Billy Wilder Penelope Houston - Essay

Penelope Houston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Sunset Boulevard the Brackett-Wilder team took an outsize, legendary character, examined her coldly and ironically—but did not destroy her legendary quality. Billy Wilder, now on his own, does rather the same, in a very different setting, in the hard and brilliant Ace in the Hole….

The technique, in contrast to the leisurely, personal style of Sunset Boulevard, is one of impersonal, direct observation…. Wilder isolates individuals not in distracting asides from the main theme, but to provide an added, sharpened comment on the mass….

The relative failure of the ending is an illustration of Wilder's limitations. His is a talent which one respects rather than likes. This is not the result of his choice of subject, nor of his occasional tendency to vulgarity (A Foreign Affair) or to sensationalism for its own sake (The Lost Weekend); it is because he seems to lack the powers of analysis which his cold, observant style demands. It is the technique of a reporter, brilliantly conveying the immediate impact of a character or situation, less successful in developing it. A more human director, or a more skilful analyst, could have made more out of [Chuck] Tatum's clash of conscience; Wilder is content to report it, as he reported Norma Desmond's tragedy, and Tatum is credible as a character in the sense that Norma Desmond is credible—a gigantic figure who catches the imagination, so that one accepts him at his own valuation. But as writer … and director Wilder has developed an exact, sardonic, objective style whose technical assurance carries him over passages where the quality of thought is unduly superficial. In Ace in the Hole, style and purpose achieve for the most part a fusion more impressive even than in Sunset Boulevard, and the result is perhaps his most remarkable film.

Penelope Houston, "Films of the Month: 'Ace in the Hole'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1951 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 20, No. 2, June, 1951, p. 45.