Appellate Judge James A. Stewart used to build ships in bottles, but he didn't know what to christen them with.
"What'd you have? A pair of deuces? This is better. Here you have an ace in the hole."
The Ace in the Hole, in this case, is Leo Minosa, who is trapped in a cliff dwelling near Albuquerque, N.M. The publicity from his situation could build a winning hand for several people: Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas, Champion), a veteran newsman looking to get back on top; Lorraine (Jan Sterling, The High and the Mighty), the trapped man's bored wife who wants to make a new start in the big city; Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal, Hangman's Knot), who needs a boost to his re-election campaign; and Herbie (Robert Arthur, Belles on Their Toes), a young reporter who wants to make the big leagues.
When Billy Wilder co-wrote (also credited are Victor Desny, Walter Newman, and Lesser Samuels) and directed 1951's Ace in the Hole, there was no 24-hour cable news and you couldn't check the Albuquerque paper on the Internet. Television was in its infancy; many cities that had it only received one station.
Still, as Spike Lee notes in his afterword, Ace in the Hole is a sort of "crystal ball" that presaged the modern media age and people's reactions to it. Lee calls the movie "dark for 2007, let alone 1951" in its cynical vision. How cynical? A carnival sets up at the rescue scene. This, and Kirk Douglas's speech at the rescue scene, may be the source of the term "media circus."
Wilder wasn't a total outsider to the media himself; he'd been a reporter in Berlin before fleeing Hitler's regime.
Ace in the Hole: Criterion Collection shows the classic movie (also known as The Big Carnival), then examines it from all angles.
Facts of the Case
Charles Tatum is down on his luck as his car is towed into Albuquerque, N.M. Still, he's sitting in the driver's seat, reading his newspaper. He tells the driver to let him off when he sees the office of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin.
Although Tatum admits he's been fired and only wants his break so he can go back to the big city, his hard sell—"If there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog"—impresses the owner.
Months later, a news diet of soap box derbies and tornadoes that keep missing town has Tatum climbing the walls, despite the plentiful outdoor activities. "Give me those eight spindly trees in front of Rockefeller Center any day. That's enough outdoors for me," he says in a rant.
"I told you no liquor in the office," the suspicious owner says, seizing on a bottle. It turns out that it's a ship in a bottle—the hobby Tatum started in his boredom. The owner sends Tatum out with young reporter Herbie to cover a rattlesnake hunt; Tatum's contemplating the story that would result if some of those snakes got loose in downtown Albuquerque.
At a roadside stop, Tatum and Herbie discover that a treasure hunter has been trapped in a cliff dwelling. This could be Tatum's big chance—if he can milk the story long enough to win a job with a city paper. Will he go too far for a scoop?
While the larger-than-life qualities of Ace in the Hole (Who ever heard of an actual carnival setting up at a news scene?) do a lot to keep the movie fresh, Kirk Douglas's performance as the tragically flawed reporter is the movie's ace.
Kirk Douglas plays the unscrupulous Chuck Tatum with a passion and charm that make it perfectly believable when those in his orbit—the wife, the sheriff, the young reporter, even the cave-in victim—fall under his spell. He makes believable the swings in Tatum's personality as he shifts from fast talker in the opening scenes to frustrated fish out of water to scoop-hungry reporter to fallen man. Most interestingly, he starts to show a glint of conscience as the story—and the reporter—begin to unravel. Douglas keeps it just a glint until the very end, making viewers wonder if it's concern for the trapped man or fear that he'll lose a big story.
Jan Sterling gives Douglas a good foil as Lorraine Minosa, wife of the cave-in victim, who knows Tatum's only in it for the story, but starts to fall for the charmer and contemplate life with him in the Big Apple. Sterling makes a character whose accent and bottle-blonde look come straight from central casting into a rounded character.
Broad strokes are part of Wilder's dramatic shorthand: You get into the story more quickly if you think of Robert Arthur as a Jimmy Olsen to Douglas's evil Clark Kent. With the story's quick dialogue and compelling hooks, the caricaturish nature of the secondary characters doesn't sink in until the movie's over. Wilder's snappy dialogue makes just about every line quotable and memorable.
When Ace in the Hole is down in the cliff dwelling with victim Leo Minosa and reporter Tatum, the shadows and angles give the story a classic noir feel, claustrophobic and foreboding. The camp that springs up around the site has a surreal feeling; it's shot on location, but I kept thinking of Tativille, Jacques Tati's fake Paris set for Play Time. The picture in this edition was sharp and clean. The sound's mono, but it captures the hurly-burly excitement of the situation, including a country crooner singing a newly composed song about the tragedy, without hitches.
The commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard concentrates on the metaphors and direction of Ace in the Hole. Director Spike Lee provides the modern context in his afterword, suggesting that viewers make it a double feature night with A Face in the Crowd. "Portrait of a '60% Perfect Man': Billy Wilder" offers glimpses of the writer/director as an art collector and Dodgers fan to create a picture of the man, not just his work. Wilder's presence dominates the interviews with Walter Newman and Kirk Douglas, but those interviews, plus video of a Wilder appearance, are interesting pieces that focus a lot on Ace in the Hole.
The tabloid motif on the DVD cover continues inside, with the standard accompanying booklet coming in the form of a four-page tabloid newspaper. Neat. In the essays, Molly Haskell makes the case for Ace in the Hole as noir, while Guy Maddin concentrates on Kirk Douglas's performance.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yeah, it's exaggerated, at least when the actual carnival turns up. And it's possible the movie could have been stronger without Billy Wilder's characterization shorthand. However, great but could have been even better isn't much of a complaint.
If you're already to the point where you never want to see another second of CNN or Fox News, the presaging of media circuses may be aggravating in and of itself. Watch with caution.
Is Ace in the Hole a newspaper drama, a film noir, or a cave-in drama? That question is asked in the commentary. My answer is that it's definitely a newspaper drama and, while I wouldn't call it strictly noir, Billy Wilder carries elements of Double Indemnity over into the satirical film to good effect. The cave-in drama, surprisingly, is mostly in the background. It's Charlie Tatum's story, not Leo Minosa's. Do you feel a little like one of those people under Tatum's spell? So much the better to hit home the satire.
Beyond the satirical trappings, Ace in the Hole also has elements of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, in that it's Tatum's passion for a story, a central trait that could be heroic in other circumstances, that turns out to be his Achilles heel.
Ace in the Hole is definitely worth a look. And you can certainly turn off the cable noise, er, news, networks for a night to check it out.
I've seen Criterion packages that were even more jam-packed, but the extra features on Ace in the Hole are focused and well-chosen.
Not guilty. Hey, was that a rattlesnake over there?
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Neil Sinyard
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