Despite the razor sharp keenness of the jaundiced eye it casts upon the cupidity already liberally oiling the workings of the mass media during these its relatively early beginnings, and the corrosive acidity with which its uncompromising screenplay so presciently chronicles the process, Billy Wilder’s 1951 melodrama “Ace in the Hole” doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t these days instinctively pay lip service to all the time. About how sensationalistic news reporting has become an integral part of the tightly woven nexus that draws on an opportunistic and complicit political class and an entertainment industry driven exclusively by ratings, perpetrates its corruption of the same dumbed down culture it reports upon. But, better than any other film that deals with the subject, this one also analyses with a steely gaze how we are all inclined to let ourselves become implicated in the arrangement, firing a sombre warning shot that knows full well it is destined to be ignored and so doesn’t give a damn about letting the viewer have it -- with both barrels blazing!
‘Tell the Truth’ could’ve been Wilder’s own motto when he (and Paramount staff writers Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman) devised this bitterly sour excoriation of the seemingly endemic corruption which is portrayed in the film as affecting just about every major institution of the Austrian-born director’s adopted home country: but in fact, the phrase is part of the embroidered homily that adorns the framed needlepoint sampler, sewn by the office secretary and displayed on a wall in every room of the sweltering offices at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin: a tiny, low-circulation New Mexico newspaper owned, edited and published by one Jacob Boot (Porter Hall) – an honest, public service ethos news man, whose cautious, fact-checking principles are best summed up by his sartorial qurik of wearing both a belt and a pair of braces at the same time. About to blow this arid, somewhat sleepy city (‘a sun-baked Siberia!’) which is Boot’s home turf apart is disgraced New York journalist, Cuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who bulldozes his way into a job on the paper (despite admitting to being fired from eleven previous postings for a range of misdemeanours … everything from alcoholism on the job and filing libellous stories, to an indiscretion with a former proprietor’s wife) thanks to his undeniable journalistic skills -- even if his expertise does come with scant regard for Boot’s implacable commitment to journalistic integrity.
What motivates Tatum, in fact, is quite simply a selfish desire to regain his former privileged position on one of the major New York papers. Down on his luck and penniless in New Mexico after yet another dismissal, he plans on biding his time for a few months in hicksville Albuquerque as a reporter diligently filing uninteresting local news stories until something big at last comes along he can exploit to rebuild his career and get the journalistic big boys on the east coast biting again. However, Tatum doesn’t reckon on the mundane nature of life in this dusty, neglected corner of America: a year later and he is still working for the same no hope outlet, still waiting for the big story that will get him out of there, but which he now begins to suspect is unlikely ever to turn up. Prowling the news room like a caged tiger, Tatum is almost resigned to the fate of being stuck in this job for good. But if a suitable story won’t come to him, perhaps Tatum can make one to order.
His big chance comes when he and Sun-Bulletin cub photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) are assigned an unpromising column inch filling story that sends them out to cover the rattlesnake hunt that’s held annually in the next town, but stumble by chance instead, while en route, upon a local incident involving the proprietor who runs the failing general curio store that lines a lonely stretch of desolate road next to the main gas stop. An amateur potholer and collector of old Indian artefacts, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), has got himself trapped 300-foot underground in a cave-in at the nearby 450 year-old Indian cliff dwellings he likes regularly to explore as a hobby, after venturing too far in while digging for ancient Indian pots. Since the local sheriff and doctor are both away attending the rattlesnake hunt, Tatum assumes charge of the situation himself, promising Leo’s platinum blonde-from-a-bottle wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) that he will organise the necessary rescue operation. Dismissing the concerns of the Sheriff’s deputy he ventures along the dangerous underground cave route that leads towards the only rock opening that allows communication with the trapped man, and get some photographs of him and an exclusive scoop for the local paper – an arrangement the grateful victim of this disaster is only too willing to comply with, excited about getting his picture in the paper and believing the charismatic newsman only has his best interests at heart.
But while the specially drafted-in construction engineers desperately work against the clock to shore up the crumbling passageways in order to aid an imminent rescue attempt, Tatum blows up Leo’s story into a sensationalist headline-grabber, complete with a bogus ancient Indian curse (which scares away some of the more superstitious locals from helping out at the rescue site!) and lashings of human interest drama based on the equally suspect image of the trapped man’s distraught wife waiting faithfully at home for news of her beloved’s rescue. Just as he’d hoped, the drama of it all leads to the story taking off in a big way, and it’s soon picked up on by the Metropolitan press. There’s just one problem … in order to really make an impression, Tatum knows exactly the course the story has to take, and that requires time: the saga has to drag on just long enough to become a countrywide sensation that draws in the television networks and radio stations in order to truly turn it into a proper phenomenon -- with himself, Chuck Tatum, as the man at the centre of the event with exclusive access, controlling the flow of information.
Unfortunately, the rescue operation is proving just too efficient for Tatum’s requirements; soon, chief engineer Sam Smollett (Frank Jaquet) is promising to have Leo out of his hole within sixteen hours – giving nowhere near enough time for Tatum to exploit the story for maximum press coverage and profit by building up the drama of the narrative over successive days. So, Tatum starts to manipulate events to fit the structure of the tale he needs to tell: having bought the co-operation of the corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal) with the promise of press backing for his upcoming re-election campaign, Tatum sets about abusing his sway and authority in order to persuade Smollett that he needs to abandon the shoring exercise and tunnel down from the top of the mountain using a drill instead. The spurious rational he gives for the decision is that it avoids any theoretical danger from another cave-in occurring that might put at risk the workers who have been busy clearing the passageways, despite Smollett’s objections that this second method will add crucial days rather than hours onto the rescue procedure. This is of course, exactly Tatum’s plan: with the health of his helplessly unsuspecting pawn – his ‘ace in the hole’ – now put increasingly in the balance, as exposure to the elements inevitably starts to take its toll, a simple rescue operation suddenly becomes the focus of a raging media storm: a circus main attraction with Chuck Tatum as its ringmaster, manipulating every beat of the story and giving his newspaper colleagues, the TV crews and radio reporters, but, most of all, the people -- many of them camped out on site -- exactly what they crave. But for how long can his spin and manipulation, and the flurry of excitement kicked up around it, hold off the grim reality of a dying man and a rescue mission that, although paced perfectly for making an exciting story, is taking far too long about saving a life?
Kirk Douglas made a career, in the words of his biographer Tony Thomas, out of playing ‘sons of bitches’, but arguably no director managed to exploit the essential ambiguity of this charismatic screen legend’s compellingly gritty persona quite so expediently as Billy Wilder did by casting Douglas as Chuck Tatum. This was an actor who could play traditional heroic characters as fanatically driven zealots that still seemed scary to be around, while his hard-nosed military officials often exuded a certain moral authority behind their cold rapier glares. In “Ace in the Hole” Douglas is shown at his most stridently extrovert and charismatic, a blond-quiffed coiled spring who is able to bring the tired inhabitants of the dusty landscape around him to life with his indefatigable energy, a man who makes things happen and draws people to him through sheer force of will. One of the many ironies Wilder takes such sardonic pleasure in highlighting throughout the film resides in the fact that although Jacob Boot, with his dreary ‘belt and suspenders’ dependability, is clearly meant to be the moral heart of the film and is given that role explicitly in several key scenes, it is Tatum who motivates his colleagues (particularly the young photographer, Herbie) and brings a sense of purpose and vim to the lives of all those he encounters in this backwater of lost hopes -- even though he is clearly out for himself and is a thoroughly disreputable scoundrel with it. In bulldozing through this sleepwalking community Tatum also organises and galvanizes it into action; the fact of the matter is that, before he and Herbie arrive on the scene, no one at the site of the accident has bothered to do anything much about organising help for the trapped man. It takes Chuck’s no-nonsense leadership skills even to make sure a coffee flask and blankets get to Leo in his darkened prison below ground, while the man’s father and the local deputy dawdle about outside the cave entrance debating whether or not they should venture in.
Of course, Leo’s story is being written entirely for Chuck Tatum’s own future benefit; and the new life the reporter brings to the community is arranged according to the requirements of that story, and for the cause of furthering his own career -- regardless of the truth. One of the first victims of this all-consuming vision is Leo’s disgruntled wife Lorraine, played with cold, weary fury by Academy Award-nominated actress Jan Sterling, in what is now widely regarded to have been her finest role, although Neil Sinyard, in his extremely good video appreciation of “Ace in the Hole” on this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray/DVD, notes that her performance was overlooked at the time, partly because the movie was a box office failure and partly because the character of Lorraine was considered so contemptible and unsympathetic that viewers were inclined to confuse their dislike of her for a dislike of the performance of the actress playing the role. In fact, this apparently hard & heartless platinum blonde bombshell, shackled to a man she has stopped loving some time previously and whom she resents for trapping her in a marriage as parched and arid as the empty desert landscape in which they’ve both been languishing after her several attempts to leave Leo in the past have come to nought, is a complex, conflicted character – almost happy about her husband’s unfortunate position because it gives her a chance of finally escaping him now that he’s unable to chase after her and bring her back with his pleadings; but forced reluctantly into assuming the role of the devoted, doting wife, anyway, by Tatum’s threats of press vilification if she refuses to go along with his fabricated ideal of domestic harmony. Eventually she is persuaded to keep up the charade as the ailing roadside business she and her husband had built starts to pick up a healthy trade at last when tourists and sightseers pour into the region as a direct result of Tatum’s media manipulation, and a small, prosperous town of caravans and tents springs up around the site of the accident -- with her unwitting husband at the centre of it all, three-hundred feet below ground, finally providing for her for the first time in his life! That kernel of cynicism born of despair allows her to see what’s really happening when Chuck Tatum comes to town: she is the only character to see straight through his phoney concern, (‘I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life but you … you’re twenty-minutes!’) because she, just like him, believes that she has been unjustly robbed of a life by having to live out her days in such a lifeless, unstimulating world of stunted ambitions. ‘There are three of us buried here: me, Leo and you!’ Chuck reminds her as the media role of the worried wife threatens to become too much for her to convincingly keep up after he demands that she be seen attending a church service for the benefit of TV cameras and newspapers (‘I don’t go to church … kneeling bags my nylons,’ she drawls, in one of the tart script’s best lines), but Lorraine’s sense of imprisonment is only enhanced by Tatum’s hold over her.
As Tatum goes about his manipulative way, cynically weaving his mythologizing tale of ‘The Curse of the Seven Vultures’ around the clueless Leo’s plight, Wilder is just as utterly pitiless in his depiction of the media circus the reporter’s callous actions prompt, documenting with disarming frankness the commercial exploitation for profit of every aspect of the tale Tatum has constructed around the situation, after the story is mercilessly seized upon by other parties drawn by the prospect of making money out of the fever levels of public interest he has engineered. The rescue attempt becomes what today we would call a money-spinning multi-platform media event – stage-managed to perfection with Tatum as the impresario at its epicentre: the man with exclusive access to the star of the show, thanks to his control of the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer -- who makes sure only Tatum continues to be given the opportunity to interview the ailing victim of the tragedy, as a means of keeping public interest maximised. The once lifeless desert region in the immediate vicinity of the cave system is depicted giving slow birth to a vibrant makeshift town entirely predicated on the creation of Tatum’s manufacture of Leo Minosa as an entertainment figure, providing one of the driest commentaries in 1950s cinema on American wealth creation capitalism and its facile promotion of a white-washed version of US history passively accepted by the general populace, who’re as in the dark and removed from reality – held mesmerised in a Plato’s Cave of flickering shadows -- as the manipulated Leo is in his underground tomb.
Wilder, who no longer has his original co-writing partner Charles Brackettt around to soften the brutal edges on his sardonic satirical sense of humour, revels in the absurdities conjured up by the carnival atmosphere of fairground hysteria the film depicts accruing around the deliberately protracted drilling mission: the once empty adjacent desert railroad is soon providing a thriving business for the owners of the self-styled Minosa Express, ferrying sightseers to the base of the Indian Dwelling where they can then pay for entry to the balloon festooned site -- profits to the Leo Minosa Rescue Fund. Fairground rides and hot dog stalls provide the punters with entertainment and refreshments, and a singing troupe deliver their own musical rendition -- a cheerfully inane popular hit memorialising the victim’s bravery and the ‘heroic’ effort to save him -- that goes round on a constant loop with lyrics such as: ‘we’re closer, we’re closer Leo/ and soon you’ll be breathin’ clean air/ so while you are in the Devil’s prison, keep that spark of life a fizzin …’’. Meanwhile, radio and TV presenters interview excitable rubbernecking members of the public, who use the exposure as an opportunity to promote their own businesses (Frank Cady’s insurance salesman character identifies his company as Pacific All-Risk – the fictitious Insurance firm mentioned in Wilder’s 1944 film-noir “Double Indemnity”) and the defeated culture of the indigenous native community (who are throughout simply ignored as they silently populate the background of the early part of the narrative in the role of subservient, low-paid service workers) is now trivialised and dumbed down in the name of profit, with Indian headdresses for children being sold on site and silly publicity scams, engineered for the TV cameras, involving an ‘authentic’ medicine man coming to ‘exorcise’ the site and free poor Leo of the curse that is holding him in its underground grip.
This utterly damning expose of postwar American capitalism as an amoral pantomime, consisting of nothing more than a vapid mixture of cultural inanity and corruption affecting every post and institution in the land, is utterly remarkable for having appeared just as Senator Joseph McCarthy was starting to promote his Red Scare agenda, and while the Breen Office still held considerable sway over Hollywood’s portrayal of America’s morals. In fact, though, the film was delivering a message that nobody wanted to hear at the time anyway, so censorship didn’t really come into the picture. Many critics of the day considered the film’s obvious connection to the real-life Floyd Collins case from 1925 to be in extremely poor taste. Cub reporter William Burke Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of that tragedy after his daily reports helped turn the case into a nationwide sensation, but there was never any suggestion that Miller had in any way manipulated the story in the callous manner Douglas’s Chuck Tatum is depicted doing. In any event, the public stayed away from a film that offered no respite from its ‘unpatriotic’ traducing of the American way. This savagely uncompromising focus on venality in public life was thought the result of the mercurial Wilder having become something of a loose cannon without the restraining influence of Brackett to hold him in check (this was the first film that Wilder produced himself as well as directed and wrote), but in fact, as we have already noted, its insights now seems unarguable in a world of constant twenty-four hour news streaming, social media and tabloid values. With its stunning cinematography by Charles Lang -- one of the great Hollywood Golden Age cameramen -- and which, unusually for Wilder (who, like Hitchcock, much preferred the controllable environment of the studio soundstage) makes use of a great deal of spectacular outdoor location shooting, “Ace in the Hole” now stands out as one of its director’s finest achievement and is given a splendid HD presentation for Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-disc release, which also features an interesting hour-long 1998 documentary interview with Wilder by Annie Tresgot and Michel Ciment, in which the director talks amiably about his colourful life growing up in pre-WW1 Vienna as the reign of the old Austrian Monarchy came to an end, as well as working as a journalist and a dancehall gigolo in Weimer Berlin, and his entry into the film business as a scriptwriter for UFA. His move to Hollywood necessitated learning his trade in a whole new language, but Wilder’s screenplays would always be noted for their rich use of the English language. As well as talking about his early career association with Ernst Lubitsch or about how he learned to direct by hanging about Howard Hawkes’ sets, Wilder also shows off his prodigious art collection, which is full of masterpieces by the likes of Picasso and Matisse.
The disc also includes a trailer and an extensive video presentation by critic Neil Sinyard which eloquently covers everything you need to know about the picture, while the booklet which comes with the Blu-ray and DVD discs in the package includes an French essay analysis of the film in relation to Wilder’s oeuvre in general from former editor of Cahiers du cinéma Emmanuel Burdeau, translated by Craig Keller.
“Ace in the Hole” is an essential and highly recommended addition to your Wilder collection and Eureka Home Entertainment have delivered an excellent presentation here.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!