Billy Wilder, 1951
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall
Reporter Chuck Tatum drives into Albuquerque determined to get a job with the local paper, where he plans to strike gold on a big story. Though Tatum has worked for some impressive papers in the past, he has been fired from everywhere from New York to Chicago. After working there for a year, bored out of his skull, he stumbles across a story in the desert. Leo Minosa, a local man, has become trapped during an illicit hunt for Indian artifacts in the caves. Tatum works with the crooked sheriff and manipulates both Leo and his sleazy wife Lorraine, so that the rescue effort will take longer, allowing a bigger story to emerge. Tatum strikes it rich with the story – which includes getting back his old job in New York – and turns the desert into a tourist area, complete with a carnival, rides, food, and games. But while Tatum is basking in the glory, Leo is beginning to die, still trapped in the cave…
This was director Billy Wilder’s first film without his long-time writing partner Charles Brackett and, perhaps free of the latter’s influence, it was Wilder’s darkest film to date. Unapologetically grim and caustic, Ace in the Hole criticizes America media, spectatorship, and developing trends in American culture. As a result, this was his first financial flop and it was heavily criticized at the time. Deservedly, in has been named a classic in more recent years.
Written by Wilder, who also acted as producer for the first time, Ace in the Hole is based on two similar stories. W. Floyd Collins was trapped in a Kentucky landslide in 1925 and a California toddler was trapped in an abandoned well in 1949. Both victims died before their rescue and in the case of Collins, the journalist assigned to the story – William Burke Miller – won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the vent.
Kirk Douglas is a force to behold as Charlie Tatum. He gives one of the finest performances in all of 1950s cinema, blazing a quick-talking, cynical, abrasive trail through the film that is impossible to forget once you’ve seen the film. He makes the unlikable, over-the-top Tatum into a believable character, part hard-working man in search of the American dream and part diabolical manipulator, twisting those around him to fit his doomed plan. Tatum is one of film noir’s most memorable antiheroes, whose Mephistophelean power comes mostly through speeches, his writing, and the media. His language has the ability to infect and change those around him.
Much like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, Wilder branches out from the typical noir plot-line, yet again creating his own branch in the series. While newspapermen and journalists are the subject of other films noir (Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps comes immediately to mind), Ace in the Hole is set in the desert rather than the city and the film’s moral center is Tatum’s boss, the head of an Albuquerque newspaper. The film actually bears a lot in common with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s sun-drenched, sweaty, dirty, and anxiety-inducing masterpiece, The Wages of Fear.
As with Clouzot’s dark and desperate film, Ace in the Hole is an uncomfortably scathing work. Wilder does one worse than simply skewering journalists, newspapers, and the media. He also betrays the often vile, blood thirsty nature of audiences, of the American public in general. The sweaty, consuming herds that move in to the fairground are depicted in some dazzling long shots, arriving by car and train to stake out what is essentially a helpless man’s death rattle. Reality TV is one of my least favorite things in all of media and Wilder preemptively criticizes it here. While many of his films have aged well, there is something special about Ace in the Hole, which remains a spot-on piece of social criticism. It is perhaps more apt today than it was in 1951, in the current age of 24-hour news and the constant barrage of social media.
All three of Wilder’s film noir efforts open with a similar theme: a man in a car. In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff is driving to the Dietrichson home to sell insurance. In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis gets a flat tire and is forced to turn into Norma Desmond’s mansion to escape repo men. Ace in the Hole continues this theme, carrying it to greater heights. Charlie Tatum is sitting in his car while it is towed through Albuquerque. He commands the tow driver to pull over at a newspaper office and brazenly enters, as though he owns the place. This sets the tone of the film and his bravado disguises a somewhat crippled man whose vices have all but destroyed his chance at a brilliant, successful career.
Though Wilder had homicidally selfish, manipulative characters before Ace in the Hole – such as Phyllis in Double Indemnity and Norma in Sunset Boulevard – Chuck Tatum is perhaps the culmination of this. The weak male characters of both of those films are represented here by both Lorraine and Leo. Though they know at some level that Tatum is bad for them, neither of them can separate from him or write him off. Jan Sterling is great as Lorraine, Leo’s despicable wife. It is actually Lorraine’s character that makes it clear how cold and calculating Tatum actually is. He appeals to her sense of greed to get her to stay and manipulates her into playing the role of the grieving widow. When she clumsily attempts to seduce him, he turns her desire against her. He also engages in escalating physical violence against her, slapping and choking her when she wants to deviate from his plan.
The black and white cinematography from Charles Lang Jr (The Big Heat, The Magnificent Seven) is a mixture of the darkness and grime typically found in noir, combined with the harsh glare of the desert sun as it beats down upon the disgusting festivities. Wilder was known for his strength as a writer more so than as a stylist, but Ace in the Hole contains none of his supposed visual blandness. The film’s style and cinematography are absolutely spectacular and match perfectly with the subject matter.
Wilder’s writing is generally excellent, but here it is in a different class. Despite the circus of horrors that unfolds, everything feels plausible, inevitable. Tatum is somehow still likable and his pursuit of success is sympathetic, despite the fact that he is causing a man’s death and corrupting an entire population. Ace in the Hole comes with the highest possible recommendation. It is available on Blu-ray from Criterion and from Masters of Cinema in the U.K. If you haven’t seen it yet, it should go right at the top of your list.