Way down in the hole: Kirk Douglas as Dax.
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The two faces of Kirk Douglas: Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory

Two reissues show the actor in contrasting roles, one in Stanley Kubrick’s moral drama set during the First World War, another as a hungry reporter bored witless at a small-town American paper. 

This week, audiences will have the chance to see the two faces of Kirk Douglas. Both have a dimple in the chin. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which is back in cinemas from Friday, and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, share an unforgiving analysis of complacency and corruption. In each film, human life is reduced to collateral that can be used for professional advancement. Douglas is positioned on opposite sides of the ethical divide in these pictures. In Paths of Glory, he exudes grizzled nobility as Dax, a colonel in the French army. (Yes, this is one of those movies in which we must suspend our disbelief higher than the Eiffel Tower and accept that American actors are playing foreign characters. Go with it. It’s worth the trouble.)

The film’s re-release now is occasioned by the centenary of the First World War. But while this is set during the third year of that conflict, and is inspired by actual events involving General Réveilhac, who ordered an attack on his own men in Souain, it would be a misrepresentation to call it a war film, or even to claim that it is primarily concerned with war. Conflict is merely the arena in which moral fallibility is exposed.

However, Dax’s principles are steadfast and non-negotiable. He can sniff out the weasels in the officer class and he isn’t afraid to make them pay for their cowardice. He is one of only two characters who appear in both of the film’s key locations: the French army’s trenches, where Kubrick’s Steadicam floats smoothly along the grubby arteries while the anxious and the shell-shocked wait to fulfil their duty as cannon fodder, and the magnificent ice-palace of a château in which the top brass bargain and barter over the extent of acceptable casualties.

We have seen at the start of the movie that the château is a moral vacuum, a place in which carpeting and cognac take precedence over compassion or ethics. General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arrives there to persuade General Mireau (George Macready) to order an advancement to a German position known as the Anthill, a move which will in all likelihood decimate the infantry. Mireau is aghast. He couldn’t possibly do that. Broulard accepts what he says, and takes him gently by the arm. He leads Mireau around the luxurious room as they talk softly together. Their perambulations—circling a vase of flowers here, strolling toward the bright windows there—suggest a manipulative choreography that has been re-enacted over centuries by their callous forebears. It’s a dance of death. When it is over, Mireau has had his mind changed and his head turned by flattering enticements. The blood of his men is ready for the spilling.

Near the end of the film, when an unforgivable injustice has been visited upon the humble foot-soldiers by their superiors, Dax is summoned to the château for breakfast with Broulard and Mireau. During this meeting, he too is offered a bribe. No one who has got more than five minutes into the film will need a spoiler alert to avoid knowing that Dax wouldn’t accept gold as payment for the blood and bone of his men. Chuck Tatum, on the other hand, would have bitten off Broulard’s arm at the elbow if he had offered him so much as a tin sheriff’s badge. Tatum is the former big-time reporter played by Douglas in Ace in the Hole. “If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog,” he snarls. But after a year at a dusty Albuquerque daily, he’s going stir crazy. No wonder he leaps at the discovery of a looter who has become trapped in a cave while digging around for Native American artefacts. Tatum manages to reach the poor sap, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), and promises he’ll do everything he can to get him out. First, though, Tatum manoeuvres his camera through a gap in the rock and takes a snap for the next day’s front page.

Tatum wants to own the story, to have access denied to his old colleagues from the cities who will inevitably come flooding into town, and he makes a deal with the local sheriff to that end—he even gets his own tin badge. But that isn’t the worst of it. From the moment he gets the first intoxicating whiff of copy, he starts shaping reality for his own gain. Imagine if Leo were rescued too soon: that wouldn’t do. So Tatum prolongs his ordeal, directs the supporting players (such as Leo’s wife, who had been planning to leave him) and keeps the story moving. It could run and run—just so long as Leo can’t.

Douglas shot Ace in the Hole in 1951 six years before Paths of Glory. It may as well have been sixty. Both Dax and Tatum are wind-beaten souls but in the earlier film (made when he was 35), Douglas still has a softness about him which undercuts his blunt instrument of a face; he’s like a marshmallow anvil. In Paths of Glory, as befits the part, he is transformed into a piece of weaponry. The miracle of his performance lies in his ability to convey the humanity thriving within Dax. Distance from the nitty-gritty of conflict has inured the warmongers to the suffering it entails—just like the squabbling puppetmasters of the nuclear age in Kubrick’s later Dr Strangelove (which is really Paths of Glory with the satire dials cranked to Maximum). But after all that time with a bayonet in his hands, Dax remains more man than killing machine.

Three decades separate the action of these pictures but both employ at times a similar tone of appalled comedy. If Dax and Tatum were to somehow come face to face, it would be quite the stand-off. Neither man would be dissuaded from the positions they hold, though Chuck Tatum might at least get some sizzling copy out of the encounter.

Paths of Glory is on release from 2 May. Ace in the Hole is on DVD and Blu-ray now in Eureka! Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit