There's not a soft or sentimental passage in Billy Wilder's
"Ace in the Hole" (1951), a portrait of rotten journalism and the
public's insatiable appetite for it. It's easy to blame the press for its
portraits of self-destructing celebrities, philandering preachers, corrupt
politicians or bragging serial killers, but who loves those stories? The public
does. Wilder, true to this vision and ahead of his time, made a movie in which
the only good men are the victim and his doctor. Instead of blaming the
journalist who masterminds a media circus, he is equally hard on sightseers who
pay 25 cents admission. Nobody gets off the hook here.
movie stars Kirk Douglas, an actor who could freeze the blood when he wanted
to, in his most savage role. Yes, he made comedies and played heroes, but he
could be merciless, his face curling into scorn and bitterness. He plays
Charles Tatum, a skilled reporter with a drinking problem, who has been fired
in 11 markets (slander, adultery, boozing) when his car breaks down in
Albuquerque and he cons his way into a job at the local paper.
break he's waiting for comes a year later. Dispatched to a remote town to cover
a rattlesnake competition, he stops in a desert hamlet and discovers that the
owner of the trading post has been trapped in an abandoned silver mine by a
cave-in. Tatum forgets the rattlesnakes and talks his way into the tunnel to
talk to Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), whose legs are pinned under timbers.
When Tatum comes out again, he sees the future: He will nail down possession of
the story, spin it out as long as he can, and milk it for money, fame and his
old job back East.
by a corrupt local sheriff and mining experts, Tatum takes charge by force of
will, issuing orders and slapping around deputies with so much confidence he
gets away with it. Learning that Minosa could be rescued in a day or two if
workers simply shored up the mine tunnel and brought him out, Tatum cooks up a
cockamamie scheme to lengthen the process: Rescuers will drill straight down to
the trapped man, through solid rock.
newspaperman moves into Minosa's trading post and starts issuing orders. He
finds that the man's wife, a one-time Baltimore bar girl named Lorraine (Jan
Sterling), has raided the cash register and plans to take the next bus out of
town. He slaps her hard, and orders her to stay and portray a grieving spouse.
He needs her for his story. Even though the film has been little seen and
appeared for the first time on home video last month, it produced one of those
famous hard-boiled movie lines everybody seems to have heard; ordered to attend
a prayer service for her husband, Lorraine sneers, "I don't go to church.
Kneeling bags my nylons."
(1906-2002) came to "Ace in the Hole" right after "Sunset
Boulevard" (1950), which had 11 Oscar nominations and won three. Known for
his biting cynicism and hard edges in such masterpieces as "Double
Indemnity" (1944) and "The Lost Weekend" (1945), he outdid
himself with "Ace in the Hole." The film's harsh portrait of an
American media circus appalled the critics and repelled the public; it failed
on first release, and after it won European festivals and was retitled
"The Big Carnival," it failed again.
not a wasted shot in Wilder's film, which is single-mindedly economical.
Students of Arthur Schmidt's editing could learn from the way every shot does
its duty. There's not even a gratuitous reaction shot. The black-and-white
cinematography by Charles Lang is the inevitable choice; this story would
curdle color. And notice how no time is wasted with needless exposition. A
wire-service ticker turns up there, again without comment. A press tent goes up
and speaks for itself.
the film is 56 years old, I found while watching it again that it still has all
its power. It hasn't aged because Wilder and his co-writers, Walter Newman and
Lesser Samuels, were so lean and mean. The dialogue delivers perfectly timed
punches: "I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news,
I'll go out and bite a dog."
what Tatum does with the Minosa story. Not content with the drama of a man
trapped underground, Tatum discovers the mountain is an Indian burial ground
and adds speculations about a mummy's curse. Soon gawkers are arriving from all
over the country, and those who have arrived to exploit them: hot dog stands,
cotton candy vendors, a carnival with a merry-go-round.
Minosa grows weaker and depends on Tatum for his contact with the surface. The
pounding drill, growing closer, tortures him. Rival newsmen complain about
Tatum's role: He controls access to the rescue, the story and the wife. With
every day that passes, the story grows bigger. And Tatum manufactures news on a
slow day. He plunges into the cave with a priest and a doctor, and finds out
from Leo about his anniversary present for the wife who despises him. It's a
fur scarf. Tatum hands it to her and tells her to wear it. She hates it. He
almost chokes her with it. She wears it.
Douglas (born in 1916) was and still is a ferocious competitor. Little wonder
one of his first screen roles was as a boxer in "Champion" (1949).
When I interviewed him for Esquire in 1969, the role of a champion was his
central theme: "It doesn't matter if you're a nice guy or you're a
bastard. What matters is, you won't bend!" His focus and energy as Chuck
Tatum is almost scary. There is nothing dated about Douglas' performance. It's
as right-now as a sharpened knife.
drives relentlessly toward his goal of money and fame, and if there's a moment
when we think he might take pity on Minosa, that's just Wilder, yanking our
chains. The way Tatum's thinking evolves about the trapped man is a study in
subtlety of direction, writing and acting. In a lesser movie, Tatum would share
our sympathy for the pathetic man. Here, he's on a parabola in that direction
but wants it to intersect with the moment of his own greatest fame.
born in Austria, a refugee from Hitler, certainly became one of America's
greatest directors. But he never bought into the American dream. What he saw in
Europe warned him off dreams. Although "Ace in the Hole" has always
been considered one of his greatest films, its rejection by the marketplace
isn't surprising: Moviegoers like crime, like suspense, like violence, but they
like happy endings, and Wilder is telling them to wake up and smell the coffee.
the film was released, the press complained about its portrait of news
practices and standards, even though the story was inspired by a real media
circus when a man named Floyd Collins was trapped in a Kentucky cave. Today, it
is hard to imagine some segments of the press not recognizing their hunger for
sensation. The same might be said of the public; after the movie was finished,
the studio sold admissions to its mountain sets outside Gallup, N.M.