Ace in the Hole

Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, Billy Wilder
Stars: Kirk Douglas (Chuck Tatum), Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa), Bob Arthur (Herbie Cook), Porter Hall (Jacob Q. Boot), Frank Cady (Mr. Federber), Richard Benedict (Leo Minosa), Ray Teal (Sheriff), Lewis Martin (McCardle), John Berkes (Papa Minosa), Frances Dominguez (Mama Minosa), Gene Evans (Deputy Sheriff), Frank Jaquet (Sam Smollett), Harry Harvey (Dr. Hilton)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1951
Country: U.S.
Ace in the Hole: Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Ace in the HoleIn 1951 the United States government conducted 126 nuclear tests at a site in the Nevada desert. That same year, writer/producer/director Billy Wilder conducted his own nuclear test in another desert state, New Mexico: a caustic media satire called Ace in the Hole, which remains one of the sharpest and smartest, not to mention cruelest, skewerings of journalism, American culture, and the base human desire to exploit tragedy ever committed to film. Not surprisingly, it was fared poorly when it was released theatrically in 1951, as American audiences, high on victory in World War II and looking forward to a bright future of suburban homes, automated washing machines, and affordable cars, didn’t want to have their noses rubbed in a gritty critique of media sensationalism and mob mentality centered around a character who could be charitably described as a heartless bastard.

Said bastard is Chuck Tatum, a big-city newspaper reporter played with a lethal combination of charm and bile by Kirk Douglas. Having been fired from seven different newspapers but still assured of his own self-importance, Chuck bullies his way into a job at the tiny Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. He doesn’t want to work there (something he doesn’t bother to hide from his colleagues), but he takes the position thinking that he will only need a few months to seize on a story, turn it into a sensation, and get himself a choice post at a big paper again. When one character accuses him of engaging in “below-the-belt journalism,” he responds by hitting himself in the stomach and angrily declaring, “No, in the gut!,” suggesting that he has bought into his own twisted delusions of what constitutes good journalism.

A year later, nothing has happened, until he and a young photographer named Herbie (Bob Arthur) are on their way to cover a rattlesnake hunt when they hear of a man who has gotten himself trapped in a cave. It’s really not much of a story—the trapped man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), is the rather nondescript, boringly likable owner of an Indian trading post in the middle of nowhere, and his predicament is not that serious. An expert says that they can shore up the tunnel and have him out in less than 12 hours.

But, as Chuck knows, a real media sensation takes longer than 12 hours to generate nationwide steam, so he conspired with Leo’s less-than-aggrieved wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), and the local sheriff (Ray Teal), who is facing impending re-election, to extend the dilemma, drawing it out over days and turning it into a genuine spectacle of life and death, with workers racing to save a dying man buried in the earth. Soon the grounds around the cliff where Leo is trapped are swarming with gawkers, journalists, tourists, radio personalities, and eventually a literal circus. Everyone benefits—the off-the-beaten-trail trading post is making money hand over fist feeding the huge crowds; the journalists sell more papers; and the sheriff is painted as a national hero, all but ensuring his re-election (which also produces one of the film’s most darkly comic, if least believable, images as the sheriff posts a massive re-election banner across the mountain in which Leo is trapped). And, of course, Chuck gets to manipulate it all to his best advantage, positioning himself as the sole source of information and the literal lifeline to Leo, a man no one cared about two days earlier.

Although the majority of the action takes place in the middle of the New Mexico desert, Ace in the Hole has frequently and justifiably been associated with film noir, particularly in its cynical attitude toward structures of power in postwar American culture and its distrust of authority. Wilder’s films have often taken place in the underbelly of society, whether it be in the world of alcoholism portrayed in The Lost Weekend (1945) or the seamy backside of Hollywood Babylon in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Although often treasured for his comic gems (particularly 1959’s Some Like It Hot), Wilder was a keen social critic whose films often challenged America’s sometimes too-rosy view of itself. By exposing the mechanisms by which an incident becomes front-page news, Wilder took on the great fourth establishment in a way few filmmakers ever had. Sure, cinematic journalists had long been depicted as hard-drinking cynics, but rarely had a film so ruthlessly deconstructed the incestuous interconnections among media, power, and an American public that was so keen to feed on both.

Wilder lets the story unspool slowly and methodically, and as it picks up momentum we begin to realize that its structure neatly parallels the way media events do, reaching a frenzy pitch at the end where we just have to know how it all turns out. Along the way Wilder drops sharp moments and cutting juxtapositions, including a genuinely shocking slap to the face that Tatum delivers to Lorraine as she comes on to him. For Tatum, her sexual allure arrives at a distant second to the story he’s developing. The scenes in the cave where Tatum talks with the entrapped Leo have an air of the pathetic, as the desert bumpkin is as keen to believe that the crowds outside truly care about him as he is to believe that his wife will start loving him again if he can just escape. Wilder presents us with an indelible transition when Tatum leaves the cave for the last time, with its inky darkness and loneliness, and steps into the blinding sunlight in which the hungry crowds bask. The juxtaposition goes right to your stomach, and even if Tatum’s last-act discovery of his own guilt plays like an obvious sop to the Production Code’s moral strictures, it still packs a wallop.

Ace in the Hole is essentially a fictionalized version of an incident in 1925 when a caver named Floyd Collins was trapped in a tunnel in the Mammoth Cave area of Kentucky. His story became national news, largely because of the efforts of Louisville Courier-Journal reporter William Burke “Skeets” Miller, who had direct contact with Collins while he was trapped and also participated in the weeks-long rescue effort. Collins’ predicament ended up becoming one of the biggest media events of the first half of the 20th century; at one point, the people amassed outside the cave in which he was trapped numbered in the tens of thousands.

In writing Ace in the Hole, Wilder and cowriters Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels essentially used the Collins story as a framework for the depiction of the sordid backroom dealings and inherent lack of humanity often employed in generating such “human interest stories,” which by their nature traffic in tragedy, or least the threat of it. At several points, Tatum openly references the Collins story, which suggests the depths of his amorality in constructing an event at the possible expense of a human life in order to empower himself. In real life, Miller received the Pulitzer Prize for “the best example of a reporter’s work during the year, the test being strict accuracy, terseness, the accomplishment of some public good commanding public attention and respect.” Wilder and company turn this on its head by portraying one possible route to such work, one that plays into all our worst fears about how the news is less about truth than it is about what sells. Viewed as exaggeration in 1951, we can now see Ace in the Hole for what it is: frighteningly prescient in predicting the literal rise of the media circus 20 years before anyone was using that term.

Ace in the Hole Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD Combo

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard
  • Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man”: Billy Wilder, a 1980 documentary featuring in-depth interviews with Wilder by film critic Michel Ciment
  • 1984 interview with Kirk Douglas by filmmaker and film scholar Michael Thomas
  • Excerpts from a 1986 appearance by Wilder at the American Film Institute
  • Excerpts from an audio interview with co-screenwriter Walter Newman
  • New video afterword by filmmaker Spike Lee
  • Stills gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring new essays by film critic Molly Haskell and filmmaker Guy Maddin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 6, 2014

    Prior to Criterion’s 2007 DVD release, Ace in the Hole had never been officially available on home video. That release gave us an excellent high-definition transfer taken from a fine-grain master positive and a duplicate negative that was marred only by the decision to windowbox the image. Criterion has improved on that transfer with a new one made in 4K primarily from a 35mm duplicate negative, although certain portions were taken from a 35mm acetate fine-grain assembled from several different sources. Restoration, which was done in 2K, has removed thousands of instances of age, wear, and tear, leaving the image virtually flawless. The film’s black-and-white cinematography looks outstanding, with fine detail, contrast, and black levels, which are particularly important in the dark scenes inside the cave. The lossless Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the optical soundtrack print and digitally restored, sounds brand-new, as well. The dialogue is crisp and clear, as are the sound effects and musical score.
    All of the supplements that appeared on Criterion’s 2007 two-disc DVD set have been ported over to the new Blu-ray. Neil Sinyard, a professor of film studies at Hull University and coauthor of the 1979 book Journey Down Sunset Boulevard: The Films of Billy Wilder, provides an informative screen-specific commentary track that mixes history, production information, and analysis of this long-neglected film. Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man”: Billy Wilder is a 1980 documentary by film critic Michel Ciment that is essentially a 60-minute sit-down interview with Wilder in his Hollywood office (long-time collaborators Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon also appear near the beginning). It’s a fascinating look into Wilder’s mind, as he discusses everything from his childhood in Austria to his feelings about his most famous films. If that’s not enough, there is more of Wilder to be found in 23 minutes of excerpts from a 1986 video interview conducted by George Stevens Jr. at the American Film Institute. Kirk Douglas discusses working with Wilder in a 15-minute video interview conducted by film scholar Michael Thomas in 1984, and co-screenwriter Walter Newman discusses his work on the film in excerpts from a 1970 audio interview. Finally, there is a stills gallery, the original theatrical trailer (which is a great example of a studio marketing department trying to hide a film’s dark nature with overwrought superlatives), and a video afterword by Spike Lee that, given its somewhat rambling and unfocused nature, I can’t help but see as something of a letdown. The insert booklet, which is cleverly designed to look like a newspaper spread, features essays by film critic Molly Haskell and filmmaker Guy Maddin.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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