There is a black heart at the center of Billy Wilder’s searing 1951 noir “Ace in the Hole” (previously titled “The Big Carnival”). Wilder was never one to shy away from taking critical looks at American idealism and “Ace in the Hole” may have been his most cynical film. There is no coddling or repression. It’s a stinging indictment and no one gets off the hook.
“Ace in the Hole” was initially considered a failure. That was a first for Wilder and a surprise coming right on the heels of his immensely popular and Oscar-winning “Sunset Boulevard”. Audiences didn’t turn out and critics (many having their prides pricked by the film’s sharp edge) blasted the movie. But in truth “Ace in the Hole” was a film ahead of its time and over the years opinions have drastically changed.
Kirk Douglas was an actor who could convincingly play the most noble of men or the vilest louse. Here he tackles the latter in the form of Chuck Tatum, a self-centered, bitter-tongued news reporter who has lost jobs in several major newspaper markets due to his hard drinking and insubordination. When his car breaks down in Albuquerque, New Mexico he bamboozles his way into a job with the small-time local paper.
Porter Hall plays the earnest editor of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin who hires Tatum without knowing what he’s getting. Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) is the paper’s young and ambitious photographer who naively falls under Tatum’s spell. The two are assigned to cover a rattlesnake hunt but on the way they come across a man named Leo (Richard Benedict) trapped in a collapsed cave under old Native American ruins.
Sensing a big score Tatum begins orchestrating an elaborate nationwide human interest story using all sorts of ruthless tactics to intensify the drama and to keep himself as the chief news source. He manipulates a corrupt sheriff and a spineless engineer to delay the rescue efforts, lure in sightseers, and stir up a media frenzy. Another player in Tatum’s disgusting game is Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), a cold-hearted snake of a woman who also sees opportunity in her husband’s misfortune.
Wilder and company offer up a biting exploration of unscrupulous predatory journalism and the insensitive lust to get ahead and be on top. It’s a blistering indictment that ruffled many feathers. Kirk Douglas would later say the film “hits too close to home” for some. But sensationalistic journalism isn’t the only target. There is a reason Tatum and the vultures he represents are successful. It’s because they feed the insatiable appetites of a public who gobbles up their stories. It’s the people, a thrill-seeking society, who gets the brunt of Wilder’s blow.
The set was constructed near Gallup, New Mexico and at the time it was one of the biggest ever constructed. Over 1,000 extras were brought in and the budget eventually exceeded $1.8 million. But it was well worth it. Getting the setting right was crucial and the extravagance helped feed the film’s central point. As a result the visual presentation is among Wilder’s best.
“Ace in the Hole” is a superb film and one that more people need to see. It has survived its initial drumming by critics and audiences to become a bold and insightful examination that still has every bit of bite that it had when it hit theaters on July 29, 1951. And Kirk Douglas doesn’t flinch in giving us one of his most memorable characters and one that still leaves an impression today.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS