Sunday, February 01, 2009

NOIR CITY 7—Eddie Muller's Introductory Remarks to Ace in the Hole

Though Sunday at Noir City, the audience was advised to save its prayers. Eddie Muller took to the Castro stage to briefly recap the success of the previous night's Arlene Dahl tribute, an event which Dahl admitted to Muller was one of the most thrilling nights of her career. "Coming from a woman who's slept with Fernando Lamas," Muller quipped, "that's really something!"

On January 30, 1925, America's foremost cave explorer
Floyd Collins was trapped in a cave called Sand Cave, Kentucky. Though only 55 feet below ground and 150 feet from the cave's entrance, Collins was pinned by a 25-pound rock in a particular way that he couldn't move either himself or the rock. An intrepid journalist from the Louisville Courier by the name of William Burke "Skeets" Miller became the nation's conduit to Floyd Collins. Miller was the only one speaking to Collins while he lay trapped underground, relaying Floyd's words to the rest of America, who were engrossed in this human interest story. His reportage won him the Pulitzer.

Nobody really remembers Floyd Collins today; but, suffice it to say that—between World War I and World War II—the saga of Floyd Collins' 14 days underground was the third biggest media story in the United States of America, surpassed only by Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight and his son's kidnapping. Interestingly, Lindbergh had a minor role in the Sand Cave rescue as well, having been hired to fly photographic negatives from the scene for a newspaper. Notwithstanding, the fate of Floyd Collins was what the American people were most interested in between the two world wars.

Many years later, Billy Wilder filmed Ace in the Hole (aka, The Big Carnival), inspired by the Sand Cave rescue. Ace in the Hole—already famous for being known as "the meanest, most cynical film ever made in Hollywood", along with its excoriation of American culture and the press—also served as interesting precedent in how to evade a plagiarism suit. At that time no treatments or screenplays could be looked at by a studio without going through a guild-approved agent. A couple of fictionalized accounts of Floyd Collins' story had been submitted around Hollywood, leaving Paramount susceptible to plagiarism suits, which they anticipated even as Wilder had the film in production. Paramount determined that the simplest way to avoid a plagiarism suit while producing a movie is to use the name of the famous subject within the film. Thus, Ace in the Hole specifically references Floyd Collins; ergo, how can this be a story about Floyd Collins when the characters in the movie are referencing Floyd Collins, which obviously happened in some other place at some earlier time? "That Billy Wilder," Muller laughed, "I tell ya. He's one smart dude. He's also—in my humble opinion—the finest writer/producer/director in Hollywood history."

Ace in the Hole was Wilder's follow-up to what Muller considers to be one of the greatest films ever made: Sunset Boulevard. Ace in the Hole, however, was a total flop when it came out. The press—perhaps feeling a little hot under the collar at the film's depiction of the Fourth Estate—excoriated the film, saying there was absolutely no good reason to watch it. They claimed there was not a single, redeeming character on screen. "Bring it on!" Muller enthused.

"This is Kirk Douglas at his most Kirk Douglasey," Muller added. "Which is big. Whenever I see Kirk Douglas or hear Kirk Douglas I get this big V in my head. I mean, his head is a V. His cleft is a V. His torso is a V. Every word I can think of to describe Kirk Douglas begins with a V. He is virile and venal and vile and vindictive and vituperative and voluble. The guy is one big friggin' V! He's fantastic in this movie."

Some years back Eddie Muller had the opportunity to conduct an on-stage interview with Douglas's co-star Jan Sterling. Within that interview he told her that she spoke one of his favorite lines of dialogue in movie history. Without any prompting whatsoever, she delivered that line of dialogue on the spot because she knew it so well. "I really didn't love this script," Sterling admitted to Muller, "but when I read that line of dialogue, I knew I had to do the film because it would make me famous for saying that line." Of course, Muller teased, he was not about to quote the line. For those who have seen Ace in the Hole previously, they already know which line it is and for those who are seeing it for the first time, they will know exactly when they hear it. Interestingly enough, there was considerable debate after the film as to whether the line was when Sterling states, "I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you—you're twenty minutes" or when she says, "I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons." It hardly matters. Wilder's script is full of such zingers. One of my favorites is when Douglas says, "I've done a lot of lying in my time. I've lied to men who wear belts. I've lied to men who wear suspenders. But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders."

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1 comment:

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks for posting this, Michael. What a memorable night at the movies! ACE IN THE HOLE was by far my favorite of the seven films I saw at Noir City this year. And I'm sure glad I stuck around for the co-feature, CRY OF THE HUNTED (featuring a stunningly handsome Vittorio Gassman as an escaped Cajun convict hiding out from the law in his native bayou swamp).