Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5
Alternative title: The Big Carnival
Paramount Pictures. USA, 1951. Story by Victor Desny, Screenplay by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman. Cinematography by Charles Lang. Produced by Billy Wilder. Music by Hugo Friedhofer. Production Design by A. Earl Hedrick, Hal Pereira. Costume Design by Edith Head. Film Editing by Arthur P. Schmidt.
A stunning piece of news media satire, told with so healthy a dollop of cynicism that it is no wonder it found itself bereft of any affection from audiences or critics when it was first released (failing so badly that it was distributed a second time under a new title but to no avail). Kirk Douglas is terrific as a journalist who has been kicked out of every decent paper in the country, settling for a job at a small Albuquerque rag that he plans to use as his launch pad to redemption. He gets the opportunity to make his name big again when a road trip to a rattlesnake hunt is interrupted by a pit stop at a dusty gas station, which turns out to be run by a man who is trapped in a nearby cave.
That man’s plight becomes Douglas’ headline news story, and before long the place is crawling with paying crowds and nation-wide attention that Douglas is using as fodder for his own fame. Jan Sterling is superb as the brassy wife to the impending victim who also doesn’t mind that her little store, which once sold a couple of beers a month, is now the hottest place in the state.
The sharpness with which this film is told is unmistakable, with Wilder pulling away from the gothic, grandiose humour of Sunset Boulevard to make something whose criticisms actually draw blood. It’s a level of harshness that would need decades for viewers to appreciate, and watching it now the film feels incredibly modern.
The Criterion Collection: #396
Academy Award Nomination: Best Story and Screenplay
Venice Film Festival: In Competition