When Chuck Tatum rolls into Albuquerque, his busted car is being towed to a mechanic, but he is nonetheless behind the wheel, casually reading a newspaper. A bemused, smug expression Tatum wears suggests he is enjoying the ride. I could get used to this. Something is broken, but that brokenness has made his life a little easier, not harder, at least for the moment. And Tatum is a man who lives for the moment.
When the tow truck passes the office of the local paper, Tatum jumps out of his car, waltzes in, and has a job in less than ten minutes— but not before insulting the paper, the editor and his credo. “Tell The Truth” reads a sign on the wall. “I wish I could coin ‘em like that,” remarks Tatum of the sign, as though it were nothing more than a slogan for selling toothpaste.
I’m 33. I’ve been following national and international news for about ten years now, and in those ten years, the decline of charity and intellection in the American media is loosely analogous to an Acme safe reaching terminal velocity between the top floor of the Chrysler Building and Lexington Avenue pavement. Taking the rate of decline as a constant, it seems as though the media would have been downright dignified back in the late 40s, but Billy Wilder’s films tend to defy contemporary prejudices that mid-century America enjoyed a Golden Age of any kind.
Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been fired from a string of newspapers across the country for reasons which range from libel to sleeping with the boss’s wife, though, when speaking to the editor of the Albuquerque paper, he glosses over each item in his inglorious history with no more chagrin than he would were he enumerating the ingredients in a Tom Collins. Amused by his own moral ennui, Tatum has a habit of manipulating anything within arm’s reach to suit his purposes. He hits a button on a typewriter which sends the platen rolling back to the left while holding a match against it, igniting the match which he uses to light a cigarette. In need of a flashlight, he whisks one from the belt of a nearby policeman. He’s clever, but he’s also making up an awful lot as he goes along, which gives the film an anxious and agitated quality.
Tatum’s plan is to find a hot lead while working for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin which he can spin out into a prize-winning story and get back into the big league papers of New York and Chicago, but a year passes in New Mexico and he’s still getting nothing but local interest stories and is bored out of his skull. While on assignment outside the city, he gets a tip that a man is stuck in a cave just off the road in the middle of nowhere. While driving to the cave, Tatum picks up Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), the trapped man’s wife. It’s a memorable car ride. Sterling keeps her eyes half-set and it is impossible to decide if she looks bored or stupid or evil. Working very comfortably within this ambiguity, Sterling turns Lorraine over a few times before the credits roll and finds something different each time. Tatum immediately clocks the situation for a potential Pulitzer. He journeys deep into the cave and speaks with Leo Minosa, a hapless treasure hunter looking for old Native American relics, whose legs are buried beneath a pile of large rocks. Lorraine is on the verge of emptying the till and making a break for it on the first eve Leo spends in the cave, but Tatum convinces her there’s a mint to be made in staying. While she bites, she never seems to savor what comes after.
Over the next week, Tatum writes thrilling copy for the Sun-Bulletin and thousands flock to the cave, watching and praying and milling around outside. An excavation crew is hired to dig Leo out (which will take some time to do safely), a press tent is set up, and the price to enter the grounds goes from a quarter to fifty cents to a dollar. Reading Lorraine as a greedy woman doesn’t work, as the thrill she gets from seeing business at her trading post spike dies out the moment it appears; Tatum slaps the grin off her face, perhaps because he is disgusted by it, perhaps because he needs her to play the role of the pitiable wife with greater veracity. Tatum strikes a deal with the local sheriff- a little good press in exchange for exclusive rights to enter the cave and talk with Leo. A Ferris wheel is erected and a Woody Guthrie knock-off writes a song about Leo and hawks the sheet music. In a few days, thousands have come to witness a miracle.
In the midst of this vulgar spectacle sits absolutely no one willing to play the prophetic role. Leo’s pious mother spends her days in front of her icons begging for God’s mercy, and Leo’s father piously saunters around the site giving sandwiches to the drill crew and pathetically thanking everyone for their help. Any modern version of such a story could not have omitted an offended party who, midway through the third act, delivered a stinging, profanity-laden rebuke to the crowd which culminated in a helpless, angry gesture toward a Tilt-a-whirl. No such scene exists in Wilder’s film. The audience never enjoys the sweet purgatorial violence of the temple being cleansed. The money changers stay until the bitter end.
While few would count Billy Wilder a man with an acute religious bent, piety proves a pesky issue again and again in the film. None of the local Indians will go into the cave because the dead are buried there and they think it unlucky, but Leo is possessed of no such superstition and happily robs from their ancestors’ graves while they look on dumbly. On the particular expedition in which he is caught under falling rock, he has even recovered an old clay pot he supposes to be worth fifty dollars. While Wilder never gives us a reason to dislike Leo, it is hard to shake the irony which besets his carnival funeral: Leo commodifies the dead and, in so doing, his own death is commodified, as well.
While the director of the excavation says braces can be installed inside the cave and Leo could be hauled out in sixteen hours, Tatum and the sheriff pressure him to drill through the mountain from the top, which will take days and prolong Tatum’s profit and the sheriff’s prestige. After nearly a week, a doctor visits Leo and says he will be dead of pneumonia in twelve hours. Tatum returns to his quarters and washes his hands while telling the sheriff they must return to the first, best plan and go in through the front. The excavation director appears in the room suddenly, like a ghost, and says it is too late for this— the whole mountain has been compromised by their drilling and it is no longer safe to even try to brace the interior walls. The next morning, Leo tells Tatum he’s ready to die and so Tatum drives into town to get a priest. A few hours later he makes his last confession and Tatum emerges, ascends the mountain and announces to all that Leo is dead.
After several viewings, I always wonder about the sudden decision to send for a clergyman. Tatum exhibits nothing but contempt for Leo up till this moment (submitting him to torture, abusing his wife, disgracing his marriage) but when hope is lost for Leo’s life, Tatum finds hope for his soul. Seeing a man on the cusp of death seems to trigger an ambiently received cultural custom— dying men need priests. In retrieving a priest for Leo, Tatum receives the benefit of the priest unto his own soul.
Until the climax of the film, Douglas never gives Tatum a moment to reflect on his impoverished soul. When Tatum is beset by difficulty, Douglas finds something or someone to fixedly gaze at while contemplating his next move, though his face never registers guilt. Shortly before going for the priest, Tatum attacks Lorraine and she stabs him in the gut with a pair of scissors; sustaining this injury, a hard-bitten remorse quickly settles about his heart. As opposed to rushing to the ER, he begins working hard to save his soul.
After Tatum has dispersed the carnival-goers, still bleeding, he takes a long ride back to the Sun-Bulletin office and tells the editor he alone has the real story about Leo Minosa. “Leo Minosa didn’t die. Hewas murdered,” he claims, though no one in the office trusts this. Wilder frames the confession such that we can see the “Tell The Truth” credo over Tatum’s shoulder. The editor becomes a priest to Tatum and, like Leo, he makes his confession before expiring. While Tatum has built his career on the idea that truth is not sufficiently interesting on its own, in the end, “Truth is the strongest” (1 Esdras 3:10-12) and an honest account of Leo’s death stands to save a soul, while destruction comes through lies.
While some will fault the film as a cynic’s work given the ineffective prayers of Leo’s mother and father, both Leo and Tatum were destined to die, though neither was destined to die eternally, and the film by no means concludes on a tragic note. Though Wilder buries it beneath a bitter tone and dire score, Leo’s death saves Tatum’s soul.