In recent times, certainly in the UK, the role of the establishment print media has come under a lot of scrutiny, and with good reason. So it’s pretty fascinating to look at a cynical story about the lack of ethics and scruples in the same industry, made back in 1951. Billy Wilder is perhaps the perfect lens through which to examine this, with his finely-tuned, cynically dark humour probably the most appropriate perspective to take. Bafflingly, this was a critical and commercial flop for him, but it remains one of the best films on his ridiculously high-quality CV.

The plot concerns a ruthless, ambitious reporter who hears about a miner trapped in a cave, and promptly prolongs his predicament in order to build a sensational story and profit from it personally. It’s basically a kind of serious satire about the relationship between the press, the subjects the press report on, and the way in which they choose to report it. In a world where said relationship is controlled by a select few, it’s pretty revealing to see how institutional structures pretty much guarantee corruption and self-interest.

Perhaps audience and critics in 1951 didn’t want to hear this uncomfortable truth? There’s a wonderful irony in that the original script included the collusion of a corrupt law enforcement official, a plot point which the studio demanded be removed – nowadays the idea of a journalist working together with the police to personally profit from a story is hardly even news any more. The press at the time were outraged at what was perceived to be a slap in their face – and the bad reviews buried the film at the box office. Posterity has been kind to it, and it’s now more relevant than ever.

One of those brilliant Billy Wilder scripts that read like a damning metaphor for American society10
Pissing off the press so much at the time (by telling them the truth about what they are) that they got really stroppy9
Kirk Douglas portraying a 1950s version of Stephen Glass9
Utterly misanthropic to an almost unbearable degree6
Relevance to the modern-day ethical vacuum in the mainstream media10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • None of the female characters talk to each other
9Overall Score

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