Ace in the Hole (1951)

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*. This is a movie that pretty much bombed when it was released, at least in the U.S. Paramount even repackaged it as The Big Carnival, perhaps hoping to salvage something from the wreckage with a more optimistic title.
*. Critics weren’t overly fond of it either, and this combined negative reception has led, as it often does, to a countermovement of revisionist opinion (with the “Criterion effect” I’ve mentioned before also coming in to play). Basically the story now goes that this was Billy Wilder’s greatest and darkest film, and that it was just so far ahead of its time contemporary audiences and reviewers couldn’t handle it.
*. It’s a safe bet the truth lies somewhere in-between. It’s a good movie, but not Wilder’s best, or darkest, work. Personally, I wouldn’t rank it in his top three. It’s a flawed film that misfires badly in several ways. and the contemporary critics were not out of line.
*. Take, for example, the opinion of Bosley Crowther: “Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque . . . [it] is badly weakened by a poorly constructed plot, which depends for its strength upon assumptions that are not only naïve but absurd. There isn’t any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible.”

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*. Crowther’s complaint, in my opinion, is right on. It’s not that we don’t believe in a media circus attending on a tragedy in such a sordid manner. After all, the script here was based on actual events (the Floyd Collins story, mentioned by Tatum). The unbelievable part, as Crowther noted, is that a down-and-out local newsman like Tatum would have this kind of power to throw around.

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*. Yes, Kirk Douglas’s Chuck Tatum is a force of demonic energy (note the way he shines his flashlight up on his face from below, giving him the appearance of a devil in the mine). He is brash, bold, and even shirtless in one scene. But the idea that he could just show up at the mine and immediately begin insulting the deputy — taking his flashlight without asking, punching him in the chest and telling him to shut-up — is incredible. Then the way the story further develops so that Tatum is in total control of “his” story, to the point of excluding all other official authority and media coverage, is even more unbelievable. If the plan, for example, of using a drill to dig down to Leo from above was self-evidently stupid to anyone with the slightest knowledge of these things, and apparently it was, then there’s no way the Sheriff and Smollett would be able to get away with it.
*. This makes me wonder. Wilder is being more than just a cynic here. This is a film that really hates the media. But in sending them up, Wilder turns them into all-powerful bogeymen. What we hate the most is what we also fear. Did newspeople scare Wilder this much? It’s one thing for Tatum to be a heel, but another to be an evil gunslinger come to town.

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*. Then there’s the matter of the film’s darkness. Here’s the start of Roger Ebert’s essay on the film: “There’s not a soft or sentimental passage in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole . . .” Is this true? I find it said almost everywhere, today: that this is Wilder’s darkest, most cynical film. I don’t think so.
*. Here, continuing on, is Ebert on Tatum: “Tatum drives relentlessly toward his goal of money and fame, and if there’s a moment when we think he might take pity on Minosa, that’s just Wilder, yanking our chains. . . . In a lesser movie, Tatum would share our sympathy for the pathetic man. Here, he’s on a parabola in that direction but wants it to intersect with the moment of his own greatest fame.”
*. But the thing is, Tatum quite clearly does take pity on Minosa. He (again incredibly, in my opinion) disregards tending to his own fatal wound in order to bring him a priest, tries to set Herbie back on the right track, and is finally prepared to poison “the moment of his own greatest fame” by revealing himself to be the villain of the piece. It’s not his fault that nobody cares any more.
*. The point that I think Wilder wants to make is that the system is corrupt because it reflects our miserable human nature. Like most satirists, it’s the entire race that offends him more than specific individuals. It’s the mass audience of slack-jawed yokels who flock to the carnival who are the real problem. Tatum isn’t a bad man, just a realist trying to cope.

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*. What does he think of Lorraine? Not much. Wilder seems intent on making Jan Sterling look as rough as possible, what with her unflattering wardrobe and dark bags under her eyes. But I’m not sure I agree with Molly Haskell when she asks “Have any movie couple ever hated each other so much?” First off, are they a couple? If they are, then I’d have to say it’s a complicated hate. She clearly sees something in him, something more than a ticket out of town because she’s already got that punched. In a deleted line she suggests that she might get to like being slapped by him. Their kiss is aggressive, but passionate, though it only comes at a point when Tatum is trying to keep her in line and away from talking to the other reporters. So perhaps it’s just a ploy. But I think she has a kind of gutter appeal to him that even he might be unaware of.

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*. It’s a beautiful film to look at, with an incredible sense of physical space. The cliff is imagined as a massive, operatic stage, and also a blank screen. I think Wilder might have missed a trick in not having movies projected on to it at night for the crowds. The sheriff puts his name up there, recognizing prime advertising space. But everything that’s really going on is behind the curtain, a secret place no one but Tatum and those close to him is allowed to enter.

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*. It’s also an interesting movie to listen to. I’m not talking about the script, which is sharp as usual, but all the other major and minor cues on the soundtrack: the police cruiser’s siren, the pounding of the drill standing in for Leo’s heartbeat, the clattering of Tatum’s typeriter and teletype machine and the rattle of the rattlesnake in the sheriff’s box. This is careful, total filmmaking that pays attention to every aspect of the production.
*. Where it falls down is in fitting these different aspects together. The pace lags at times, in particular with the scenes involving Tatum and Leo. Their interactions are dull, and I’m not even sure they’re that necessary to the story. In fact, it might have helped a bit if less time had been put into making Leo into a kind of slow saint.

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*. It’s often been treated as a type of noir. That’s there, to be sure, but there are two films I am reminded of that suggest connections that maybe aren’t as obvious.
*. The first is Once Upon a Time in the West. Doesn’t this movie have something to say about how the West was won and the opening of the frontier, a manifest destiny driven by faith and the lust for gold (the two forces contrasted starkly here)? Maybe it’s just the sight of that train cutting into the desert, and the way a small “community” springs up overnight beside the tracks. It’s certainly a way of brining people to Escudero that’s more efficient than the lousy bus service.

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*. Another later echo I pick up is in La Dolce Vita. Again, maybe it’s just a shared image: Douglas and Mastroianni banging away on their portable typewriters. But in the crowds surrounding the caves there’s also a prefiguring of Fellini’s mob come to witness the miracle, which also draws a sprawling circus of news coverage.

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*. Press-bashing would get darker. Here Leo’s death is treated as at least partially accidental, but subsequent movies about the news biz will culminate in acts of cold-blooded homicide. Tatum is certainly culpable in the death of Leo, but this wasn’t his intention. In Network, To Die For, and Nightcrawler murder will be planned and deliberate, as we see cynicism gradually give way to psychopathy.

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