As astoundingly potent
and commanding as Wilder's theme of media corruption is Kirk Douglas'
performance as the headstrong Charlie Tatum. Paralleling such determination
and cynical bravado as Gary Cooper's Howard Roark and Orson Welles'
Charles Foster Kane, Tatum runs the show and holds complete control
over the disastrous situation, from those in charge of the rescue
to the town Sheriff to even the other reporters and their access
to information. Rarely does such a uniquely abrasive and stunningly
charismatic character come alive on the screen. Add to this the
fact that he is corrupt in his morals, unethical in his tactics,
deceptive in his manner, and dishonest through and through - he
is ultimately the "bad guy," and yet he commands such
presence that we follow his actions with both disgust and admiration,
and simultaneously condemn and cheer him on. He is an antihero of
the most extreme degree, but also a tragic one whose faults are
numerous and whose final revelation comes too late if ever at all.
As corrupted as Tatum is, so too are the others that stand to
benefit from Leo's predicament. The rescue operation planner is
easily convinced to use an alternate method of excavation, one
that will delay success long enough to create a media frenzy and
false sympathy. The town Sheriff seeks re-election and Tatum agrees
to portray him as a savior and dedicated worker for the people
in exchange for story exclusivity. Even Leo's "caring"
wife only stays to extort the influx of travelers who wish to
view the proceedings, and Charlie's young assistant Herbie quickly
becomes engrossed in the excitingly hectic and escalating hysteria.
No one is saved from the corruption of the media and its deceitful
promises, and as Wilder suggests, so too is the audience for participating
in this carnivalistic spectacle.
In a cryptic retort to Leo's tragic circumstances, Tatum states
that "I don't make things happen, I just write about them."
An ironically foreboding statement, and one that reflects society's
infatuation with "bad news" and the media's willingness
to deliver it. The rescue attempt rapidly escalates into a three-ring
circus with Tatum's sensationalistic exaggerations and buttered-up
reporting, and then becomes one literally when Mrs. Minosa allows
a carnival to set up at the mountainside to increase profits (a
double-entendre for the film's second title, The Big Carnival,
one as ironically befitting as its original). In a moment of blood
loss and mental clarity (should you choose to see it as such),
Tatum realizes the damage he's done to create his "Great
Human Interest Story," but as he attempts to rectify what
he can, a far grimmer truth reveals itself - no longer does anyone
believe him, even in his utmost sincerity. And in a dramatic closing
scene that rivals any in cinematic history, we witness our antihero's
revelation of his own humanity lost in the quest to exploit another's.
- Joel Massie