Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is hunting treasure. A war-veteran who runs a moribund trading post and cafe in the middle of the New Mexico desert, Leo’s desperation leads him to a nearby sacred Indian cliff dwelling in search of artifacts from a previous civilization.
Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is hunting a story. A struggling newspaperman, his volatile nature and affinity for the drink has pushed him from the big time media outlets. By his own account, he’s been fired from eleven newspapers with a total circulation of seven million, for reasons he carries with pride and shares with aplomb: “In New York, a story of mine brought on a libel suit. In Chicago, I started something with the publisher’s wife. In Detroit, I was caught drinking out of season. In Cleveland…” (One gets the picture quite quickly.) His trip down the journalistic totem pole brings him to the office of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin to beg his way onto the staff, a gig he sees as the starting point for his re-ascent—if he could only find the right lead.
After a year of trudging through stories about soapbox derbies and Jesse James impersonators, he appears to have found it in, of all people, Leo Minosa, who becomes trapped in the cliff dwelling while searching for ancient Indian pots. During their first face-to-face meeting, when Leo’s legs are pinned under rocks and there’s no safe way to dig him out, Leo tells Tatum exactly how it happened: “I guess I crawled in too far this time. You’ve got to to find a good one… But I found me a beauty. Worth fifty bucks any day. It’s then the whole floor caved in under me.” Treasure seeking. Decay. Entrapment. This isn’t just Leo’s story; it’ll become Chuck Tatum’s, too.
Chuck and Leo aren’t the only hunters in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, his 1951 scathing satire of American culture. Nearly everyone who appears on screen is in pursuit of a self-indulgent end and is willing to exploit the misfortune of others to get it: Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) wants money and a way out of the desert. Local Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal), who carries a box with a live rattlesnake in it everywhere he goes, wants a consolidation of power through re-election. Sam Smollet (Frank Jaquet), a small-time owner of a construction company who ends up in charge of the logistics of the rescue mission, is convinced that he can become the “biggest contractor in the business.” And the media, the milieu in which Tatum has quickly re-asserted himself as king, wants a story. Finally, Mr. and Mrs. America (aptly named by Tatum upon their arrival) are after entertainment and leisure. They’re the first of thousands of tourists to show up at the site of the cave-in.
The only character of any depth who isn’t presented with vitriol and malevolence is Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), Tatum’s boss at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. His “Tell the Truth” slogan, which is embroidered, framed, and hung in several places in his office, acts as the moral compass for narrative arc of the film. Leo’s parents (John Berkes and Frances Dominguez) are also given a break in terms of characterization. However, Leo’s father’s grace and geniality and his mother’s prayers and religion are no match for the immorality that envelops the people around them.
At the center of the film is the relationship between Chuck and Lorraine. They’re a partnership made in hell, each able to see through to the other’s sadism only because the same quality is so deeply ingrained in themselves. After Chuck confronts her about not feeling more guilt over the fact that her husband is trapped in a pile of rocks at the in bottom of the mountain, Lorraine says, “Honey, you like those rocks as much as I do.” It’s a hard truth to face, but so do most of the rest of us.
The reasons for Wilder’s dark view of human nature are both bona fide and well-documented: his mother, step-father, and grandmother were each murdered in Nazi death camps during World War II. In response to life’s hardships, Wilder made a number of dark pictures in his time, but Ace in the Hole might be his darkest. At its core, it’s a retelling of his 1944 classic Double Indemnity. (Spoilers ahead). A man and a woman—an ice-cold, platinum-blonde femme fatale—collude to exploit the woman’s husband for their own benefit. In the process, the husband is killed and the man and woman turn on each other with deadly results. In Double Indemnity, the viewer can enjoy the narrative as a separate entity, as a member of a crowd of spectators witnessing an isolated incident between two broken people. But in Ace in the Hole, even the audience has an accusatory finger pointed in its direction.
The inspiration for the script of Ace in the Hole came from the real-life story of Floyd Collins, an adventurer from Kentucky who became trapped in an underground cave in 1925. Reports of the rescue efforts led to a nationwide media blitz that was insatiably consumed by the American public. With the film, Wilder uses a similar story to critique our obsession with the misfortune of others. We all have, Wilder would argue, a preoccupation with the macabre. Over sixty years after the film’s original release, not much has changed. To think of the sensationalized news stories of the past few decades (O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony come to mind) is to realize that Wilder was on to something.
Though nothing new has been added to the initial 2007 DVD release, this Blu-ray/DVD dual format remains flush with the typical high-quality Criterion package of extras. The eloquent and intelligent feature-length commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard and the fascinating collection of interviews with Wilder make it well worth going all in on.