Ace in the Hole
1951Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Bob Arthur
obody in Hollywood is tougher than Kirk Douglas. He had a stroke a little over a decade ago and, relatively unfazed, now looks forward to his ninety-first birthday this December. Though many of his roles were in films now overlooked and/or forgotten, he ought not to be dismissed. Stanley Kubrick fans will recall his never-say-die colonel from Paths of Glory and his supremely physical performance in Spartacus. Anthology Film Archives in New York is about to revive Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful, and Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (a.k.a. The Big Carnival) has just been issued on DVD by Criterion.
The film's opening shot is of Charles Tatum (played by Douglas)—an out-of-work reporter from New York City—getting towed in his jalopy with a copy of the local newspaper in his lap. Telling the driver to wait at the corner, he stops in at the offices of the Sun-Bulletin to convince the editor to give him a second chance—actually his twelfth after being fired so many times.
From the beginning Tatum lives and dies by his tenacity and unbridled self-confidence, referring to those he converses with as "fans." He tells Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), the somewhat stodgy, old-fashioned editor/publisher ("a man who wears both belt AND suspenders"), that he stands to profit $200 a week by hiring Tatum, allegedly a $250/wk reporter, for only $50/wk. Boot, under the perhaps unwise assumption that there’s good in everybody, hires him on the spot.
Cut to a year later, with Tatum throwing a tantrum in the office. Mr. Boot quietly diagnoses an acute case of cabin fever and sends Tatum on assignment to cover a rattlesnake hunt along with a cub photojournalist named Herbie (Bob Arthur). Tatum takes Herbie under his wing, determined to teach him every trick of the trade he'd picked up during his time back east. Explaining his obvious delight when they get word of a man trapped underneath a mountain, with a decidedly unwholesome gleam in his eye, Tatum declares: "Bad news sells best, because good news is no news!"
Of course, Tatum's selfish ambition catches up with him in the end, much as with William Holden in Sunset Boulevard from the year prior, and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity a bit further back. Almost everyone else, though, is implicated in the media circus alongside him: Herbie, the sheriff, Lorraine, and especially the tourists who flock to the site with nauseating enthusiasm, turning the event into one big, macabre carnival. An insurance salesman named Al Federber, who works for the Pacific All-Risk company (a brand that appears in many a Wilder film), makes the claim in a radio interview to having been the first to stop by. Federber may actually hold the lowest place in Wilder's esteem, as he doesn't even have rational self-interest at heart, just the morbid curiosity of a man with too much time on his hands.
Labeled a “sunshine noir” or “film soleil,” by those who bandy about such terminology, Ace in the Hole is striking for the sense of menace Wilder creates almost entirely in full daylight. At points throughout the film we’re treated to a steep downward view from drill at the top of the mountain of the ever-growing crowd below, with the dusty plain rolling away in the distance. The barren landscape certainly adds to the chilling effect, though even the desert is lush compared to the bleak internal environments of most of the characters. Lorraine, for example, is ready to skip town as soon as she discovers Leo will be underneath the mountain for an extended period of time. Only cash profit and Tatum’s threat of violence induce her to stick around and play the role of the dutiful, loving wife.
Fifty-six years later Billy Wilder’s indictment of the “media circus” phenomenon is at least as on point as it was at the time of its release, to say nothing of his trademark caustic dialogue, timeless in its own fashion. The film didn’t fare well at the box office back in 1951, poorly enough that Paramount withheld a chunk of the profits from the director’s next project, Stalag 17, though its critical reputation is obviously solid. Thanks to Criterion’s reissue, Wilder and Douglas fans should finally have a proper chance to (re)discover their portrait of this charming scoundrel.
Ace in the Hole is now available on DVD.
By: Andy Slabaugh
Published on: 2007-08-15