Ace in the Hole (1951)
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur
Synopsis: A frustrated former big-city journalist now stuck working for an Albuquerque newspaper exploits a story about a man trapped in a cave to re-jump start his career, but the situation quickly escalates into an out-of-control circus.
Movies don’t come any more cynical and jaded than Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole — which might be why it failed at the box office. America doesn’t like to study itself in the mirror at the best of times — but when the reflection they see is covered in unsightly warts they’re more likely to turn on the person holding the mirror than consider how they can do something to address the cause of those warts. Ace in the Hole showed how the greedy and the manipulative seek to benefit from a human tragedy while those less rapacious are just as culpable for providing the cynics with the source of those riches they seek. We can all judge as we watch chief puppet-master Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) pull the strings, but there aren’t many of us who haven’t slowed down when we’re passing a car wreck on the motorway…
Tatum’s a $250-a-week newspaperman who offers his services to Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall), the editor of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin for $50-a-week. The young reporter is a maverick with a fondness for booze and women, a combination which has seen him sacked from a succession of big East Coast newspapers. All he wants is to get hold of one big story, a major headline that will catapult him back to the top. A year later and that story still hasn’t materialised, and Tatum prowls the small, cramped office of the Sun-Bulletin like a caged tiger. On the way to report on a rattler hunt with junior reporter Herb Cook (Robert Arthur), Tatum remarks on how a real story would be if 50 rattlers escaped in Albuquerque, and how he would first dramatise the story and then extend it by hiding the last snake in the drawer of his desk. It’s a story that foreshadows the drama that is too follow, and which is referenced by the rattler kept in a box by an electioneering sheriff (Ray Teal) in the desert town where Tatum finally finds that headline-grabbing story.
Local man Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped following a cave-in in the local mountains while hunting for native Indian pottery. The rescue operation is relatively straightforward, requiring only that the walls of the tunnels in the mountain be shored up so that rescuers can safely release Minosa. The local mining engineer estimates that the rescue operation will take around sixteen hours, but that’s not long enough for Tatum who wants to string things out as long as possible in order for his work to gain maximum exposure. With the help of the sheriff, Tatum persuades the engineer to drill down through solid rock, an operation which could take as long as a week, and ensure that rival reporters are prevented from getting access to Minosa. Tatum also gets Minosa’s wife (Jan Sterling) on board when she realises just how much money her roadside cafe will make from the media sideshow that soon rolls into town to follow the rescue operation.
Ace in the Hole’s story has all the elements of a Noir, but Wilder chose not to film it in the Noir style, choosing instead to contrast the dusty darkness of the cave in which Minosa is trapped with its bright, sunlit surroundings. It’s a contrast which mirrors the manner in which the gripping headlines somehow conceal the true misery of the story they supposedly report. Douglas goes full-tilt at the role of Chuck Tatum, creating a larger than life character filled with a restless coiled energy. It’s difficult to see him as a villain of the piece so much as a driven man whose ambition blinds him to the principles he only re-discovers when it is too late. His performance is matched by that of Jan Sterling as Minosa’s slightly sluttish wife, who is wholly unsuited to small-town life. Sterling’s performance is nicely measured in a role that could have come across as stereotypical in the wrong hands. Although her greed and selfishness complement Tatum’s own character deficiencies, the contempt in which he holds her serve to emphasise just how badly his self-perception has become skewed.
Ace in the Hole is one of the more adult movies to come out of Hollywood in the early 1950s, and is a typically high-quality story from Wilder at a time in his career when, retrospectively at least, he could do little wrong — this movie was sandwiched between Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Stalag 17 (1953). That it was so poorly received in America back in 1951 is perhaps, in a strange way, confirmation that his depiction of the country as an amoral arena of personal self-gratification and ambition was spot on.
(Reviewed 26th July 2012)