We all have a friend or two who has ‘a big personality’, the sort who we can watch from across the room and smile to ourselves in the comfortable assurance that ‘there goes old Wyatt’. It seems though their words can sometimes be the stuffing of their character and nothing more; it matters less what they say than how they say it. I know an old Jesuit who at 93 is no longer as audible as he once was, but he can keep a table laughing although his voice no longer carries across it—his character does.
In a movie chock full of such characters, Fred C. Dobbs stands apart; we learn more about him from watching him then from listening to his words. His words are a reflection of his character, but his mannerisms unveil his soul. There is a scene where Dobbs and Curtain, his fellow American and partner in adversity, decide to turn from hired hands to prospectors and, while their sang-froid talk weighs the options, Dobbs’ whole person tells a more frightening tale and portends the danger they’ve already been warned of: gold tries man’s soul, how will Dobbs’ hold up? Not too well, it seems. The little fixations, the rivulets of a character worn down by poverty and the desire to be a moneyed man, are there and ready to erode a man willing to be awash in the torrent of greed. Dobb’s put up no defense against greed, believing that gold itself holds no curse for the right man—himself.
From the beginning Dobbs sets himself aside from society, and not just because he is the film’s protagonist. Although in some scenes there are moments where he is merely the spokesman for the crowd within the art, in others he reveals his belief in the man-defining ability of money, and although we see him begging for a meal, we also see that he never buys that meal, instead buying smokes and getting haircuts. He may, in fact, be less interested in being a man than being a man apart—a go big or go home sort of attitude toward life itself—clearly seen in his disregard for water when gold is in the ground. The possession of gold is a characteristic of a great man, and so while the others dream of the quiet lives permitted by gold, Dobbs doesn’t think beyond the gold, while they discuss their odyssey into the mountains and away from civilization, Dobbs sleeps, already succumbing to the fate of riches he has coming to him. Leaving society is natural for him, why talk of plans?
For a man like Dobbs, though, there is a restraint in social living upon which he must lean if he is to remain upright. A concupiscent man needs to have a certain distance from the objects of illicit desires if he is not to fall. Society can be an obstacle to his passion even if it is nothing more than a familiar good (social norms are les questioned the more immersed in society you are) or used as a foil and a source of proper shame. The tragedy is that we see Dobbs is no worse than many, lacks the irascibility to pursue his passions if safety ensconced in society, and even is capable of reform if forced to confront his passion in all its foolishness, and yet gold and the promise of more is too often brought too near him for his greed to be mastered. It is not what he has or doesn’t have which herald his fall, but what he almost has and thinks he can get. The gold within that middling state is his Achilles heel, and his fear of the worst and desire for more lead him slowly, inexorably onward. He never grasps, in the laconic wisdom of Curtain, that the worst ain’t so bad when it actually happens.
If you manage to begin this movie without knowing it is about the sinking of the Titanic, the opening scenes will cue you—and then all shall be known.
The first time you watch it you will feel as though you are re-watching it, and each time you watch it thereafter it will seem fresher than before. Suspense does not drive this movie, nor does any sort of Character development as we would generally understand it. There is no central love story, no main character (although the acting is superb), and as we bid adieu to each person our attention does not slacken. Each is introduced as a well-known character, and leaves as a good friend (including the card shark and the coward), but still we realize this tragedy transcends the fate of the passengers. This is a strange film: it is a film about a boat, or rather, three boats—The Titanic, the Carpathia, and the Californian—and their ill-fated night in the Atlantic.
The Titanic is the technological pride of the people, and that pride is taken beyond anything we see today, except perhaps the Apple-fanatic’s attachment to his operating system. A perceived slur against the ship prompts patriotic correction by nearby strangers, and we note the satisfaction of the principals aboard and the reverence shown them by the first-class passengers. If the Titanic is the tragic hero, then perhaps human pride is the flaw, and yet within the context of this larger tragedy, a more subtle conflict is developing.
One of the tactics of the film immediately noted is the jarring juxtaposition of silence and noise throughout the film. While whistles screech and rockets whistle, while water thunders over bulkheads and the third class passengers mob stairways and eventually the deck, the ships officers, engineer, and wealthy passengers remain composed and calm. Bookending the chaos between itself and those magnificent men and women, as though the chaos were the battlefield and humanity the soon-to-be-extinguished foe, is a sea strangely, silently swallowing the Titanic, a sea so strangely silent in its malice that the ‘plop plop’ of life boats striking the water is eerily carried across the waves.
Across these waters in the final moments of the Titanic, though, comes another sound: the sound of a hymn sung by a solitary bass. And perhaps music is a fitting expression for the final victory of humanity against fear and chaos as the ultimate expression of passion controlled by form.
The abyss, the chaos, loses both its fascination and its power before the presence of the one who orders. It is strange that we now believe that those things which are ordered, or repetitious, are not alive, or not powerful. Sameness once hinted at the presence of the divine: the stars and planets were Gods because they were unchanging. Now the discovery of patterns in our brains is leading us toward an acceptance of the belief that life itself is neither meaningful nor existent, as though order were contrary to life. Leave these considerations for those who doubt the existence of the soul and eternal life, you say, and rightly so, but be careful lest a similar error deprive you of that life.
Form is the backbone of the life of prayer, and of our prayer life: The Mass depends almost entirely upon the words said, the emotions of the priest matter not a bit, unless they influence his will; monks live a life known for its structure; The Church recommends the Daily Office to all Catholics, extolling it above private prayer. Even the prayers recommended for private devotion are structured: what is the rosary but the repetition of the same few prayers again and again in a set order, and yet it is the favored prayer of the Mediatrix of all Grace. I have found in my spiritual life unformed prayer (parading as an unmitigated and exclusive good under the name ‘prayer from the heart’) has always lapsed into nothing if unsupported by a structure—through its inability to withstand the emotions. The very desire to regulate this prayer is a recognition of the need to give it form: when I say I will spend 10 minutes a day in unformed prayer I have subjected it to repetition, and then isn’t a repetition requested by Christ (the Our Father; He doesn’t say ‘the first time you pray, pray Our Father…’), our Lady (the Rosary) or even our Spiritual Fathers (‘read scripture daily’) better? Well-informed form is in the end the subjection of ourselves in our emotions and our will to the Truth…and the Truth will set you free.
Approach this thought from another angle, which returns to A Night to Remember: that of the good of social form. It is easy enough to no longer say thank you every time you are expected to, rightly believing that often it does not come from the heart; it is simple to forego handshakes and smiles, platitudes and apologies, in the hope of living a more honest life. Beware; isolation, pride, and hate lurk in the background. With few exceptions, the rejection of social norms stems from pride parading as honesty, and in the subjection of the polite to your judgment there is the danger of placing your opinion of your intelligence above your love for others.
I recently watched A Night to Remember with a group of friends and at the end the only criticism voiced was that the characters were unnaturally composed while facing nearly certain death. But this film closely follows eyewitness accounts, it in fact underplays the formality, giving each tendency to a single character (just one gentleman dresses formally to face death), which perhaps permits its attribution to eccentricity instead of to culture and custom. To counter our current fascination with individualism, which leads to isolation, perhaps as we watch A Night to Remember we might bear in mind that culture is the democracy of the deceased, that there seems to have been some consensus that fate is not the arbitrator of our faith, and that our human dignity is well defended by our adherence to tradition.
Ace in the Hole is as ruthless as Chuck Tatum, its stiff-necked lead. The camera neglects all else in its fascination with Tatum, and only begins to take note of those around him when he himself does. He enters a newspaper office and introduces himself to us by introducing himself to the newspaper man, Mr. Boot, but in Tatum’s early interactions we seldom even see the faces of those he speaks to unless he himself is dominating the screen. He doesn’t care about them, and they are not given the courtesy of having their reactions noted by him, or us. But although the camera is as absorbed in Tatum as he is in himself, we are not sympathetic; the very egotism of the presentation is off-putting, and we are at once aware that Tatum’s appeal comes not from his charisma, which is undoubtedly there, but from the uneasy restlessness which the presence of such an impetuous man imbues. We know he is going, going… going where? It is the fascination of the will—the will heedlessly acting.
Chuck Tatum knows where he is going, where he came from, why he is where he is. He offhandedly incriminates himself to anyone who will listen without a thought for how he is seen, although it seems, perhaps, he wants to be seen as uncaring and self-made. He unhesitatingly proclaims his belief that those around him are to be used, and cynically assumes that he must market himself as someone to be used if he is going to fill the role he is determined to assume. He wishes to act on a cynical, simplified basis with those around him, and yet is forced to confront his conscience and the knowledge that his desires do not determine what is good.
You do not have to act upon what you know is true, salvation lies in the will not the intellect—as does damnation. There is another path to damnation, and one more frequently traveled: you can accept what you know is true and align yourself imperfectly with it, walking two paths simultaneously, pretending that you stride confidently down both. You do your will not God’s, keeping them distinct in your mind, and thinking that since both are good, God will not permit them to truly separate. Where they deviate you take your desired path and delude yourself into thinking they conveniently intercept just around the corner.
I have found it impossible to desire God’s will while holding on to self-will: I cannot turn my worry into prayer, asking God for the grace to do His will while fundamentally demanding that He order His will to mine, that He act as I want. I have thought only of my happiness and thought to disguise this as an act of love, but must learn to give Him His due glory by loving Him for Himself and for the favors I have received or expect to receive from Him—then I can think of my own happiness, and see it is nothing else than the effect of this love.
Discovering this, there is a further step; I have found I must not only submit myself to God’s will, but let Him carry it out. I am not a soldier awaiting a command from the armchair strategist who demands I carry out the mission while he sits by. Nor is he even an Alexander the Great doing his part while I do mine. I must permit God to fully act in me so that, as Newman said, everyone will look up and see no longer me—but only Jesus.
Ace in the Hole is this story. Tatum desires his own end and considers everything and everyone else as a means toward this end, as indeed he must if he is to be consistent. When he must acknowledge another standard, he rejects it. When he accepts it, he must direct everything and see to everything still, unwilling and unable to give up control even as he begins to spiral into helplessness. And it is only in his helplessness that he is finally able to freely choose between despair and total surrender, unhindered by pride or self-love.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton