Ace In The Hole
US (1951) Dir. Billy Wilder
Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a quick witted but down on his luck newspaper journalist from New York with a salty reputation that precedes him, looking to revitalise his career. He starts by talking his way into a job at a small local newspaper in New Mexico although it is a far cry from the busy world of the metropolis he is used to. When he is sent to cover a rattlesnake hunt with photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) they happen upon a nearby incident as local man Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped down a collapsed mine.
Thinking there might be a story, Tatum enters the mine to speak to Leo, learning he was collecting ancient Indian artefacts, suggesting he may be a victim of an old Indian curse. For Tatum this could be the big story he needs to restore his career but his attempts to manipulate the situation into a huge media sensation begin to get out of hand.
The problem with having a mega hit in any artistic endeavour is how do you follow it up? If it fails to emulate the success of its predecessor or is maligned by critics is your career finished? Having earned his place in the pantheon of legendary and influential Hollywood directors Billy Wilder amazingly found himself in this very situation after the success of (arguably) his magnum opus the sublime 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. This follow up which appeared a year later was greeted with unflattering reviews from the critics and a subsequent lack of interest from the general public, proving to be Wilder’s first commercial flop.
Granted the film itself hasn’t quite aged as well as some of his other more famous works but the story and the cynicism it is gleefully drenched in is somewhat prescient in both its subject matter and the freedom writers and filmmakers have for making acerbic social commentary. Ace In The Hole is a film that points an accusing finger at the media industry, most obviously the press, as well as wagging said finger at the general public who fall for their manipulation turning serious situations into literal circuses. At the time this caused the (newspaper) critics to take Wilder to task for making such scabrous accusations against their industry and for being too cynical for his own good. The fact he was right was neither here nor there.
The story is based on two real life incidents of people being trapped underground, one actually referred to in the film as a precedent for Tatum to undertake his plan of exploiting Leo’s misfortune for his own gain. Amazingly, as unscrupulous Tatum is, he is not the most heartless person in the film. Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is utterly unsympathetic to her husband’s plight and looks at his entrapment as a way to leave him, their struggling diner/petrol station and the nothing happening town of Escudero.
She initially packs her bags and is ready to leave when Tatum informs her that the distraught tearful wife has to stay. Once the out of towners arrive in their droves to set up a nosey vigil but the mine, the profits from their custom persuade Lorraine to stick it out a little longer – until she gets enough money to be self sufficient that is.
Elsewhere the local sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) is looking for re-election and his initial resistance to Tatum’s plans slowly ebbs when the benefits of his participation are spelled out to him. Soon the area is heaving with visitors, media crews, a musical band singing a song of support for Leo (somewhere a young Bob Geldof was watching this….), and even a fun fair while the locals capitalise by selling souvenirs and the like.
Business is booming and the whole nation is talking about Leo but what of the man himself and the attempts to rescue him? Unable to move he only has Tatum’s filtered version of the truth to go by, thankful to have such a great friend who just happens to making merry with Lorraine. A rescue plan is in operation but based on Tatum’s say so which explains why it is taking so long.
If you’ve seen any of Wilder’s films, especially the dark dramas and film noir (which this is rather curiously labelled), you’ll know that a happy ending is unlikely. This is not a spoiler nor should it be a surprise given the caustic nature of the story. Serving as a writer as well as a producer and director for the first time in his career, Wilder is a tad heavy handed on occasion in depicting Tatum’s selfish ambitions while laying the barbs on the press in general pretty thick.
Yet in the final act when Tatum is forced to confront his malfeasance is somewhat underplayed and instead of a scathing speech one might expect to witness, we get a few aggressively barked words. This may seem like an anti-climax but the pain and venom behind those words say more than any lengthy monologue could.
Carrying the film is Kirk Douglas, who is a perpetual ball of energy throughout as the corrupt and self-serving Tatum, a Machiavellian media hound who probably spawned a thousand real life imitators. Jan Sterling may not be as well know as her contemporaries but she puts in a suitably cold turn as the undutiful wife Lorraine, while Richard Benedict has arguably the toughest job of all, delivering an emotive performance while laying under a pile rocks in the dark as the hours of poor Leo’s life are ticking away.
In some ways it is easy to see why Ace In The Hole might have slipped under the radar when reviewing Wilder’s catalogue as it doesn’t quite reach the same giddy heights as his more celebrated works; yet this is by no means a bad film and should be seen by modern audiences for its foreshadowing of scurrilous media practices.