Since, at least in California, movies theaters will probably be closed awhile longer, here are two movies from the 50s that make for a good streaming double feature:
Ace in the Hole (Kanopy)
One of Billy Wilder’s lesser known films, it features Kirk Douglas as a skeezy reporter scamming to find a story in Albuquerque that’ll get him back to the big leagues on the east coast.
Eventually Douglas’ character stumbles on a poor curio shop owner who’s been trapped in a cave in while looking for Indian pottery. Douglas seizes his chance to create a massive human interest story and, along with the curio shop owner’s unhappy wife, exploit it for all it’s worth.
The film says a lot about the complicity of media companies and average Americans who invest in these massive dramas regardless of the costs they exact on real people. Though as caveat to what we’ve seen recently, sometimes the dramas provide necessary correctives to real injustice.
Sweet Smell of Success (Amazon)
Alexander McKendrick directed, with a script by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, the film was shot beautifully on location by the under-appreciated cinematographer James Wong Howe. It centers on a press agent played by Tony Curtis who’s been snubbed by a powerful columnist named J.J. Hunsecker, a Walter Winchell analog portrayed Burt Lancaster.
The two main characters are giant egos in the press/publicity racket who end up destroying themselves and everyone around them. The dialogue is smart and fast. The acting is crisp and entertaining, especially when you compare it to some of the much lauded but now whiny method acting that was fashionable at the time.
Both films are early portraits of our media obsessed culture and good counter-programming to All The Presidents Men, The Post and Spotlight, which focus on the more redeeming aspects of the business.
BONUS FILM: THE FRONT PAGE (HBO MAX)
Fast talking newsmen in the press room of a court house all waiting for the execution of a dubiously guilty man. Adapted almost verbatim from the play by Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur, the film holds up incredibly well for something shot in 1931. (And even better, when it was re-adapted nine years later into its more perfect form as His Girl Friday.) It also has one of the great final lines in all American cinema/theatre.
"The son-of-a-bitch stole my watch."