The 40s and 50s were particularly cynical times for filmmaker Billy Wilder, as far as his films went at least. Other than that he was riding high, making several of his best features during this period; starting out with his first American film in 1942, The Major and the Minor, he then set about embracing the noir, with the scathing and gut-wrenching, Double Indemnity (1944). Other key Wilder films from these two decades include The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955) Love in the Afternoon (1957) Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959). And then there was Ace in the Hole (1951), his follow-up to Sunset Boulevard (the latter being the last film he co-wrote with long term sparring partner Charles Brackett).
Ace in the Hole is an unsung masterpiece that sadly, and inexplicably, seems to get buried under the accolades of his wider known films. And it is a masterpiece. A masterpiece in the only way Wilder knew how to make them. It is biting, satirical, and uncompromising, when it comes to exposing all of humanity’s flaws and weakness: lust, greed, narcissism, corruption, deception, it’s all there. With Ace in the Hole, Wilder doesn’t hold back.
This is why I love Billy Wilder. He’s so honest about the human condition. He never wrapped things up in some sort of Hollywood sugarcoating. He criticised just about everything he saw around him, including Hollywood itself, the media, the corporate ladder. He showed us that men can be weak, frail, greedy, lustful souls, caught up in matters solely related to their own shallow egos. And yet, somehow, he still made us care about them. Whether it was the spineless CC Baxter, in The Apartment (1960), or poor old Joe Gillis, who really deserved all he got, and more, in Sunset Boulevard, the fact his male protagonists were so rubbish at everything in life, is perhaps what made us care. Ace in the Hole’s Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), on the other hand, is hard to love. He really is quite the piece of work, but then that’s what makes the film so special.
The story is quite simple, but it is a masterwork in construction. Chuck Tatum is a washed up journalist, who has been given way too many chances by big city bosses, and lost way too many jobs. He’s still full of himself though, in a way that makes you just want to punch him in the face every time he speaks. He ends up in Albuquerque, after his smashed up car is towed there, so rolls right into the local newspaper, and talks himself into a job. Of course, to him this is a just a stopping off point, until he hits the bigtime again, with his next huge story. Yet, a year later, he’s still there, believing he’s too good for the place. And so it is that he and his young assistant photographer, Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), head off to cover some sort of rattlesnake convention in the middle of nowhere. Only they don’t get there. Instead, Chuck finds the story he’s been waiting for. At least, in a fashion, he does. The rest he makes up as he goes along.
While stopping for fuel the two newspapermen discover that a local diner owner has got himself trapped in a cave, where he was searching for precious artefacts when the walls collapsed. Eager to get the scoop, Chuck is straight in there taking photos through the gap, and befriending the trapped man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict). What happens next is just incredible. Somehow Chuck, who also gets himself involved with Leo’s viper of a wife — the money grabbing, jaded, Lorraine (Jan Sterling) — turns the entire thing into a media circus, where he is in control. The results are nasty, to say the very least.
You can’t blame him really, because Tatum is a typical Wilder male protagonist in many ways. Wilder liked to play it that way, and so the character’s masculinity has been compromised, and his ego has been shattered. The director seemed to enjoy putting his leads into desperate situations just to see how hard they would punch their way back out. Tatum believes he’s a big shot, but he’s just a washed up fool, who, until the cave-in, is destined to spend his days writing local interest stories for an editor who doesn’t believe in scandal. This ties in with almost all of Wilder’s male leads; be it through occupation, lack of money, or general disgrace, they are all compromised and broken in one way or another.
Then comes the art of illusion, which makes this another totally “Wilder” film. Even as far back as the director’s scripts for other filmmakers in Hollywood, before he went on to make The Major and the Minor — for people like Mitchell Leisen for example, in Midnight (1939) — every character Wilder had a hand in writing is playing out some sort of charade; either with themselves, or other people. Everyone is deceptive, although motive varies. Some, like CC Baxter in The Apartment, are just trying to get by (although Baxter is still motivated by ego). But then you get those like Tatum, who tell lies purely to get what they want. And it’s totally this unscrupulous approach that puts Tatum on a par with Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson. Both of these characters will stop at nothing to get what they want. Which is why Ace in the Hole deserves to be celebrated just as much as the classic noir.
But there’s more. When you take into consideration this film is 67 years old, 67 fucking years, and it’s still as relevant as it ever was, if not more, it becomes apparent what a genius Wilder was. He understood how the media lie and cheat their way for stories. He understood how people just lap that up without ever asking questions. This poor guy in the cave becomes a spectacle, an absurd circus, as more and more people, and reporters, arrive wanting to get in on the action. The sheriff sees it as a chance for promotion. Bystanders are desperate to get their own 15 minutes of fame. The wife thinks she can make a load of money serving meals to the visitors so she can leave the trapped man when he’s finally released. And Tatum, he has exclusive rights to the story, because he’s the ringmaster at the centre of it all. He even delays the rescue mission just so he can extract enough days to get him back into the major headlines. The entire thing becomes so grotesque that you don’t want to look anymore, but you can’t help it. There are scenes where even a band shows up and start singing a song to the massive crowd assembled, about this dying guy being freed, which is as ludicrous as it sounds. On this note, the crowd scenes in Ace in the Hole remind me very much of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), and the story of the miracle tree, where people are so desperate to be part of this miracle they pull the tree to shreds. Only here, it’s not a tree. It’s a man’s life they are pulling apart.
Wilder’s films constantly prove to be timeless. Ok, if Ace in the Hole was made today, social media would be in there, and Leo would probably be having a Snapchat with outsiders, but the same levels of self serving narcissism ring true; as do the levels of manipulation and corruption in the media. Ace in the Hole is like a modern day fable in that way. Wilder exposed these truths so perhaps we could learn from them, and become better. The fact that we haven’t just shows we still need Billy Wilder. And sadly, I think we always will.