In New Mexico with Billy Wilder

"The Mountain of the Seven Vultures"
This weekend I was moved to revisit Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), in which Kirk Douglas plays unscrupulous newspaper writer out to capitalize on the misfortune of a local man trapped in a cave in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  It’s an ingenious film, one of the wickedest that Wilder ever made—sharper and crueler than Double Indemnity, I think, and more scathing than Sunset Boulevard, great as both of those films are.  The sense of place in Ace in the Hole is particularly strong.  Most of the action occurs in the desert outside Albuquerque, where the vastness of the geography almost seems to mock the pettiness and hubris of the men and women moving around on the ground like ants.  The cave in which the local man is trapped is known by the locals as The Mountain of the Seven Vultures; the name both makes reference to scavengers like Douglas’ Charles Tatum and lends a supernatural dimension to the series of unfortunate events that transpire over the course of the film. 

"How!": Kirk Douglas with Iron Eyes Cody.

Tatum himself adopts a supernatural angle when writing his story (“the curse of the Mountain of the Seven Vultures…”), and as hackneyed as this sounds coming from him the film leaves itself open to a similar line of interpretation.  It’s possible to locate Ace in the Hole within a long tradition of films (The Shining, The Manitou, Poltergeist II) about white Americans being haunted by Native American spirits.  Racially, Ace in the Hole is one of Wilder’s most complex films.  Tatum sneers derisively at the Native member of the Albuquerque newspaper staff (played by veteran character actor Iron Eyes Cody), calling him “Geronimo” and reacting with disgust when he offers him a lunch of chicken tacos.  The Mexican mother (Frances Dominguez) of the trapped Leo Minosa moves through the film like a ghost; first seen crying and praying in Spanish, she is—along with Leo’s father—the only person in the film to show legitimate concern for her son’s survival.  In Wilder’s New Mexico, whites and Mexicans and Indians always seem to be orbiting each other nervously.  

Robert Arthur with Frances Dominguez as Mama Minosa.

Wilder’s satire is also attuned to the co-optation of Indian culture and its appeal to white tourists.  For the Federbers—a white family of four on vacation from Gallup—the Minosa saga is as consumable as the Indian headdresses worn by the two boys.  Leo gets trapped in the mountain while in search of Indian artifacts to be sold alongside the “curios” and Navajo blankets advertised at the motor inn.  (It reminds me of a passage from Nabokov, about Humbert and Lolita road-tripping across the American West: “If a roadside sign said VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP—we had to visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus candy.  The words ‘novelties and souvenirs’ simply entranced her by their trochaic lilt.”)  Wilder’s vision of the West, like Nabokov’s, is satirical and vaguely eerie, the gas stations and souvenir shops haunted by a people who cannot be owned and dwarfed by a landscape that cannot be known.

The Federber family--with Indian headdresses.

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