Ace in the Hole (1951)
Release Date: June 29th, 1951 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Billy Wilder Actors: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Bob Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Cady, Richard Benedict
ollowing such masterpieces as “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend,” and “Sunset Boulevard,” Billy Wilder’s lesser known and widely underappreciated film noir “Ace in the Hole” retains the bleak and somber outlook on humanity of those aforementioned predecessors. Here, he also weaves a brilliantly stark drama of murderous ambition and selfish ingenuity. With a tour de force performance by Kirk Douglas, Wilder’s 10th film reveals a fascinatingly powerful social commentary on the sensationalism of the press and its morbid infatuation with tragedy.
Charlie “Chuck” Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a fast-talking, hard-hitting, arrogant, and ambitious New York newspaper reporter who’s been fired one too many times and winds up penniless in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he strong-arms his way into a job writing for the local paper. Biding his time for one juicy story that will push him into the spotlight and possibly get him his fancy Big Apple job back, a year goes by with only “good” news (“bad news sells best, good news is no news”), leaving him little opportunity to regain his notoriety. On a routine assignment, Tatum happens upon a story worthy of his nefarious talents – an unfortunate treasure hunter, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in the crumbling caves of an old Indian tomb, and Chuck knows just how to spin the story. Recalling the grand success of an earlier, similar incident, Tatum quickly begins setting in motion plans, contacts, and influences to drag out the one-day rescue operation into a seven-day catastrophic media circus, in the hopes of drumming up publicity to suit his self-seeking ambitions. But he may discover too late that the price of human life in the chaotic “big carnival” is worth as little as his own soulless intentions and that he is as cut off from redemption as Leo is from the hope of escape.
As astoundingly potent and commanding as Wilder’s theme of media corruption is Kirk Douglas’ performance as the headstrong Charlie Tatum. Paralleling such determination and cynical bravado as Gary Cooper’s Howard Roark and Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane, Tatum runs the show and holds complete control over the disastrous situation, from those in charge of the rescue to the town Sheriff to even the other reporters and their access to information. Rarely does such a uniquely abrasive and stunningly charismatic character come alive on the screen. Add to this the fact that he is corrupt in his morals, unethical in his tactics, deceptive in his manner, and dishonest through and through; he is ultimately the villain, and yet he commands such presence that viewers follow his actions with both disgust and admiration while simultaneously condemning him and cheering him on. He is an antihero of the most extreme degree, with tragic, numerous faults and a final revelation that comes too late, if at all.
As corrupted as Tatum is, so too are the others that stand to benefit from Leo’s predicament. The rescue operation planner is easily convinced to use an alternate method of excavation, one that will delay success long enough to create a media frenzy and false sympathy. The town Sheriff seeks re-election and Tatum agrees to portray him as a savior and dedicated worker for the people in exchange for story exclusivity. Even Leo’s “caring” wife only stays to extort the influx of travelers who wish to view the proceedings, while Charlie’s young assistant Herbie quickly becomes engrossed in the excitingly hectic and escalating hysteria. No one is safe from the corruption of the media and its deceitful promises and, as Wilder suggests, neither is the audience for participating in this carnivalesque spectacle.
In a cryptic retort to Leo’s tragic circumstances, Tatum states, “I don’t make things happen, I just write about them.” It’s an ironically foreboding declaration and one that reflects society’s infatuation with “bad news” and the media’s willingness to deliver it. The rescue attempt rapidly morphs into a three-ring circus thanks to Tatum’s sensationalistic exaggerations and buttered-up reporting – then literally becomes one when Mrs. Minosa allows a carnival to set up at the mountainside to increase profits (a double-entendre for the film’s second title, “The Big Carnival,” which is as bitingly befitting as the original). In a moment of blood loss and mental clarity (should viewers choose to see it as such), Tatum realizes the damage he’s done to create his “Great Human Interest Story.” But as he attempts to rectify what he can, a far grimmer truth reveals itself: no longer does anyone believe him, even at his utmost sincerest. And, in a dramatic closing scene that rivals any in cinematic history, audiences witness the antihero’s revelation of his own humanity lost in the quest to exploit another’s.
– Joel Massie