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Tag Team Review: Ace in the Hole

There’s no way this project could begin with anyone other than David “Callipygous” Smart. Longtime readers will know him as the critic and filmmaker who hosts this blog, as part of his greater Free Movies UK enterprise. I remain ever thankful for his continuous generosity.

David and I talked at great length about ideas for a tag team review, discussing such talents as Herzog, Lumet, and other influential filmmakers whom I am woefully ignorant about. But then we touched on Billy Wilder, and it was suddenly very clear what we had to review.

Ace in the Hole is a 1951 satirical drama starring Kirk Douglas, directed by the man who had just shattered the filmmaking industry into a million pieces with Sunset Boulevard. Not only was the film critically eviscerated upon release, but the box office receipts were so poor that the film was re-released with a new title — “The Big Carnival” — to try and get another chance at an audience. The gambit didn’t work and the film languished in obscurity until 2007, when it was given a prestigious Criterion DVD release. In the time since, modern critics have been tripping over themselves to call the film a classic.

It came out right in the middle of Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Stalag 17 (1953). I don’t think any director has had as perfect a run of three, save maybe Kubrick. It fits in the noir cycle, during which Billy Wilder (and Raymond Chandler) had made a big impact with Double Indemnity, but there are wider ideas in focus.

It’s worth noting that Wilder himself was critical of his unsuccessful films (and critical of a few of the successful ones too), but he always insisted that Ace in the Hole was one of his best.

So is the film a true hidden gem that got unfairly passed over upon release? Or did it only become a classic in hindsight after Billy Wilder gained recognition as a cinematic grandmaster? I couldn’t resist the chance to find out.

The film opens with Chuck Tatum, a reporter played by Kirk Douglas. One of the very first things that Tatum does in his introduction is to strike a match against the moving carriage of a typewriter, then light a cigarette. That one little moment tells us so much about this character.

He’s waltzed into the office of the local paper, planted himself on someone’s desk and asked to see the boss. Big fish in a small pond – or, at least, he thinks so.

We can see for ourselves that Tatum is a consummate huckster, and it’s not the least bit surprising to hear that his headstrong attitude and dishonest nature got him fired from every major paper in the country. So Tatum lands a job working for a paper in small-town Albuquerque, waiting for a story that he can spin into something huge enough for the big national papers to take interest in. Cut to a year later, and Tatum is going mad because he’s still in Albuquerque.

To his credit, he clearly has the know-how to spin a successful story, if only one would arise. When he jokingly asks one colleague to “get involved in a trunk murder”, you’ve got to respect that he knows the game. “Bad news sells best.”

But then the unthinkable happens.

While Tatum is out on assignment with a young photographer (Herbie Cook, played by Robert Arthur), the two of them stumble onto the town of Escudero, which seems to be comprised entirely of a gas station/eatery/bus stop. This little store is owned by Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who went out to a nearby Native American tomb to look for any worthwhile artifacts. Then a cave-in traps Leo inside.

Cue Tatum, who learns about Leo’s plight and spins it into the human interest story of a lifetime. The story gains national interest, as people drive from miles around to watch the rescue unfold in person. The tourists even set up an honest-to-God carnival just outside the cave. This naturally means a huge influx of money for Leo’s store and the local news media, which in turn means a significant turn in the fortunes of one Chuck Tatum.

All while a man lays dying with his leg pinned down in a cave.

Tatum knows it’s a perfect story, all the more because it’s one man rather than 84, per the Monkeysphere. The public will want to know all about poor Leo. And that means he’ll have plenty of material to write from if the story keeps going.

It bears remembering that Tatum is at best an amoral bastard. He is a die-hard newspaper man through and through, determined at all costs to spin any story into something people will pay to read about. He doesn’t even care how many people have to die in the process. Hell, he’d prefer it that way: If it bleeds, it leads, as they say.

This is especially problematic near the start of the rescue attempt. Local engineers could brace the walls and have Leo out within a day, but of course Tatum needs his cash cow to provide milk for longer than that. So he cajoles the engineer into taking a longer way around, figuring that Leo can keep holding on for another few days. Especially with medical help climbing through the small and fragile cave passageways on a regular basis.

The trick is to keep the media circus going on long enough to keep making money, but not so long that Leo will actually die down there. Not an easy balancing act. And again, we’re talking about a man trapped in the dark, sucking down dust as he slowly dies in a cave. With a drill overhead pounding away at all hours, no less.

Like the tell-tale heart, only poor Leo has to suffer it.

Then there’s the matter of Leo’s wife. Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is a bleach blonde who clearly thought she was marrying a different man when Leo said that he owned several acres of New Mexico real estate. She’s a woman who wants to get out of Escudero and start a new life in some big city as far away as a bus ticket will take her. Lorraine thinks her big chance has finally come once Leo gets trapped, but then Tatum goes and makes things more complicated.

For one thing, there’s all that sweet cash being brought in by the various tourists and well-wishers. No way such a materialistic woman could turn all of that down, especially when she could use the money to help her big new start. For another thing, Lorraine has clearly taken a shine to Tatum, and it’s not like she has any qualms about cheating on a husband she doesn’t love.

Tatum has a problem with this attitude. Not for any moral reason, it just won’t make for a very good story. A grieving wife is immediately sympathetic, and no one would even remotely care about (much less give money to) a woman who’d leave her husband for dead in a cave. So Lorraine is stuck in this charade and Tatum is set on keeping her there by any means necessary.

She fills him with disgust. Not because she’s capitalising on the suffering of her husband, but because it reflects the same in himself. Just like him, she’s outspoken in her distaste for her surroundings and her situation, and longs for a new life in the Big City. She’s a mirror to Tatum. Sometimes you don’t like what you see.

The other big player here is Sheriff Gus Kretzer, played by Ray Teal. We can see from the very outset that Kretzer is a crooked politician who’s far more interested in getting re-elected than in doing his job (though to be fair, I can’t imagine how much work he’d have to do in such a podunk town like Escudero). Anyway, Kretzer and Tatum strike up a deal: Kretzer will keep every other reporter away from the cave-in, making sure that Leo Minosa’s story remains a Chuck Tatum exclusive. In return, Tatum will take every opportunity to make Kretzer look like a hero, guaranteeing his re-election. It’s not even close to ethical, but that’s the power of the press.

That’s what it really all comes down to here: The power of the press. If it wasn’t for Tatum, some otherwise unremarkable nobody probably would have died in that cave without anyone ever hearing his name. But thanks to one reporter — no matter how greedy and self-centered his intentions may have been — an entire country rallied in solidarity to support Leo Minosa and those who sought to rescue him. Yet Tatum abused that power in a way that benefited just about everyone else except Leo, putting the poor miner in far greater danger for a longer period of time as a direct result.

Everyone in this movie is corrupt, corrupted, or naïve. The sheriff knows that perception is everything in politics, and eagerly gets into bed with Tatum even though they took an immediate disliking to each other. Young Herbie gets taken in by our protagonist’s promises of the big time. Lorraine is as opportunistic as Tatum, charging comically increasing fares to the incoming tourists under the guise of a “Leo Minosa Rescue Fund”. The carnival comes for the crowd. Over there, someone’s performing a song about Leo and selling the lyric sheets. Even the present crowds, who you’d take for secondary victims, chumps, eagerly participate in radio interviews, and one man can’t help but namedrop his insurance company for the listening audience (Pacific All Risk, a cheeky nod for Double Indemnity fans). Everyone’s selling something.

Moving on, Richard Benedict deserves so much acclaim for making the character of Leo work. The guy has literally nothing to do except lie on his back without the ability to move, but Benedict brings so much emotion to the role that it’s impossible not to sympathize with him. Leo is the true beating heart of this movie (in so many ways, as David pointed out with the “Tell-Tale Heart” reference above), and Benedict’s performance is a huge reason why Leo is constantly felt as an offscreen presence from start to finish.

His devotion to his wife is painful.

That said, of course this is Kirk Douglas’ show. He absolutely owns this role like the legendary actor he is. Douglas turns in an effortlessly charismatic performance that’s endlessly compelling to watch, even as the character earns our absolute disgust. In fact, it’s Tatum’s unsympathetic yet captivating brand of showmanship that makes him into such a scathing depiction of dirty journalism, and Douglas deserves so much credit for making that work.

The other actors all do fine work, but Jan Sterling is the weak link here. Lorraine could potentially have been a far stronger character if Sterling played her with any more than two faces. And of course, it doesn’t help that Sterling spends pretty much the entire movie getting acted off the screen by Douglas.

That little nitpick aside, this is a superbly acted and elegantly constructed little drama that works as an incisive and intelligent satire of American journalism. So why did it get such a godawful reception upon release? As far as I can tell, there are two key reasons. First, critics of the time were skeptical of the notion that Tatum could maintain such a firm and unshakeable monopoly on such a massive story without any other reporters around to wheedle out details. This despite how Tatum and Kretzer are both clearly seen dealing with this issue by means that are well within suspension of disbelief.

There’s also the fact that this movie drew clear and overt inspiration from the real-life cases of W. Floyd Collins and Kathy Fiscus. Collins even gets name-checked in the film. Audiences of the time had clearly seen for themselves that this sort of thing not only could have happened but most certainly did happen, and they called bullshit upon seeing this movie? Sorry, that doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Seems less like “don’t believe” and more “don’t want to believe”. Wilder himself started out as a journalist. In Vienna and Berlin he would, for instance, petition mothers of murderers for photos of said children. The morally dubious nature of the work clearly stuck with him.

I think the far bigger problem at the time was summed up by the Hollywood Reporter, which called the film “a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions – democratic government and the free press.” This attitude toward the film is understandable, given that America was still riding high after victory in WWII and the communist USSR was beginning to coalesce as the next serious threat. Plus, if the American public really was this sensitive about depictions of government officials and the free press, this would explain a lot of problems in the third act.

There are many times in the third act when Wilder quite visibly chafes against the limitations set upon him by censors of the time. For example, censors back then really didn’t like it when movies depicted corrupt politicians. They seemed to think it was encouraging sedition, which naturally posed problems with regards to Kretzer. Thus we have Boot showing up to give a few lines of dialogue about how Kretzer is going to pay for his actions. It kinda works in context, but it still feels like weak tea.

The far bigger problem is Tatum’s sudden face-turn, when he inexplicably stops caring about Leo’s survival because it would make for a better story and starts caring about Leo’s survival because they’re fellow human beings. There is virtually no transition here. Tatum was an amoral bastard whose sole focus was the newspaper copy, then he spins 180 degrees on a dime and he’s suddenly a decent human being. It flat doesn’t work, especially when the film wants to keep on acting like a scathing indictment of sensationalist news media. Thus we get a few cartoonishly dickheaded journalists to make fun of Tatum because he had the decency to grow a spine. It’s just not the same, nowhere near as intelligent or as nuanced as any of the satire preceding.

Oh, I disagree. It’s not a linear transition, but the tug of war for Tatum’s soul is delicately portrayed from the beginning. See how he excitedly describes the situation on the telephone to his employer, but pauses when the wife of the victim enters the room (not knowing yet her own lack of sensitivity). There’s a sense of guilt creeping up on him. When he reassures the engineer that Leo is healthy enough to withstand a longer wait (“a rugged boy”), he’s reassuring himself. He’s afflicted with cognitive dissonance. How does he resolve his actions with those twangs of conscience when he sees the ugly reflections of himself in his accomplices, or when pitiful Leo calls him his friend? I very much agree that Kirk Douglas is the standout, and if the role wasn’t portrayed so carefully Tatum could easily be taken for a monster deceiving everyone else, rather than an egotist of questionable morality who is nonetheless deeply conflicted. How great the irony that his most human moment is in telling a white lie.

I must confess that I missed those subtle nuances of Douglas’ performance. I don’t doubt that they were there, however, and they may be clearer with hindsight upon a second viewing.

As for the other journalists, there was a scene where they complain about the unfairness (and illegality) of Tatum’s exclusivity. He rubs dirt in their face. Is the “American free press”, as that review called it, the victim in this scenario? Well, no, quite clearly they would’ve each done the same; they’re all Chuck Tatums. Here we have the indictment of the news media complex as a whole. When journalism (on both the institutional and individual level) is incentivized towards sensationalism, deal-making and worse, how can we expect it to go any other way?

Alas, it’s all too easy to believe how that satirical point either went over the audiences’ heads or was willfully ignored. Like you said earlier, so much of the ill reception would be explained if audiences of the time simply didn’t want to believe what this movie was trying to say. Which brings me to the next point.

The film has improved with age because Americans have generally grown far more jaded and therefore more tolerant of content that could possibly be considered “anti-American.” Nowadays, the notion of a crooked politician in bed with the media is child’s play. And making fun of sensationalist media? Shit, the sensationalist media makes fun of itself nowadays. We don’t have to imagine what it would be like for the entire nation to rally around a single individual and spend every minute of every day wondering how he’s doing — between reality TV and celebrity gossip rags, that’s become a multibillion-dollar industry. We all know full well that this story is no longer fiction.

I’d say the indictment of the public is even more cutting. At least Tatum can argue honestly that the less-than-seemly is what we want, what we demand.

(Side note: Can you imagine if he was paid by the click, as many online journalists are now?)

The film could depict us as gullible fools and it’d be less harsh. Instead, participation is the key word. The crowds participate, lap up, and in turn exploit. “Big Carnival” indeed.

Even so, there are a few other problems that haven’t aged well. For instance, the first act contains a number of references to Native Americans that have only aged poorly. Granted, there’s nothing that’s uncomfortably or outlandishly offensive by modern standards, but it brushes right up against that line. Oh, and without getting into spoilers, the third act contains what has to be the most lamely executed and pitifully drawn-out death I’ve ever seen in a movie. A character gets injured at the start of the third act, then he keeps on acting like nothing’s wrong until the death finally happens right at the end of the film. Pathetic.

You see him clutching the wound. It bothered me that he doesn’t seek medical attention until I realised he got the ending he felt he deserved.

Oh, he absolutely got the ending he felt he deserved. I’m just saying that I don’t think the justice was poetic enough to justify the contrived plot convenience.

All told, I’d say that Ace in the Hole was a movie far ahead of its time. Billy Wilder had the guts to make some very bold statements against politics and the media, and it’s obvious that no one was willing to hear what he had to say. There were some overt limitations put on Wilder at the time by censors, yet Wilder kept on and somehow managed to make a coherent argument in spite of them.

Though the movie may have a few minor flaws, the film’s intelligent satire has lost none of its edge. It also has intriguing characters, some dynamite performances (with Kirk Douglas and Richard Benedict as the standouts), fantastic dialogue, and sterling direction. This is a film that absolutely should be seen and certainly not forgotten.

I’d call it a prototype for Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (which scathingly satirises the similar institutional flaws inherent in television), but that would be doing a disservice to a movie that was even more ahead of its time. Of the Billy Wilder filmography, I think only The Apartment stands above Ace in the Hole for me, and of his (number of) masterpieces this one is the most cynical, and therefore the most Wilder. Thank the movie gods it’s now widely available.

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