Ace in the Hole
Watching movies long after they are made allows us to look at them in ways contemporary viewers could not. A point in particular is that we can recognize a movie for being ahead of its time. This is certainly the case with “Ace in the Hole”.
This is a story about news people who go far outside what is morally and ethically right to boost a news item for maximum return. The item becomes worth much more than the people at the heart of it while the media have their own corrupt agenda that has nothing or little to do with the actual crisis. It is a very modern story and one that is very relevant today where media often are willing to go far out of their way to score points on a story.
The surprise here is that “Ace in the Hole” was made at the height of the McCarthy inquisition where anything that could be read as a criticism of American values would get a harsh reception, both in the legal system and in the public. Billy Wilder as both screenwriter, director and producer delivers a merciless criticism of journalism as sensationalist entertainment and thereby put a big, fat question mark on the integrity of a national institution. How did he dare? And how did he get away with it?
Well, the answer to the first question is simple: He was Billy Wilder, and he was scared of nobody. To the second question the answer is that Wilder had secured so much control on the movie that he could practically get away with anything. However the movie did not do well at the box office. Not in America, though it did do quite well in Europe, and the reason is probably that the public at this time was not ready for this kind of sarcasm.
It is a shame really because this is the kind of movie that, exaggerations aside, points out a real issue that the public has to deal with or at least be aware of, namely that of unethical journalism.
Anyway, I am way ahead of myself. “Ace in the Hole” is the story of newspaper journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) who, having been fired from quite a few newspapers, finds himself begging for a job at a local newspaper in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tatum is a self-centered asshole who clearly thinks that he is too big a star for this place, but to my surprise he actually lands the job. Fast forward one year and Tatum is getting out of his mind with boredom. He is desperately waiting for that break that will give him fame and bring him back to the big city.
When a local fellow gets stuck in an old Indian cave Tatum sees his chance. This is the break he has been waiting for if he can just make the story big enough. Tatum is like the energizer bunny as he orchestrates the biggest story in years and soon he has the attention of media and public from all over the country who follow him and the story of poor Leo stuck in the mine.
It is very clearly wrong what Tatum is doing. They could have gotten Leo out in less than a day by shoring up the walls with timber, but instead they insist on a ridiculous drilling project from the top of the hill because this story need to last for a week. A single day simply will not do. Tatum get the law on his side by convincing the corrupt sheriff that this spectacle is just what he needs to get reelected and thus he cajole, tease or threatens everybody to work with him on this show. And a show it is. Soon the fields in front of the cave is a fairground with rides, music and food and none of it of course will help Leo a bit, but make Tatum fly plenty.
In all this hubbub we can almost forget that Tatum is an asshole. The energy he exudes is contagious and we almost admire him as does the young photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur) who becomes something of a fan. Tatum is driven and ruthless, but he is also capable and making it happen and is thus both hero and villain in one person.
Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is just as rotten. She has stayed for five years in the middle of nowhere and just want to get out. She quickly finds out that the spectacle will give her lots of dough and thereby the means to get away in style. She cares nothing for Leo, but takes a liking to Tatum. Tatum will have none of that. To him she is a pawn who has to play her piece in the spectacle and that is all. It is easy to despise Lorraine, but she is also a person he is stuck in a place and marriage she does not want and so grabs the opportunity to fix that situation. That is not entirely unsympathetic.
And so everybody are lined up to milk this event to the max.
But then, at the crest of the wave, disaster strikes. Inside the cave the man whom we have almost forgotten is about to die and will not last till the drill reach him. It is also too late to go in the easy way. The entire spectacle comes crashing down around Tatum and he realizes that he with this project of personal fame has killed the very man he exploited. To make matters worse Leo never realizes that Tatum has fooled him, but to the end believes him his friend. The self-destruction of Chuck Tatum is spectacular.
Kirk Douglas is given a lot of great lines and he is the spokesman of the cynicism Wilder seems to have about media. For example he emphasizes the human interest angle and points out that people cannot relate to hundreds or thousands of dead, but one person in danger, that grabs the imagination of people. It is sad but true, even today. I think Wilder may be thinking with some bitterness about the holocaust where he lost family members, and object to how the media in that light can go overboard when it is just a single person who is in trouble. In line with Tatum’s role as both protagonist and antagonist he voices arguments both for and against what he as representative of the media is doing. At times emphasizes the greatness of the show while at others cynically mock it.
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the film actually follow many of the Film Noir tropes. Tatum is the anti-hero who through personal failings rides towards his doom, helped on the way by a vicious femme fatale. The hard, cynical tone is also in line with film noir and so is the gritted dialogue.
Billy Wilder’s charge against media abuse is witty, intelligent and biting in its sarcasm, but it is also a damn good movie and one that has not gotten old. Wilder, you old fox, you have done it again.