Ace in the Hole
There are prescient movies, ahead of their time enough for modern viewers to appreciate a retained relevance or uncanny vision into how society would reflect portions of films past, and then there’s Ace in the Hole. What amazes me most about Billy Wilder’s 1951 master work isn’t just how eerily accurate he captured the circuslike atmosphere of a news story out of control. It’s the even more impressive and daring choice to make his protagonist, a character who appears in nearly every scene of the film, such a downright terrible person with no redeeming qualities or even likeable attributes. It may be impossible to find another main character in the history of classic Hollywood cinema, from the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934 until it was abandoned in 1967, so wretched as Charles “Chuck” Tatum, brilliantly portrayed by Kirk Douglas.
Appropriately, Tatum is first seen behind the wheel of his car as it’s being towed down the street. He has the tow truck stop when he sees a newspaper office and talks himself into a job with the small-time Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. The dialogue in this scene is impeccable, some of Wilder’s best (though we don’t know for sure what he wrote since there are three writers credited for the Oscar-nominated screenplay, the director’s body of work gives us a good idea), and delivered with steely precision by Douglas. The audience learns immediately what kind of sharp-witted, accomplished character we’re dealing with in Tatum and we’re assured that he’s more likely to change the paper’s principle of “Tell the Truth” than it is to change his own attitude.
After a deft cut to a year later, with Tatum desperately itching for a story to serve as his meal ticket back to the big city papers out east, the reporter is assigned to a rattlesnake hunt a few hours away and told to take along the paper’s cub photographer. On their way, they stop for gas in a tiny town and discover the fuel station’s owner was searching for Indian artifacts in a nearby cave when rocks collapsed, pinning him inside. Tatum seizes his golden opportunity, remembering the real-life incident in Kentucky where a Louisville reporter helped with the attempted rescue of the trapped Floyd Collins and won a Pulitzer Prize and nationwide attention for his troubles while Collins perished after two weeks. He soon befriends Leo, the man stuck in the cave, and, along with the sheriff he’s made a devil of a deal with, creates a literal circus around the cave site complete with ice cream, balloons and amusement park rides. People come from miles away to gawk and experience the carnival atmosphere.
It’s easy to see how audiences and critics could have avoided, even downright loathed Ace in the Hole. Wilder rarely, if ever, lets you know he’s in on the joke. Unlike many other films where the audience is immunized from the onscreen ridicule, Wilder’s movie never gives viewers the satisfaction of thinking they’re above all the madness. He directly criticizes everyone, with only Tatum’s newspaper boss and Leo’s naive father coming across as even remotely admirable, and refuses to placate the audience by giving his film a conscience. We’re all accomplices for buying Tatum’s sensationalist news and Wilder has the guts to call us on it.
If indeed we share the burden for muckrakers like Tatum then it’s not unthinkable to look at the character and still manage to recognize how much charisma the fearless Douglas manages to inject as the acerbic reporter. In an era when movie stars rarely veered away from likeable roles, or at least redeeming ones, Douglas was not afraid to play cruel when necessary, never more so than in Ace in the Hole. It seems like every word of dialogue from Tatum is both memorable and caustic. “If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” When asked if he drinks a lot, Tatum replies, “Not a lot. Just frequently.” I can’t say I’ve seen every performance Douglas has given on film, but I’m confident in asserting that his Chuck Tatum was never bested. The actor completely gives himself to the role, leaving any semblance of Kirk Douglas the movie star behind. He’s absolutely essential to the film’s success and he turns in a merciless, acid-tongued performance.
Amazingly, Wilder gives the audience a character who’s even more sardonic than Tatum and thankfully found an actress as talented as Jan Sterling to play the cold and ruthless Lorraine, the wife of Leo. Sterling’s dynamite as a woman unhappy in her five-year marriage and more than ready to finally escape from him and small town New Mexico. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that she’s completely without sympathy for Leo and an undeniable femme fatale. ”I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons,” she infamously says, in a line Wilder claimed was suggested by his own wife. Her frequently violent encounters with Tatum add a fascinating additional layer to the story that’s also accented by the surely intentional naming of “The Great S & M Amusement Corp.” trucks we see at the cave site.
Like the moviegoers of 1951 who made the film a financial failure, leading Paramount executives to quickly rechristen it the more cheerful sounding The Big Carnival, I was a little dismayed at the sheer bleakness of Wilder’s film the first time I saw it. I’m not sure Wilder’s other films, even cynical and nasty highlights like Sunset Blvd. and Double Indemnity, can prepare the viewer for the pessimistic nature of Ace in the Hole, darkly satirizing much of American culture and society in general. A second viewing, this time armed with a better mindset to enter the bitter world created by this atypical classic, was much more enjoyable and left me more understanding of its deserved resurgence in Wilder’s catalog. The remarkable lines that come out of Tatum’s mouth also hit harder and with more ferocious humor on subsequent viewings than the first.
A reasonable person might then ask why should we celebrate a film so unrelentingly devoid of hope and kindness. The short answer is that many people find comfort in movies reflecting their own frustration with the ills of society. It’s incredibly rare to find a studio film from this era so ruthlessly unconcerned with pleasing its audience as Ace in the Hole. If the cinema is a refuge for those reluctant to accept the harsh realities of mankind’s darkest actions, Ace in the Hole serves as a stark reminder of humans’ stunning capability to not do the proper thing. Almost no one in the film does the best thing at any given moment. Each action is a folly compounded by an increased severity and lackluster sense of selfishness.
I’ve read insinuations that the film is anti-American in its mocking of the spectacle created while a man lies dying in a cave. Obviously, that accusation has more to do with how one defines American culture and society than with the film itself. If it’s anti-American to feature oblivious participants more interested in purchasing souvenir keepsakes (fifty years before the World Trade Center site became a haven for opportunists) and ice cream cones than truly caring about the trapped man’s fate then perhaps Wilder’s film does indeed fit that description. There’s no doubt that we’re dealing with heavy satire here, though, with Wilder daring the audience to laugh at the stupidity of people who could be their own neighbors, if not themselves.
That crowd of emptyheaded onlookers is embodied by Mr. Federber (played by Frank Cady who later portrayed the character Sam Drucker on three separate sitcoms) and his family who were (proudly) the first ones to turn the site into a tourist attraction. His zeal is played for uneasy laughs, but anyone who’s ever experienced how willing people can be to gobble up tragedy will realize it rings true. Wilder also offers a sly critique of our capitalistic nature, I think, as the price of entrance to the cave site rises from free, to 25¢, then 50¢, and finally $1.00. As she apathetically passes time while her husband remains buried alive, Leo’s wife not only implements the price hike, but also rakes it in from selling burgers to the hungry crowd. The $11 she was ready to leave with, before Tatum convinced her that a grieving wife sells more papers, magically increases hundredfold.
In his later years, Wilder tended to personally rate his more popular pictures much higher than his less commercially successful ones, with the exception of Ace in the Hole. He was unflappable in his defense and held it up as a personal favorite. Yet, despite brushes with darker themes here and there, the director never made another movie anywhere near as cynical as Ace in the Hole again. He felt he’d briefly lost the audience’s trust and made a misstep as to what they’d be willing to see. Regardless of his own artistic aspirations, Wilder was keenly aware that moviegoers were the reason he was allowed to continue making films and he now realized what he couldn’t get away with from his audience. Instead, he adapted a few plays and books before finding his other great writing partner (the first being Charles Brackett, with whom he’d fallen out just before Ace in the Hole), I.A.L. Diamond, and turning his attention to some wonderful pictures beginning with Love in the Afternoon and continuing with a triumvirate of comedic masterpieces: Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and One, Two, Three.
Given the general feeling of malaise emanating from Ace in the Hole, I suppose it’s only a little surprising that it’s never been released on VHS or DVD, as opposed to the more expected shock and outrage one might feel towards Paramount for sitting on one of Billy Wilder’s true gems. The tides may be turning, however, as theatrical screenings continue to pop up in New York and elsewhere and Turner Classic Movies is finally airing the film in both January and March. Then there’s the speckle of hope that Criterion might somehow wrangle the rights away since it’s recently come to light that they’ve acquired some other Paramount titles for release. Regardless, I hope the wait for Ace in the Hole’s home video debut is nearly over and maybe this time Wilder’s message will be a little better understood. It’ll surely provide a shock to even the most jaded of film fans, who might have a hard time getting that final shot of Tatum collapsing onto the floor in low-angle close-up out of their heads.