Ace in the Hole

While we like to think that every modern malady is new to our particular generation, a film like this reminds us that many of life's troubles have their foundation in past, not present trends.

Ace in the Hole

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Herbie Cook, Porter Hall, Frank Cady, Richard Benedict
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: Paramount Pictures
First date: 1951
US DVD Release Date: 2007-07-17
UK DVD Release Date: 2007-07-17

Thanks to our tunnelvision take on the world around us, we tend to believe that every social misstep is part of some purely modern trend, a situation or subject only recently discovered during our current cultural watch. Violent teens turn school grounds into graveyards and we curse the apparent plague of criminally-minded kids. Yet 60 years ago, post-War America dealt with a juvenile delinquency problem so potent that Hollywood jumped on the scare tactic bandwagon.

Serial killers are frequently considered a post-modern ideal, and yet one of the most notorious mass murderers, Dr. H. H. Holmes’, practiced his particular brand of carnage during the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition…of 1893! From questions over fossil fuel efficiency and alternative energy sources to the hot button political problems of terrorism, immigration, and social amorality, history doesn’t only repeat itself; it seemingly stops and spot checks its lack of progress every so often, just too make sure things are recycling along nicely.

And then there are the tabloids. Forget the fact that, a century ago, William Hearst’s stained newsprint invented the term “yellow journalism”, or that movie stars suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous accusation long before modern newspapers focused on their foibles. No, as long as there has been an undeniable link between finances and the Fourth Estate, there have been rule-bending reporters like Chuck Tatum, the press card carrying carnival barker at the center of Billy Wilder’s bitter social slam, Ace in the Hole.

In fact, it was much worse back in the days when media was mitigated to print, radio, and the newsreel. Before the byline established a writer’s credentials, it was scandal, suffering, and the sensational that drew readers. And if you were lucky enough to be the journalist at the center of the mass hysteria maelstrom, you could ride the human interest all the way to scribe stardom.

As part of Criterion’s continuing efforts to bring the best of motion pictures to the digital domain, Ace in the Hole is given an intriguing two-disc presentation. As stated by film scholar Neil Sinyard (who appears on a bonus commentary track), the film represented yet another piece of Wilder’s post-WWII puzzle; an acerbic overview that began earlier with Double Indemnity, and continued through The Lost Weekend and Sunset Blvd. Using a slew of symbols and a Front Page knowledge of the press, he settled on the story of a reporter rendered inhuman by his desire for glory and some professional payback.

Fired from every big city paper in the country, Chuck Tatum (a brilliant Kirk Douglas) treks across the US, looking for possible sanctuary and a place to practice his cut throat craft. He lands in a backwater New Mexico burg, a place that sees the annual rattlesnake hunt as worthy copy. While on his way to the reptile roundup, a stop at a roadside attraction delivers potential pay dirt. The owner of the Indian souvenir stand, a war vet named Leo Minosa, is trapped in a cave.

While Minosa's blasé bride could care less, his father hopes for a rescue. Proving his commitment to the cause, Tatum risks his life by going deep into the mountainside. He contacts Minosa, and tells him everything will be okay. Within 24 hours, the conniving chronicler has the whole area corded off, and as he manipulates the local authorities to follow his plan, he waits for his pals in the big time to come begging.

Meanwhile, tourists intrigued by the story start flocking to the site, and soon a small community of concerned citizens – and those hoping to take advantage of them – has sprouted up. For Tatum, this is pure reporter’s gold. For the rest of the Minosa family, however, it creates conflicting emotions. While his parents are desperate for any hope, lonely wife Lorraine has other, more personal plans. It all hinges on whether the desperate man can be rescued – and only one person is determining if and when that happens.

If any cub columnists out there want instructions on how to properly stir up a substantial media circus, Wilder and his conscious-free antihero provide a nearly flawless tutorial. Like all great Hollywood classics, Ace in the Hole reverberates with an energy that expertly compliments its material, rendering even the most ordinary sequences visceral and dramatically intriguing. There are several elements that cause this kind of celebrated synchronicity – great scripting, expert casting, fluid direction, and brilliant performances – and in this capacity, Wilder is a winner once again.

Iconic from the moment we see him, Douglas has the grizzled, world-weary wise guy act down pat. It’s the sort of performance that can be easily overlooked at first, since it seems to be built solely out of swagger and one too many bottles of badly aged Scotch. Tatum is not a drunk, be he often uses alcohol as a means of diminishing his everpresent principles. He understands the wrongness of his every action, but with an assuring bottle of booze nearby, the ends always justify the means.

It’s this recklessness that forces his frequent unemployment, but it is also the inspiration for his biggest creative coups. When he first finds Minosa, the man’s predicament is laughable at best. Wedged under a piece of collapsed flooring, and easily accessible with some minor engineering adjustments, there is not much to this potential potboiler. But by expertly picking up the vibes around the situation – the disinterested wife, the defiant parent, the corrupt local sheriff, and the easily lead construction chief – Tatum sees the pawns he can prepare for the biggest story of his life.

These initial moments are crucial to Ace in the Hole, since they establish the relative ease over which a minor incident can balloon into a nationwide nail biter. Through pure determination and drive, an innate knowledge of people and the public, and a gift for finding the right internal buttons to push, he will conduct the chaos. And don’t downplay his defiance. If he’s a whore, selling out situations to the highest bidder, he sees the same potential in all individuals. Tatum knows what we are – it’s all a matter of haggling over the price.

Indeed, the most remarkable thing about Wilder’s script is that it never softsteps the notion of morbid curiosity. As we see the crowd of curiousity seekers build and expand, a few cars and motor homes eventually turning into an entire carnival and a small shanty town of vendors and confidence artists, we recognize our own inescapable part in this pathetic production. Without the crowds, the story would simply provide some necessary local color to the desert town, and then fade away once the rescue was completed. But thanks to Tatum’s insight into our instinctual need to participate in the process of tragedy, he elevates the search into a mandate on humanity.

Of course, we don’t make out too well. Wilder stages amazing scenes where the camera looks out over a vast flat plain, the lens picking up bits and pieces of the throng before finally settling right on top of it. There are also sequences inside the Minosa’s diner, aggravating families clamoring for food and faster service, their need for comfort as unquenchable as their looky-loo inquisitiveness.

If you think that Wilder is rather down on the entire process, from the people inside to the celebrants surrounding it, you’d be right. While it seems safe to call his overall philosophy the nature of man contemptuous, he is never cruel or heartless about his condemnation. Indeed, much of the material included as part of the two-disc DVD suggests a man whose main issue was not the human condition, but individual predictability. Wilder wanted to believe that when faced with immoral options, we’d take the more redemptive road. But since we are bound by our beliefs, as well as carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, a shortcut of any sort will always be more agreeable – be it found in a babe with a bad marriage, a bottle, or a has-been actress looking for a little younger male companionship. Tatum doesn’t want to hurt anybody, but he is willing to gamble with their lives if it means some extra inches come column time.

Over half a century after the film's debut, nothing has really changed. The minute a man gets trapped in a mine, or a child slips and stumbles into a well, the 24-hour news blockade steps in and assesses the story’s viability. Reporters with recognizable names like Geraldo and Anderson take up residence right outside the fray, forwarding speculation and specious data as hardline realities. Experts and professional pundits line up, each one operating under the undeniable theory that face time equals fame. Thus the subtleties are lost and the unfathomable exaggerated to keep couch potatoes glued to the tube.

Eventually, reality rears its ratings-destroying head, and the truth turns into tragedy. If anything, the passage of time has made such a situation even more sickening. If the camera could capture the last seconds of a dying man’s misery, the current voyeuristic version of the news would run it as an endless loop.

While he remains a lot of things throughout this ordeal, Tatum is never viewed as completely irredeemable. Toward the end, when he realizes what his efforts have wrought, he tries to turn the tide. He plays out all his cards, keeping the title trick up his sleeve for a last minute bit of redemption. But the funny thing is, by this point, nobody cares – not the big city papers, not the crowd of tantalized gawkers, not the politicians and officials he’s propped up and patronized, not the suffering subject at the center of all the hoopla.

Ace in the Hole makes it very clear that those who live by manipulating the story will probably die under constant, critical glare it has drawn. Though he can micromanage every aspect of the Minosa story, the one thing our intrepid correspondent doesn't count on was a bout of scruples during the final act. Yet to consider it ‘too little too late’ is unfair, both to Tatum and his story. The truth is much more harsh: once you start gambling, the house almost always wins – Ace in the Hole, or not.


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