Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
Interstate 10 has taken me out of Arizona and into New Mexico. As much as I think it would be fun to ride the 10 all the way to Jacksonville, Florida, I’ve decided to meet up with I-25 north into Albuquerque, so I can catch I-40 east through the Texas panhandle and into Oklahoma. Besides, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to jump on the classic American freeway of the southwest, the old Route 66, which runs alongside Route 40. Albuquerque is also a place I’ve been on business a couple times, so I know it reasonably well. (It’s too bad I can’t be here in October, when the renowned Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place, and hot air balloons fill the sky.) I had to stop for gas just outside Albuquerque, and some sketchy bald guy calling himself Heisenberg tried to sell me some weird blue rocks. Sensing it was a bad idea, I passed.
I’m staying in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino just outside Albuquerque because, well, I like blackjack. I hit Burning Paradise Video in Albuquerque and picked up the DVD of Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder). It’s a movie that has been championed recently on a couple movie podcasts, and its Flickchart global ranking of 190 definitely had me intrigued. Plus, it’s the great Billy Wilder in one of his most controversial projects.
Kirk Douglas plays veteran reporter and troublemaker Charlie Tatum, who finds himself in Albuquerque after getting fired from a series of jobs at increasingly less prestigious newspapers. Despite a host of personal faults, he can still write like nobody’s business, so the honest editor of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin gives him a job at a fraction of his normal salary — which Tatum hopes to parlay into a return to the big time if he can find that one perfect story. He stumbles across that opportunity while stopping for gas en route to cover a rattlesnake hunt. The owner of the filling station is trapped 250 feet underground in a collapsed cave, and Tatum quickly realizes that he can craft a great human interest story out of this seemingly everyday event. Using all his skills of persuasion and salesmanship, he turns the story into a major media circus, involving all manner of local characters whose impulses are both pure and as self-interested as Tatum’s own.
New Mexico is front and center in this film — its very first shot is of a tow truck with the city of Albuquerque’s name on the side. New Mexico is the ultimate backwater for this big city hotshot and lover of the New York Yankees, and there are any number of choice lines of dialogue describing it. Tatum dubs his new environs a “sun-baked Siberia,” and supplies what’s wrong with New Mexico in three short words: “too much outdoors.”
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other New Mexico movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know, if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Ace in the Hole will battle:
1) Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone). My Flickchart: #173/3369. Global: #1032. This ultra-violent satire has as many supporters as detractors, but count me in the former group. Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) carry out a killing rampage throughout the Southwest, but their activities seem particularly localized in the New Mexico stretch of Route 66 around Gallup. Using a panoply of film stocks, color filters and editing styles, and even imagining part of the story as a sitcom, Stone threw it all against the wall with glorious and unsettling results.
2) City Slickers (1991, Ron Underwood). My Flickchart: #329/3369. Global #1466. An amiable buddy comedy that’s one of the beloved staples of its period, City Slickers is known as much for the pushups Jack Palance did at the Oscars after winning best supporting actor as the winning pairing of Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby. It’s one of those movies that you probably like more than you think you should, but it also has some moments of fairly uncompromising drama, given the kind of movie it is. I’m surprised to see it ranked so high for me, but Flickchart doesn’t lie.
3) Let Me In (2010, Matt Reeves). My Flickchart: #1021/3369. Global: #1388. Matt Reeves’ American adaptation of Tomas Alfredson‘s modern vampire classic Let the Right One is pretty darn good — in fact, it’s good enough that if you saw it before its Swedish forbear, you might like it better. I didn’t see it first, and since it came out only two years later, I didn’t find it had enough new to add despite some exceptional technique by Reeves and solid casting choices in Chloe Grace Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Richard Jenkins. The Los Alamos location works as a stand-in for wintry Sweden.
4) The Tao of Steve (2000, Jenniphr Goodman). My Flickchart: #1864/3369. Global: #3986. The kind of movie I should have loved but didn’t, this indie deals with the titular philosophy of coolness espoused by a guy not named Steve (Donal Logue), who thinks that a number of famous Steves give off a certain essence that helps them attract women. Dex (his actual name) is sort of proof that it does work, as he becomes an unlikely lothario (he’s disheveled and overweight) by following his principles. Of course there’s a comeuppance awaiting him, but I just didn’t really buy where the movie was going. It does have a lot of good scenes of Dex and his friends bumming around the film’s Santa Fe setting.
5) The Hi-Lo Country (1998, Stephen Frears). My Flickchart: #3049/3369. Global: #23105. Woody Harrelson must have a thing for New Mexico, because he appears in both the best and the worst New Mexico movie I’m presenting to you here. Unfortunately, he can’t do anything to elevate this corny and ham-fisted Western, which has plenty of stilted dialogue and just plain (unintentionally) awkward scenes. Harrelson and his best friend (Billy Crudup) go up against an evil cattle baron (Sam Elliott) in post WWII Hi-Lo, NM, and melodrama ensues. Pass.
First duel: Ace in the Hole vs. Let Me In. A cave makes a nice dwelling for a vampire, especially in bat form, but this particular cave is inhospitable to vampires. Ace in the Hole wins.
Second duel: Ace in the Hole vs. City Slickers. In the battle of movies featuring displaced New York baseball lovers trying to survive in New Mexico, Ace has better survival skills. Ace in the Hole wins.
Third duel: Ace in the Hole vs. Natural Born Killers. In this case, a natural born salesman has the cunning to defeat a natural born killer. Ace in the Hole wins.
Ace in the Hole finishes first out of the six movies.
After Smoke Signals was a huge hit for me in Arizona, Ace in the Hole makes it two-for-two. My intention won’t always be to try to watch the best available movie I haven’t seen from each state, but you wouldn’t know it from the way I’ve started out this trip.
Wilder always made tight films that came to be hailed as classics, but few of them were so jaundiced that they simply turned audiences off. Indeed, audiences were not ready for Ace in the Hole in 1951, and for good reason — it’s unafraid to look at humanity through the least flattering possible lens, and never serves up any easy answers. In an exceptionally commanding performance, Douglas plays one of those heroes whose roguish charm wins you over, even when you find it difficult to stomach the things he’ll do for a story. The film serves as a biting satire of the media, making it possibly decades ahead of its time, but saves plenty of ammunition for politics and the institution of marriage. The satire is effectively controlled by Wilder, approaching the absurd but always staying grounded in reality. Among many great supporting performances, Richard Benedict is heartbreaking as the trapped man losing hope as he wonders whether Tatum represents his salvation or his doom.
Okay, on to Texas! It’s a big state with lots of choices among movies I haven’t seen, but I’ve decided on one that has been on my list of shame a long time: Robert Rodriguez‘ From Dusk Till Dawn. If you’d like to watch it along with me, it’s currently streaming on Netflix.