Ace in the Hole: Criterion Collection
July 21, 2007
Billy Wilder was a cynical filmmaker working in Hollywood during its most productive time – the classic period when legends like John Huston and John Ford reigned. Wilder made commercial films with a wildly subversive streak. For example, both Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) feature doomed protagonists punished for their transgressions. Even an entertaining screwball comedy like Some Like It Hot (1959) ends with a deliciously provocative punchline. Ace in the Hole (1951) was no different as Wilder takes dead aim at the media.
Chuck Tatum (Douglas) is an amoral newspaper reporter from New York City who lands in Albuquerque, New Mexico looking for work. He settles on this particular town because none of the bigger cities will have him. He’s burned plenty of bridges in his time and is looking for one big story that will put him back on top. Tatum is introduced in a typically playful Wilder way: reading a newspaper in a car that’s being towed. It this image that tells us all we need to now about his character and summed up beautifully without a word of dialogue.
Tatum convinces the local newspaper’s editor (Hall) to hire him and a year passes with nothing but mundane stories for the writer to cover. He isn’t too thrilled about his lot in life, calling the town, “a sun-baked Siberia.” He is bored and berates his fellow staff members. Kirk Douglas paces around the room, barking his lines in the larger-than-life fashion that was his trademark style. Tatum tries to bring his big city aesthetic to this small town, living by the credo, “Bad news sells best…Good news is no news.” He is the kind of guy who loves the sound of his own voice and is certainly not bashful about expounding his personal philosophy whether those around him want to hear it or not.
The editor-in-chief sends Tatum and a young photographer (Arthur) on a routine assignment out of town. When they arrive on the scene a much more compelling story presents itself. A man (Benedict) is trapped in a cave-in. The Native American Indians won’t go in because it’s a holy place. There’s a certain karmic payback with this situation as the trapped man was trying to take artifacts from a sacred burial ground and now he’s being punished for his disrespect. Of course, Tatum takes control of the situation (he can smell a scoop a mile away) and volunteers to take some supplies down to the man.
Tatum quickly begins exploiting the situation for his own gains. Soon, others join in. The parents of the trapped man start charging people to stand near the entrance of the cave-in. The man’s wife, Lorraine (Sterling) is ready to leave him, tired of being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, and is clearly unhappy. Tatum bullies her into staying because it makes for a better story. Even the young photographer starts to see bigger and better things in his own future. Eventually, thousands of people flock to the mountain and soon all kinds of entrepreneurs take advantage of the crowds. A carnival even arrives and puts down its stakes complete with rides and a Ferris wheel. No one is immune from being corrupted by the hype surrounding the story.
Tatum is a smooth talker who knows how to play the angles, even cutting a deal with the local sheriff (Teal): if the lawman gives him exclusive access, he will, in turn, make him look good in his articles. You have to admire Douglas’ willingness to play such a thoroughly unlikable character. Tatum is a monster who cares about only one thing: himself. He soon becomes the star of the story, manipulating it instead of merely reporting it. Douglas has got razor-sharp dialogue to spout that crackles with intensity and has the snappy repartee that is the hallmark of many of Wilder’s films.
Ace in the Hole doesn’t hold back on its harsh criticism of the press and how a simple story can be hyped until it is out of control. The media acts like vultures, exploiting the situation to the fullest. Some things never change and this story is as relevant as it was back then. Just substitute a man trapped in a mountain with people selling dirt from the site of World Trade Center after 9/11 to see how the hype machine continues to chew people up and spit them out with no concern for the damage it causes.
The first disc features an audio commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard, author of Journey Down Sunset Boulevard: The Films of Billy Wilder. He says that this film continues Wilder’s knack for depicting the unsavory aspects of American life. He also points out images and scenes that echo the director’s previous work. Sinyard provides concise and well-observed analysis that never comes across as pretentious.
Also included is a vintage theatrical trailer. They really don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
The second disc starts off with “Portrait of a ‘60% Perfect Man’: Billy Wilder,” a 1980 documentary that features film critic Michel Ciment interviewing the director with appearances by frequent collaborators, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The two actors speak highly of Wilder and tell entertaining stories about working with him. Wilder talks about the problems he had with the studio over Ace in the Hole as well as his life and his career in this excellent look at the man.
“Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute” features excerpts from George Steven Jr.’s interview with the filmmaker in 1986, covering his career and his approach to filmmaking.
“Kirk Douglas Interview” was done in 1984. He talks about working with Wilder and playing unsympathetic characters like Tatum and how he approaches a role like that. The veteran actor also tells some decent anecdotes about working Wilder on this film.
Also included are excerpts of an audio interview with the film’s screenwriter, Walter Newman conducted in 1970. He talks about how he became a writer and how he was hired by Wilder to write Ace in the Hole. This project launched his film career and he went on to write The Man with the Golden Arm (1955).
“Spike Lee Afterword” features the filmmaker talking briefly about meeting Wilder and how this film predicted the pervasive influence of the media and their negative effect on people.
Finally, there is a “Stills Gallery” with a nice collection of production stills and behind-the-scenes photographs.