit on my blog of giving the shortest shrift and the weakest reviews to my favourite films. It’s been over a week since I watched this, and for my memory that’s probably already too long to give it its due. In part, perhaps, I feel a little ashamed that I’ve let so many decades pass before getting round to seeing this highly-regarded comedy classic by the great Billy Wilder for the first time. But it is indeed a great film, and an enjoyable one.

Most prominently, the performances by the lead actors are excellent. Although Marilyn Monroe has had a lot of the attention in her role as nightclub singer Sugar — and she’s very good at playing that particular type of calculating yet mock-ditzy blonde — the film is carried by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. These two play Chicago musicians, Joe and Jerry respectively, who have witnessed the St Valentine’s Day Massacre (a real event which took place in 1929) and are now on the run from the gangsters responsible. Desperate to get out of town, and with an opening in an all-woman revue band coming up, they impersonate women, taking the names Josephine and Daphne, and get on board the train to Miami with the band (one of whose members is the aforementioned Sugar).

There’s a lot that has been written about the film over the years, so I’ll just stick to a few points. One is that Jack Lemmon is consistently delightful as the more overtly comedic of the two central characters. He’s also the most interesting character, given the famous last lines of the film (wherein his rich, elderly suitor reveals he doesn’t care that ‘Daphne’ is biologically a man). Quite aside from the big comedic moments, Lemmon also does well at conveying this confusion at this incipient sexuality.

In fact, gender is treated quite interestingly, especially for a film from the 1950s. There doesn’t appear to be any great judgement about the crossdressing, as their female alter egos come easily to both Joe and Jerry. There’s a bit of lasciviousness in that first scene on the train with all the girls, but thereafter Josephine and Daphne settle down into being the protagonists’ regular identities — when Joe does return to being a man, he’s literally playing a role, camping it up with a Cary Grant impersonation. This also means that the comedic value of the crossdressing is not simply in laughing at men wearing women’s clothes, or at least it very quickly moves beyond that.

Naturally, there’s a lot more that can be said about Some Like It Hot, and I shall undoubtedly watch it again some day and catch more nuances. However, I wanted to just put down these meagre thoughts while I remembered; I shall try to do my (self-imposed) reviewing duty more justice with the next classic comedy I watch.

Some Like It Hot film posterCREDITS
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 31 July 2013.