Well, unlike The Lost Weekend, a blu-ray that languished on a shelf here for well over a year, this disc I watched pretty much as soon as it arrived. I’d been looking forward to it since it came up for pre-order months back. I recall first watching this film many years ago on a late-night showing on BBC2. Not knowing what I was in for, I remember it seemed quite shocking. Back then I think I believed all Billy Wilder films (thanks to having seen The Apartment, Some Like It Hot etc), were comedies- the joke was on me in this case. The only humour in Ace In The Hole is in its very grim and dark ironies- it is a brutal, cynical film set in a broken America and as far removed from Wilder’s later comedies as one can imagine.
When does news become entertainment, when does it become its own mad circus? While it is true that the world of Ace In The Hole is history now, the importance and dominance of printed newspapers fading away, its core message is as important as ever- indeed perhaps even more relevant now in this world of 24-hour news channels competing for exclusives and advertising revenue than it was back when it was made. Its hard to believe that Ace In The Hole was released in 1951- it seems quite prophetic and concerned with our own present-day.
Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a world-weary big-city reporter whose career is in tatters, finds himself stuck in lonely middle-of-nowhere Albuquerque, where he finds work for a local newspaper. Tatum scoff’s at the embroidered legend ‘Tell the truth‘ on the office wall. Tatum is convinced it is only a matter of time until he finds a big story that can resurrect his career and get him back into the big-leagues again.
A year passes, and the increasingly frustrated Tatum finally stumbles on his big story. A local man has been been trapped in a cave-in while scavenging Indian relics. Tatum works up a scheme to keep the man trapped longer than truly needed in order heighten the drama and newsworthiness of the rescue attempt. The corrupt local sheriff assists Tatum’s plot in return for Tatum writing him up as a selfless hero in order to help his winning an upcoming election. Even the man’s wife agrees to help Tatum, as she sees the resultant publicity and money as her way out of her marriage while she plays the dutiful tearful wife of the trapped man.
Soon the developing story engineered by Tatum becomes a huge National event, people from all over the country arrive to witness it first-hand, radio crews set-up to broadcast regular bulletins and the attention of the big national newspapers falls at last onto Tatum so he can strike his big deal. Unaware that its mostly all a lie, everyone wants the story and cynically there are plenty willing to somehow profit from it. The once remote, dead-end town transforms into a literal carnival. Special trains are put on to get the public there, a music band sells sheets of music describing the poor man’s plight, a circus arrives to entertain the tourists while they await the outcome of the rescue attempt. All the while Tatum is the centre of attention. But the happy ending Tatum is planning (a big job back in New York after the trapped man is rescued) starts to go awry as events start to spiral out of his control.
Douglas has never been better than he is here, possibly the performance of his career. His Chuck Tatum is horribly realistic and convincing whilst utterly repulsive and deplorable. He dominates the film and every scene he is in, his amoral character corrupting everyone around him in order to perpetuate the story he is selling. The film is clearly just as much a film-noir as Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity. The script is as sharp as you would expect from a Wilder film, with some mouth-watering dialogue and the editing is superb, ratcheting up the tension admirably. The conclusion is as inevitable as it is perfect, the final shot a classic moment.
Its likely one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films, which is certainly saying something considering the company it keeps. But it was without doubt a film before its time. Too cynical? Too dark and negative about the broken American Dream? Whatever the reason, it simply didn’t find its audience, proving something of a damaging flop for Paramount at the time (so much so that profits from Wilder’s subsequent film, Stalag 17, had to be used to balance the books for Ace In The Hole). But over the years its reputation has deservedly improved. Its a fascinating and endlessly rewarding film.