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Case Number 27432

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Ace in the Hole (1951) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection

Criterion // 1951 // 111 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 4th, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Gordon Sullivan has two in the hand and one in the bush.

Editor's Note

Our review of Ace In The Hole, published July 23rd, 2007, is also available.

The Charge

A scathing indictment of American culture.

Opening Statement

On 8 March 2014, Malaysia Air Flight 370 went missing. It was a compelling story, full of a missing plane, some dodgy passengers, and a real head-scratcher in terms of where the plane might have gone down. Despite the fact that we've been living in the world of the 24/7 news cycle for over two decades now, CNN devoted what many thought was an excessive amount of air time to the plane, weeks after it had gone missing and no new developments had occurred. And yet people continued to tune in and CNN kept airing their increasingly outlandish theories in a vicious cycle that only really benefitted advertisers. Though it might be an extreme example, the case of CNN and Flight 370 is a pretty perfect representation of what news has become in the 21st century: a cycle where viewer and journalist are locked into a story they manufacture together with their attention. That's not terribly surprising given the rise of the internet and cable news. What is surprising is that Billy Wilder predicted this situation in 1951 with his pitch-black satire Ace in the Hole. Though it was a total flop at the time, Criterion has resurrected the film for a second time with this dual-format edition, and it's near-perfect.

Facts of the Case

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas, Spartacus) is a competent reporter with a taste for boozing. He's been fired from one of the Big East newspapers and heads west for another life. Car trouble strands him in Albuquerque, where he charms his way into a job at the local paper. A year passes, with Chuck angling for anything he can parley into a job back east. While out and about, Chuck finds Leo in a collapsing cave and decides to milk the story for all it's worth. In the process, though, the story becomes bigger than even he could have imagined.

The Evidence

Billy Wilder's two most famous films are probably the ones he made with Marilyn Monroe, Some Like it Hot and The Seven Year Itch. Though both have their dark undercurrents, they end on relatively happy, hopeful notes. Film fans are just as likely, though, to know Wilder for two dark classics: Sunset Blvd and Double Indemnity, a pair of black-as-sin dramas that are as dark and cynical as movies could come in the era of the Production Code. Ace in the Hole, though, may be darker than either one of those films. While Sunset was aimed at Hollywood and invoked Gloria Swanson's madness, Double Indemnity gave us a picture of human greed. Compared to Ace in the Hole, they're both small potatoes. This film paints everyone as complicit in a society that would take pleasure at the misfortune of others, which is what seems to inevitably happen with widespread news sources.

So, if you're looking for a dark, cynical film, then Ace in the Hole is perfect. What distinguishes it, though, is that it's willing to point the finger at everybody, not just the media. A show like Newsroom wants to paint the average viewer as someone who's been duped by bad reporting and Big Media. Ace in the Hole, however, tells us that no, the average person is complicit in the production and consumption of human misery. It's a bleak outlook, but one that feels oddly comforting in its grandeur.

Part of the reason the film is ultimately comforting is that Kirk Douglas is our guide into Wilder's bleak world. This is the heroic age for Douglas, just as his star was starting to really rise. Though he'd had turns in strong movies before (Out of the Past is an early example, Champion helped make his name not long before Ace in the Hole), this was really his chance to dig into a big part with one of Hollywood's most famous writer/directors. He digs into the part with relish, giving viewers an early preview of the scenery-chewing titan he would become in Spartacus. Douglas is perfectly cast as a ?man's man? we as the audience at first don't like, but respect. As Wilder's narrative slowly twists Tatum and his dreams of a job back east, it's easy to get caught up with Douglas before a final knife-twist ending.

The folks at Criterion have given Ace in the Hole a Blu-ray release as big as Douglas' performance. It's one of their dual-format releases, which means two DVDs (which seem untouched from the 2007 release) and a Blu-ray with identical features. The Blu-ray boasts a 1.37:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer of a restored version of the film. The original DVD looked beautiful, but this Blu-ray is better in every category. Detail and grain are pitch-perfect, contrast is strong throughout, and black levels stay nice and deep, even inside the cave. Nitpickers can find a bit of damage in a few frames, and some fading, but overall the image is stunning. The LPCM 1.0 mono track isn't quite as enchanting, but it does a fine job with the dialogue and the film's score.

Bonus features begin with a commentary by Wilder scholar Neil Sinyard, who has a lot of interesting things to say about Ace in the Hole and its reception. Then, we get an hour-long documentary on Wilder from 1980 which is primarily comprised of interviews with the man himself, who spends a bit of time on Ace in the Hole and its re-titling. We also get more of Wilder in excerpts from interviews he conducted at the AFI. Douglas appears for a 1984 interview where he discusses Wilder and his working methods. We also get an interview with co-screenwriter Walter Newman, who discusses how he got involved in Wilder's film. Spike Lee shows up for an afterward to the film where he gushes about his love for Ace in the Hole. There's also a photo gallery, the film's trailer, and a standard def DVD copy. The set includes the usual Criterion insert, but instead of a booklet, it's folded like a newspaper, with pieces by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Ace in the Hole is dark and cynical. Those looking for a romantic or lighthearted drama should look elsewhere. The decision to upgrade from the 2007 DVD is also not totally straightforward. Though this release is technically superior in every regard, no new extras might make it a tough sell for some fans.

Closing Statement

Ace in the Hole doesn't read like a great experience; a dark tale of tabloid journalism sounds more like the world we live in than something we'd want to see on screen. However, those who dive into Wilder's cynical world will be rewarded by a prescient glimpse into modern life and a great performance by Kirk Douglas.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 98
Audio: 94
Extras: 95
Acting: 97
Story: 95
Judgment: 98

Perp Profile

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Blu-ray
• Classic
• Drama
• Film Noir

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Featurettes
• Interview
• Afterward
• Trailer
• Booklet
• DVD Copy

Accomplices

• IMDb








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