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Ace in the Hole is probably the ultimate in intelligent Hollywood cynicism. Wilder and co-scripters Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels envision a world where selfishness and greed prevail. Unscrupulous is too positive a word for Kirk Douglas's Chuck Tatum, an opportunist's opportunist who takes advantage of an accident to create a maelstrom of self-benefit. Ace in the Hole has been established as one of the first manifestations of the modern Media Circus concept. Nathanael West's caustic The Day of the Locust predates it, but that book limited its misanthropy to the madness of Hollywood. Billy Wilder's poisonous satire can apply to any misuse of public power that erodes human values. By saying that rat racers like Tatum easily circumvent notions of honesty and ethics, the movie becomes a blanket condemnation of humanity.
Synopsis: Stranded in Albuquerque, New Mexico, destitute newsman Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) bulls his way into reporting for the local paper of Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), hoping for a big story. A breakthrough falls in his lap when he chances into the no-town town of Escudero. Curio seeker Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a cave under what the Indians call the "Mountain of the Seven Vultures." Chuck immediately sets to shaping the story into the circulation builder that will catapult him back to the big time. Young photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) is easy to lure with promises of a New York career. Dissatisfied wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) wants to walk out on poor Leo, but Chuck changes her mind with promises of big profits from the enormous crowd that gathers at the disaster site. Chuck soon has the corrupt Sheriff (Ray Teal) barring all other reporters in exchange for favorable publicity for his reelection campaign. Rescue engineer Sam Smollet (Frank Jacquet) says that dislodging Leo may take a couple of days, but Chuck and the Sheriff have other plans. They bully Smollet into drilling from the top of the mountain, an unnecessarily slow process that will drag the rescue out for the five or six days Tatum needs to generate a massive media frenzy.
Ace in the Hole announces its gritty intentions with its title sequence, which plays out against a nondescript patch of desert dirt. When not inside the 'haunted' mountain, the movie's gray-on-gray look reminds us of Italian Neorealism. The exteriors have the appearance of a documentary. The pious elder Minosas are often seen in images that resemble Depression-era blight or immigrant hardship. The victims of Chuck Tatum's scheme -- the hundreds of tourist suckers represented by the gullible Ferderber family -- are like voracious insects, crowding the landscape with their cars and flocking to the amusement park rides.
Tatum's media circus snowballs as other opportunist 'vultures' exploit Leo's plight. The tourists want breakfast and lunch and need to be entertained while waiting out the ordeal. Chuck monopolizes the only access to the core of the story, an arrangement he manipulates to his needs. The pounding of the drill and the pounding of Hugo Friedhofer's dirge-like music score seem to be happening only in Chuck Tatum's head. In the film's most despairing image, a trainload of fresh necrophiles spills out onto the desert and hurries to join the carnival, like demons in the The Night on Bald Mountain episode of Fantasia. They rush to buy copies of a vapid country-western record called, "We're Coming Leo". Even the arts rush to cash in on the man in the hole.
The Escudero disaster galvanizes Chuck the way war news brings joy to the hearts of politicians and arms dealers. Chuck backs up his smart mouth with his fists, slapping a deputy (Sam Fuller's Sgt. Rock, Gene Evans). He threatens a sheriff and gets away with it. The more venal are Chuck's proposals, the more success he has. When power-hungry people are motivated behind a really rotten idea, nothing is impossible.
Wilder's dark viewpoint is not only unrelenting, it's unrelentingly unrelenting. Chuck Tatum is Shakesperian in his hubris and barely suppressed malice, and Kirk Douglas' tendency to overact only makes him seem more real. Chuck divides the world into two groups, himself and his "fans." His steady string of nervy one-liners is proof that the sick joke was alive and well way before standup comics hijacked the notion of civility. Chuck shocks the nice office lady by purring that he "could do wonders with her dismembered body." The poor schlubs that can't follow Tatum's sense of humor remain our only hope that the human race is worth saving. In this picture, Square is Good.
The movie's brutality is also physical. Kirk Douglas savagely slaps Jan Sterling, and his giant fist grabs her hair in a shot that might be the beginning of a rough sex scene. A reputation for sadism would dog Billy Wilder from this point forward, especially when critics claimed to be offended by his roughing-up of adored actresses like Jean Arthur, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
The never-miss Wilder judgment seems to have slipped in Ace in the Hole. Wilder thought audiences would like Chuck Tatum because other people in the film, especially the sheriff and his editor in New York, were even worse specimens. Wilder gives Chuck a full character arc, allowing him to repent of his sins and, when he cannot reverse the evil he's done, maneuvering himself into the role of martyr. I think 1951 audiences tuned out of the story as soon as Chuck kicked his scheme into gear and purposely endangered Leo. There's nobody to root for. Meanwhile, the price of parking at the Escudero circus climbs by the hour. Wilder spends an hour rubbing our noses in the idea that People Are No Damn Good (political alternate: Capitalism is Evil). I'll bet that word of mouth was terrible and the public simply disengaged from the film. Nobody likes to be told that their middle name is Scum.
Wilder isn't exactly subtle, either. Chuck's quote of the title phrase coincides with his dropping of a cigarette butt into a glass of beer, equating poor Leo with excrement. Born masochist Lorraine responds to Chuck's fancy insults by throwing herself at him. "Kneeling bags my nylons" is beautiful in its outrage but far too harsh to be believed. By the time that Chuck must fetch a priest in case Last Rites are needed, Wilder's 'fun ride' of cynicism has burnt itself out. The creepy stopover to pick up the priest is either pretentiously arty, or inspired cosmic Americana. A handful of barrio kids converge on the cop car like Martians investigating an alien artifact.
Ace in the Hole is about guts. Chuck punches his stomach to illustrate the concept of "human interest," the sleazy focus of his talent. And the movie's second half is truly gut wrenching. A helpless anxiety sets in as the clock runs out on Leo, a feeling that earth's energies are being turned to its own destruction. The world is a big noisy carnival of alluring distractions, and while crowds dance some guy in a hole is calling for help. Society's capacity for pity becomes a ghoulish deathwatch.
Do we buy Chuck's conversion to a human being, or does Chuck's rage simply turn in on itself, like a mad dog? The conclusion is too devastating to merely shock, although its calculation points to a need on Wilder's part to really sock it to us: Chuck's nasty verbal joke at his own expense, the perfect-to-the-inch alignment of the final 'accidental' composition. Perhaps Andrew Sarris was right when he stated that, "Wilder is too cynical to believe his own cynicism." But Ace in the Hole is a searing artistic statement from a director who could have easily have made a mint with hollow Ernst Lubitsch imitations. It's also far more consistent than socially conscious noirs like Try and Get Me! and The Well, which dilute their hard content with sentiment or liberal preaching. Wilder made movies the way he collected art, with his instinct and his intellect. The failure of Ace in the Hole to find an audience sent him scrambling back to guaranteed laugh-getting crowd pleasers ... with his unique strain of sarcastic humanism, of course.
Criterion's DVD of Ace in the Hole looks great in a very good B&W transfer. Most of the audio is good too, but a couple of scenes have a tiny bit of distortion, as if some duplicate element had to be sourced. Nothing too alarming. The main disc has a commentary by Neil Sinyard that covers most of the general facts about the film quite well. The film's accurate but unappealing trailer mainly shows unhappy people yelling at one another. The short list of extras offer quality prime source material. The main attraction is critic Michel Ciment's Wilder interview docu Portrait of a "60% Perfect Man": Billy Wilder. It was filmed in 1980 but carries a 1998 copyright. There are other documentary movies about Wilder but this one is bright and fast, and uncluttered with unnecessary film clips. Kirk Douglas appears in a friendly-enough 1984 interview that isn't all that informative, and we also get a look at a 1986 Wilder talk session at the AFI. Very welcome are some audio interview excerpts from co-writer Walter Newman, who talks about problems with the story and an original opening logo that incorporated a close-up of a rattlesnake. It had to be deleted because the studio thought it might frighten pregnant women.
Spike Lee appears in a brief afterword expressing his admiration for the movie. A stills gallery rounds out the disc contents. A text insert has essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin, and has been printed in the form of a foldout tabloid newspaper. It even has an ad for the County Rattlesnake festival!
For more information about Ace in the Hole, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Ace in the Hole, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson