Rattlesnake in a cardboard box
28 September 2017
This is an incredibly cynical film. Subtlety was largely unknown to Billy Wilder, who co-wrote and directed this. The lead role is played by Kirk Douglas, but he overacts to an outrageous extent and appears never to have been reined in by Wilder, who always liked everything done with broad strokes of the brush, and all harsh lines to be shouted. Just the tiniest bit of restraint would have done wonders to make this film more effective. The female lead is played by Jan Sterling, and she too is encouraged to overact. That tends to be the case however only in the scenes where she is scared, in which she opens her eyes wide and I can imagine Wilder yelling off camera: ''Wider! Wider!' Sometimes you can see her opening them wider, as if remembering to do so, or as if she has been shouted at. This is just about as 'in your face' as such a film can get. There are some very amusing lines given to Jan Sterling, and she delivers them with an excellent sense of cool. Exasperated with Douglas, she says to him: 'I've seen hard-boiled eggs before, but you, you're 20 minutes.' On another occasion when he tells her he wants her to go to church, look holy, and kneel down, she replies: 'I don't kneel. It puckers my nylons.' Unfortunately, there aren't enough of such wisecracks to lighten the load. The story is meant to be a savage expose of the corruption and exploitative nature of the news media. Douglas plays a ruthless journalist who will do anything for a story, and then will squeeze that story dry, and then some. He wants to get ahead, and he uses anyone and anything to further his ambitions. He shouts, he bullies, he throws things, he insults people, and is so horrible that the scenes in the office of the Albuquerque, New Mexico Sun Journal where he works are totally unbelievable, since his despicable behaviour there would never have been tamely tolerated by his colleagues, as portrayed in the film. He finally gets hold of a 'big story' of a man trapped deep in a cave behind a Pueblo India ruin, on a mountain sacred to the Native Americans and called The Mountain of the Seven Vultures. He crawls in and tells the man he will see to it that he is rescued. He then delays the rescue for several days in order to squeeze more juice out if the story, thus risking the man's life. The man's wife is played by Jan Sterling. She has been longing for an opportunity to leave her boring husband but only has eleven dollars, so can't run away. Douglas organises a huge publicity circus, where thousands of people gather outside the cave to wait to see whether the man will be rescued. Meanwhile Jan cleans up by selling hamburgers to them all, thus getting enough cash to dash. The film is meant to have a moral message. It is meant to tell us how awful we all are, how horribly humans behave, and how monstrous the media are. There is only one good person in the whole film, the long-suffering owner and editor of the Albuquerque newspaper. Everybody else is a nightmarish parody of a person. The film is so extreme it its depiction of everybody as greedy, corrupt, dishonest, and ruthless, that there seems little point in watching it, since we know enough about all that sort of thing already without having to see it in a very out-of-control film rant. I should point out that eight years later, Robert Penn Warren published his novel The Cave, about a man stuck in a cave near Tracy City, Tennessee, which is a tiny place near Monteagle on Sewanee Mountain. That novel may well have been inspired by this film, since it largely concerns all the things which go on outside the cave, and also deals with 'the nature of humanity' as everyone flutters around the man who is stuck, all with their own agendas. I read it way back in those days. It is very easy to get stuck in a cave in Tennessee. I was stuck in one myself once, but only for about nine hours, with a boy named Neil Trichell, who came from Louisiana. Nobody rescued us, but we made our escape eventually with the greatest possible struggle and difficulty. That was in Salt Peter Cave in Tennessee, which had been used as a salt peter mine by the Confederate troops during the American Civil War, as gunpowder could not be made without that ingredient. If you have never been stuck in a cave shaft, you should try it sometime. It did not give me claustrophobia, but it made me more careful in the future. When I saw that man in the film lying there unable to get out, I could not but remember my own brief flirting with such a dilemma. Robert Penn Warren, by the way, wrote the famous novel ALL THE KING'S MEN (1946), which won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into the famous film of that title in 1949. His other major contribution to the cinema was the novel BAND OF ANGELS, made into a well known film in 1957. THE CAVE was never filmed, but got a lot of attention at the time because of the author's reputation. And the fact that many people remembered this film may have helped as well. People who are trapped have always been popular for film stories, perhaps because so many people feel trapped in their own lives. The hope of escape lives on, and is one of things that keeps everyone going. Let us remember that it is not only the man in the cave who is trapped in this film, but his wife as well, in her marriage, and in fact, that is really by far the more interesting part of the film.
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