There is a moment in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) where a country/western balladeer warbles a particularly ebullient and infectious little ditty from a makeshift bandstand; a song dedicated to Leo Minosa (Richard Bennett) - the beefy buffoon who has allowed personal greed to jeopardize his life; a parable not unlike the one afflicting our story’s anti-hero; Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas, in a scathingly unsympathetic role). The carnival atmosphere surrounding Leo’s demise (complete with games, rides and jubilant spectators, lapping up the lyrics from a comely cowgirl passing out sheet music) is quaintly familiar, and strangely comforting - until one stops to consider the reason for this outpouring of goodwill and cheer. Only in retrospect, does it all take on the uncanny tenor of an Irish wake. And yet, there is nothing joyous or even respectful about these reminiscences. For none in attendance actually knows Leo Minosa. Arguably, none particularly care to – not even Tatum; the news-hungry and thoroughly unscrupulous bastard who has transformed one man’s pain and suffrage into a national media event.
Even the title ‘Ace in the Hole’ suggests a powerful cynicism and perverseness, arguably, unlike any running through Billy Wilder’s other masterworks; Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend or Sunset Boulevard. Apart from the obvious definition, a clandestine plan or piece of information meant to be sprung at the most opportune moment’; the ‘ace’ in this ‘hole’ can easily be interpreted as Chuck Tatum – a man who’s used up all of his ‘get out of jail free’ cards and is now figuratively – and literally – in a hole; desperate to dig out his reputation as a bottom feeder, even if he has to bury an innocent human being to do it. Yet, Tatum’s dubious undoing is his own conscience; gnawing away at him in the eleventh hour of his folly. No, Tatum doesn’t grieve for Leo Minosa; only over the loss of what ought to have been the triumphant kick start to his sagging career.
Alas, Tatum’s real problem is he sees the world and everyone in it only in black and white; big, bold letters set in teletype; the human element absent as he manipulates the variables to fabricate the ultimate copy. Tatum doesn’t even care about his readership. He merely knows what will sell and isn’t ashamed to peddle it as the gospel. He’s godless, friendless, and, a corruptible influence on Herbie Cook (Bob Arthur); the impressionable cub reporter momentarily under his wing – and spell. To help the boy? Hardly – rather, to get a little of his own back by exacting a minor revenge on Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall); the editor-in-chief of Albuquerque’s Sun Bulletin who, against his better judgment, has given Tatum one last chance - either to survive or slip the noose around his neck. Left to his own devices, Tatum cannot help himself. He’s a fatalist and a masochist; desiring fame over self-preservation.
Judged by most critics at the time of its release as a ‘dramatic grotesque’ and ‘distortion of journalistic practices’, in hindsight, Ace in the Hole is the penultimate foreshadowing of exactly the sort of tabloid sensationalism since come to dominate our national and local media coverage; transforming minor incidents into three ring media circuses of grand guignol. There is ghoulishness to this exercise that seems – not out of place, as it did in 1951 – but distinctly anticipated and even familiar. Our prurient protagonist, Chuck Tatum is awesomely pitiless and self-serving; so intent on resurrecting his career he would deliberately sacrifice a life for the sake of a good byline. Perhaps, not even Chuck can fathom the latitude of abject fervor his ruthlessness will stir; perverting humanity into an insidious freak show.
Despite his eleventh hour about face, admonishing these happy revelers with the revelation Leo Minosa has died, Tatum is hardly absolved of responsibility for his own complicity in creating this spectacle. In fact, he is the architect of its devilry; whipping into a frenzy, then manipulating false hope between total strangers. The nobler pursuit, to actually save Leo Minosa, was always a sideline for Tatum – the presumed ‘inevitable’ conclusion to a series of articles dragging out this ‘human interest’ story well beyond actual human interest. After all, Leo could have been plucked from his tomb in a matter of hours instead of days had Tatum listened to reason and taken the shorter route to his rescue. Only then, this very brief resurrection of his faltering career might not have come to pass. Tragically, it never does. Leo’s death ruins everything.
Ace in the Hole is unapologetic and bleak about the business of news coverage; also, in regarding basic human loyalties relied upon to get by in our everyday lives. Leo’s marriage to the unrepentantly vacant and soulless, Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is a sham. She already tried to leave him once. But Leo followed her. Now, he can’t. It’s the perfect moment for escape – perfect, except for Tatum’s intervention; building up his story of the devoted wife, anxiously awaiting news of her husband’s condition. Empathetic overtures won’t work on Lorraine. This is one jaded gal, utterly bored with the five years of ‘payback’ to this man who freed her from a life of seedy burlesque. Lorraine still measures time by the hair color she used to be. So, Tatum speaks to Lorraine in the only language she’s able to understand – money; encouraging her to charge admissions to this sideshow about to become its own full-blown circus.
Ironically, the person most sympathetic to Leo’s plight – after his own father (John Berkes) – is Jacob Boot: the editor-in-chief of Albuquerque’s Sun Bulletin. Boot runs a respectable publication; his motto, ‘tell the truth’ more than just a platitude woven into the embroidered tapestry hanging from his walls. Tatum isn’t Boot’s kind of reporter. But Boot is the empathetic sort; taking Tatum on at the bargain basement price of $60; not even a third of the salary Tatum’s journalistic prowess once commanded, although fifteen dollars more than Tatum was willing to sell himself short for at the start of their negotiations. Notoriety has gone to Tatum’s head. But one by one, his devious machinations have inflicted their own divine retribution until even the sharks consider him a social pariah.
In true shameless demagoguery, Tatum reveals these past sins to Boot – unapologetic, and with a distinct note of pride running through his admissions: that he was a liar and an adulterer who scammed and screwed his way to the top, then just as easily out of a promising journalistic career. Boot is unimpressed by Tatum’s confession. More miraculous, he is unconcerned by his track record, even slyly suggesting his own wife – a portly, middle-aged house frau – would be mildly amused (though hardly accepting) of whatever romantic overtures Tatum might feel compelled to express. It’s a topsy-turvy world; the love/hate relationship between Tatum and Boot (Tatum regards his new employer as weak-kneed and lacking the foresight to expand his circulation) gurgling like backed up sewage. Tatum eventually comes to respect – if not admire – Boot’s ‘nice and easy’ approach. But Boot’s empathy for Tatum turned rancid with pity.
Ace in the Hole’s screenplay by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman is unvarnished in its general disregard – nee, contempt for ‘freedom of the press’. The men behind the ink are not engaged in the noble pursuit of bringing truth to the masses; rather, only in exploiting its verisimilitude via their yellow journalism; rank ambulance chasers out to discover the next proverbial ‘train wreck’ so they can sell as many tickets to make a quick dollar. Wilder’s Chuck Tatum just happens to be the rottenest apple in this barrel. But Wilder is equally unimpressed by the bottom feeders that come out of the woodwork later on.
Ace in the Hole’s plot is actually an amalgam of two real-life incidents; the first involving W. Floyd Collins, a Kentuckian trapped inside a cave after a landslide; the second, about a three year old who fell down a well in California. In both cases, the victims died before they could be rescued. Paramount did not care for the story, particularly after a lawsuit was brought against Wilder for plagiarism; also the threat of another by William Burke Miller; the Courier-Journal reporter who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Collins’ incident. Also, Joseph Breen’s censorship objected to Wilder’s insinuation in the original script that the local sheriff and Tatum were in cahoots to exploit Leo Minosa’s situation for political gain.
Ultimately, Wilder sacrificed this latter scenario, but was allowed to make the picture, mostly without any further creative impediments. After all, Wilder was one of Hollywood’s heavy hitters. The studio trusted his judgment. They had not been worse for their blind faith in him in the past. However, on Ace in the Hole, both Wilder and Paramount would end up eating very humble pie. Costing $1,821,052 - of which nearly a third was paid to Wilder to co-write, direct and produce the picture – Ace in the Hole failed to recoup even $250,000; its spectacular implosion at the box office compounded by yet another insult; Paramount’s reissuing the movie as ‘The Big Carnival’ where it equally failed to find its audience.
Arguably, Ace in the Hole was always special; an unseemly affair guaranteed to outrage and shock; also to cast its decidedly unflattering pall on America the beautiful; its view of rural mid-town Americans as gullibly swayed bootlickers, lacking in any sort of genuine compassion for their fellow man, hardly the postwar poster child for this prosperous nation on the rise. Yet, it’s too easy to suggest Ace in the Hole as merely being ahead of its time – the times, regrettably, having caught up to Wilder’s caustic and undisguised pessimism.
Our story begins with probably one of the greatest introductions in movie history; Chuck Tatum, casually reading the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin from the front seat of his convertible being towed through town after suffering a blowout. Chuck orders the tow truck driver to pull over in front of the newspaper’s modest offices; insulting the indigenous Native American by raising his hand and declaring “How!” Tatum’s just warming up; in short order, patronizing the paper’s happy homemaker, Miss Deverich (Edith Evanson) and snapping his fingers at Herbie Cook, treating him like a peon who should announce him to his editor, Jacob Boot at once.
Boot isn’t impressed with Tatum; his fast talking and smart mouth seeming to suggest faux incredulity and more than a modicum of brash arrogance; contempt, even, for the little people toiling in this forgotten hamlet. But Boot’s a fair man and proves it by offering Tatum the job he’s come to demand. Time passes; a whole year, in fact. Alas, time alone has hardly mellowed Tatum, grown even more insubordinate and insolent during the past twelve months. Boot decides a change of venue is in order, sending Tatum and Herbie to cover the snake-charming festival in a nearby town. En route, the pair stops to gas up at a trading outpost in the middle of nowhere; its one distinguishing feature – a steep mesa nearby where ancient Indian artifacts are buried. No one appears to be at home. Herbie enters the store and discovers a woman (Frances Dominguez) in in a shroud, caught in contemplative prayer in the backroom.
A few moments more, and Tatum is introduced to Lorraine Minosa; laconic to a fault and bored stiff. She explains that her husband, Leo went into the bowels of the escarpment dwellings to pillage some ancient artifacts for the store. Too bad for Leo, the ground beneath his feet gave way; the resulting cave in trapping him beneath a pile of rubble. Tatum is intrigued, following Lorraine up to the mesa where Mr. Minosa is patiently waiting. Talking to Leo, Tatum latches on to his next big idea; making this trapped lummox a pathetic figure from coast to coast and using the story to catapult his career back into the stratosphere. A hundred people trapped inside a mine is disposable news, Tatum reasons; people don’t relate well to mind-boggling numbers. But the plight of one man looming between life and death inside a collapsed mining shaft can be effectively whipped into a four-alarm media frenzy.
Tatum makes rather a bad enemy of the Deputy Sheriff (Gene Evans); a ‘by the book’ stickler who finds Tatum’s chutzpah appalling. Taking a few pictures of Leo; Tatum pitches his story over the telephone to Boot who reluctantly agrees to fund his copy. In no time, Tatum has made Leo the front page on every major paper in the country. Every news outlet sends a reporter to cover the scoop. Onlookers begin to make their pilgrimage; their numbers growing daily. Give the public what they want. So, Tatum brings in amusements, food and even entertainment to keep everyone preoccupied while he continues to delay progress on Leo’s rescue under the guise of faux concern for his safety. Herbie gravitates to Tatum; the man whose life and career he’d most like to emulate. However, Tatum’s passionate poisoned pen does more than call out the people and the National Guard; it also stirs a cause célèbre to save Leo’s life.
Tatum’s orchestration of Leo’s fate becomes his full-time job; granting interviews to the right people, manipulating the local Sheriff, Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) into seeing things his way – a neat little angle guaranteed to effortlessly win Kretzer his re-election campaign as a ‘servant of the people’ – encouraging Jessop, the engineer (Ken Christy) to drill from the top down (thereby prolonging the element of suspense – though also, Leo’s suffrage – merely to perpetuate the story) while keeping at bay honest, well-intentioned folk, like retired miner, Kusac (Ralph Moody) – who only has Leo’s best interests at heart.
Discouraged from walking out on her husband by Tatum’s visions of untapped wealth, Lorraine gets the wrong idea – believing Tatum’s making a play for her; the two destined to reap the whirlwind in pure profits. Tatum sets Lorraine straight by slapping her around. He isn’t doing this for her or even to get into her drawers on a Saturday night. No – Tatum’s doing it for Tatum and that’s all, brother! Tatum uses his new found notoriety to negotiate a truce with his former editor, Nagel (Richard Gaines), who promises a thousand dollars for every exclusive he feeds the paper. On the surface, a bizarre carnival atmosphere develops; scores of gawkers transforming the barren landscape into a makeshift fairgrounds.
Behind closed doors, Dr. Hilton (Harry Harvey) confides in Tatum that Leo has developed pneumonia from spending too many days immobilized in these damp conditions. Tatum has oxygen brought in to stave off the inevitable. It’s a half-hearted attempt. But even Leo has lost all hope of surviving by now. Instead, Leo tells Tatum his wedding anniversary is just around the corner; also, explaining about the fur stole he intended to give Lorraine to mark the occasion. Tatum finds the modest fur piece and forces Lorraine to wear it. As far as he’s concerned, she’s going to be the epitome of the faithful little woman even if it kills her.
This perversion of pain and suffering reaches its fever pitch when Leo dies; Tatum climbing to the top of the mesa to address the swarm of humanity with his somber news. He’s bitter and disgusted; his last chance to make something of his career dashed by a guy who couldn’t hang on for just a few hours more – merely to satisfy Tatum’s desperate need for a happy ending. Within moments the dismantling of trailers, attractions; the mass exodus of hundreds by car and on foot, who thought they were gathering for triumphant news instead of a funeral, is complete. Tatum is alone; or rather, left to cogitate on the error of his ways. And he’s been given an added incentive to do right by Herbie, who continues to idolize him as though he were worthy of such worship.
As it turns out, Tatum has been mortally wounded in the stomach with a knife by Lorraine after yet another of their ruthless confrontations. As he bleeds out, Tatum has Herbie drive them back to the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin, ordering Herbie back to his old desk and collapsing in front of Boot. Despite their differences, the editor is still marginally sympathetic toward Tatum. But it’s no use. He’s reached the end of the line and dies in the middle of the press room.
Ace in the Hole is one of Billy Wilder’s most mesmerizing and apocalyptic social commentaries. The Wilder/Samuels/Newman screenplay picks away at the scabs of life, exposing their puss-filled centers, yet never gratuitously opening the wounds - either to pour salt or merely observe the blood. Yet, here is a tale of human inequity truly fit for the asylum in popular opinion; Kirk Douglas’ disreputable cutthroat, a heartless villain through and through. It is impossible to admire Chuck Tatum; a mere shell of a human being. Douglas’ performance, however, is nothing less than riveting. Beneath Tatum’s belligerent exterior, a void of epic proportions exists. And Douglas gives us this beast in man’s skin in all his terrible flaws, so completely robbed of even an ounce of moral decency he seems to exist exclusively on the vapors of a good tabloid scandal. It’s a terrifically delicious accomplishment, perhaps Kirk Douglas’ finest hour as an actor.
Jan Sterling is the other noteworthy in the cast; an actress usually relegated to B-grade noir thrillers, playing the cheap floozy. Herein we get Sterling as the real McCoy – an A-list gutsy femme fatale unashamed to throw both her husband and Tatum’s plans for his canonization under the proverbial bus, merely to satisfy an itch no one except her Lorraine Minosa would dare to scratch. And Sterling runs the gamut of emotions from ‘A’ to ‘Z’; wickedly fascinating in all her gutter depravity to escape from this man at precisely his lowest point in life. Sterling unequivocally proves she had more to offer movie fans than her career choices ultimately allowed.
Ace in the Hole was Billy Wilder's first picture apart from longtime collaborator, Charles Brackett – the latter’s absence revealing itself in Wilder’s cynicism run amuck. Where Brackett might have interjected one or two lighter moments – perhaps even a modicum of comedy, Wilder instead relies almost exclusively on Charles Lang’s sundrenched cinematography to counterbalance the movie’s narrative darkness. It’s an interesting theory, although even Lang’s exteriors – bleached by the oppressive New Mexican heat – take on a fairly oppressive atmosphere. Upon its release, the prominent critics of their day were quick to riddle their opinions with general contempt for the way Wilder had portrayed their brethren: as unscrupulous, manipulative and morally irresponsible newshounds out for good copy via bad press. There’s a lot of smoke there, but also some fire.
Misjudged as ‘un-gelled’, ‘half-baked’ and ‘preposterous’, Ace in the Hole now seems almost transparent and truth-telling about the secret autonomy afforded our cultural mandarins to reshape and bend current events into precisely the angle they wish to portray to the world at large. Decades earlier, when told by one of his reporters there was no Spanish/American war taking place, media mogul, William Randolph Hearst astutely wired back “You provide the pictures…I’ll provide the war!” Viewed in this light, Chuck Tatum’s ferocity in going after the story he wants to tell is a desirable commodity; one even Hearst would have admired. Perhaps, for critics, such truths about their profession – even back then – cut a little too close to the bone.
Ace in the Hole doesn’t merely ascribe blame to the media. Wilder equally berates the audience for their willing complicity to be bamboozled; perhaps another reason why the movie so spectacularly failed to find its audience. In America, Ace in the Hole was an unimaginable failure. But in Europe, it won top honors at the Venice Film Festival and took in fairly handsome grosses across the continent. In retrospect, Ace in the Hole marked a turning point in Wilder’s film-making career; his concentration of frothier adaptations of Broadway shows, and his collaborations with I.A.L. Diamond throughout the fifties and sixties, made partly to shore up Wilder’s sagging reputation; to continue making the kinds of pictures he really wanted to do. Nevertheless, Wilder always believed in Ace in the Hole, claiming it was the best picture he ever made.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray release is mostly a cause for celebration. The movie was scanned in at 4K and restored in 2K; a formidable remastering effort, eradicating most age-related anomalies inherent in the original 35mm duplicate negative. Apart from the main titles – that continue to suffer from a considerable amount of dirt, scratches and undue grit, the rest of this image is mostly an A-one effort with minor caveats to be discussed. The pluses: exceptional tonality, superbly rendered contrast with thick indigenous film grain looking very natural. The image is marginally darker and softer on the Criterion release (Masters of Cinema has a region B locked disc – no competition unless you own a region free Blu-ray player). The Criterion also appears to suffer from some ever so slight edge enhancement. It’s scene specific and extremely intermittent; passable, though hardly forgivable.
Criterion gives us only an LPCM 1.0 audio track. Not everything has to be in DTS, and Criterion proves the merit of its long-standing mastering philosophy herein with a crisply defined monaural that perfectly compliments the visuals. It’s restored, so no hiss, pop or crackle. Extras are plentiful and most welcome; the best being a documentary from 1980 entitled, “60% Perfect Man: Billy Wilder”; containing an in-depth interview with Wilder conducted by Michel Ciment, as well as snippets and soundbytes from Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon. We also get a 1984 interview featuring Kirk Douglas, excerpts from Wilder’s tribute at the AFI, audio excerpts from screenwriter, Walter Newman, a video afterward by Spike Lee, stills and a trailer – plus a very nicely produced ‘newspaper’ liner notes companion piece featuring two essays; one by critic Molly Haskell, the other from film maker Guy Maddin. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)