When Billy Wilder, the Director of this classic movie, was once asked why he thought the film had been a commercial flop he answered "The American public wanted sugar, I gave them vinegar". The American public's sweet tooth deprived them of the chance to see a true classic. This is just the kind of movie that those who criticise Hollywood think it is incapable of producing, and yet here is a movie directed by one of its top directors and starring one of its top stars that looks directly into the dark soul of the media, the American public and the American democratic system, no wonder America found it difficult to cope with this movie.
The plot involves Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tattum a journalist whose drinking and womanising has had him kicked off the country's top newspapers. He finds himself in Albuquerque working on the local paper, trying to convince everyone they are in the presence of greatness. One day, when sent out to cover a rattlesnake safari, he stumbles across a man trapped down some ancient mine workings. He quickly writes a story with a headline about a man trapped by an ancient curse and watches as it captures the public imagination and they start flooding in to see it for themselves. But when he becomes aware that the rescue will only take a day he uses the local sheriff, who he convinces he can get re-elected in the upcoming election, to convince the rescuers to go in the long way. It will take a week but will guarantee Tatum the story, and perhaps the Pulitzer, he feels he deserves. And here Wilders cynicism really kicks in. Everyone wants their bit of the action, Tatum wants his job back on one of the top newspapers, the sheriff wants his re-election, the trapped mans wife sees it as a way out of a mundane loveless marriage and a way to make money, and the American public, they want their drama with a nice happy ending.
There is no flab on this film, every scene moves at a pace. Douglas might be the only 'star' but everyone plays their part especially Jan Sterling as the want away wife and Ray Teal as the slimy crooked sheriff. But this of course is Douglas' film. He is at the centre of nearly every scene. Some people think his performance is bit over the top, and of course he was never the most subtle of actors, but the role requires that, Tatum is not the most subtle of characters, you find it hard to take your eyes of him, no matter how low he is prepared to go. Of course the film is littered with Wilders wonderful dialogue, the best line coming from the trapped mans wife after she has overheard the sheriff and Tatum convince the rescuer to take the long route. She follows Tatum to his room and says"I've met some hard boiled eggs in my time, but you, you're twenty minutes". Genius.
Perhaps it's failure at the time was due to people feeling it was all a bit far fetched. But now we know different,now we know how low the press can be prepared to go to get its stories, and it was probably so back in 1951. If you like cracking dialogue, if you like to be reminded that Hollywood has always produced great movies, if you like your movies to look into the dark places that many are unwilling to go, and you prefer a bit of vinegar to sugar, then this is the film for you.
"Don't worry, Leo. I'm your pal." That's Chuck Tatum speaking. He's a hot-shot big city reporter who has been fired from every top paper he's ever worked for. Now he's hit bottom. He works for the Albuquerque Sun=Bulletin, a small town daily which puts yard sales on its front page. Tatum needs the job, but he's determined to find that one big ticket story that'll put him back in New York. The man he's talking to is going to be that big ticket. His name is Leo Mimosa, owner of the desolate, dusty Mimosa's Indian Curios ("Gas and Oil, Drinks on Ice") in Escudero, in New Mexico's high desert. Leo is currently 300 feet underground, trapped in a cave-in while looking for ancient Indian pots he can sell for a few hundred dollars. In the next 111 minutes, covering five or so days, we're going to experience so much corruption of the soul, misplaced trust and consuming ambition...leavened by so little humanity...that we'll want to take a bath afterwards. This is one of director Billy Wilder's greatest pictures. For me, it's permeated not by Wilder's famously sardonic outlook toward humanity but by the inevitability of commonplace tragedy. That there are only one or two people we might think well of isn't so much a limitation as an element that sharpens the fascination with great story-telling combined with vivid acting.
While Tatum controls his big story, and while Leo becomes increasingly desperate, to the point of believing Tatum is his only friend, we encounter a cast of characters who are either stupid and venal or sly and venal. Top of the list is Tatum, himself. Kirk Douglas gives an utterly believable portrait of a man, excellent at his job, who can taste the big-time again and is determined to do whatever it takes to achieve it. "I'm on my way back to the top," he says, "and if it takes a deal with a crooked sheriff, that's alright with me! And if I have to fancy it up with an Indian curse and a broken hearted wife for Leo, then that's alright too!" Close behind is Jan Sterling as Leo Mimosa's wife. Lorraine Mimosa wants out...out of Escudero, out of New Mexico and out of her marriage with Leo. She's a pouty bleached blonde, callous and discontented. Gus Kretzer, the local sheriff, is corrupt and more than willing to work with Tatum to insure he gets the kind of news coverage he needs for his re-election. And there are all those visitors to the cave where Leo is trapped...gawkers, thrill seekers, whole families out to set up camp and see what happens. Food booths and a carnival keep them contented while a drill pounds away at the rock to reach Leo. It's the slow way which Tatum has maneuvered to insure his exclusive coverage of Leo's predicament can play out over the next few days. Leo literally is Tatum's ace in the hole. The conclusion is as depressing as Wilder's depiction of human character. The movie's whole set-up, in fact, is designed to make us feel uncomfortable at what we're seeing. If we've ever slowed down to get a better view of a traffic accident, if we've ever watched with fascinated revulsion as a snake swallows down a live mouse or a mantis gnaws at a struggling lizard, we have to recognize that in spirit we're also part of the crowd eager to see what happens.
What makes the movie stand apart from so much of Wilder's skilled cynicism in some of his other films, I think, are two elements. First, Wilder plays this story straight. There's no sardonic comedy or witty, misogynistic lines. He serves us up a serious, well-acted drama and then compels us to take it seriously while he makes us squirm a little. Second, he includes two characters that give us some relief from Tatum's ambition and our own unease. First is Herbie Cook, played by Robert Arthur, the young photographer from the newspaper. Herbie is a graduate of a journalism school, a little naive and so innocent-looking you want to protect him from Tatum's manipulations. Second, and most important, is Jacob Boot, played by that fine character actor, Porter Hall. Boot is in some ways our conscience, the serious, realistic publisher and owner of the Sun=Bulletin who has the quaint idea that telling the truth is important. Boot is able, although not by much, to show us that people come in all flavors, and that venality is only one of them, no more or less than trying to do the right thing also is. In Ace in the Hole, however, nothing good happens in time. As Tatum said earlier, "It's a good story today. Tomorrow, they'll wrap a fish in it." Same with people.
Some call Ace in the Hole a noir. I'm not one of them. For me, it's a powerful drama, and it transcends genre classification. We might as well call Macbeth a noir simply because Macbeth has a tragic hero, a femme fatale, death and the inevitability of fate. The two-disc Criterion release features an excellent black-and-white picture transfer and several extras which include interviews with Kirk Douglas, Billy Wilder and screenwriter Walter Newman. There is an audio commentary by Neil Sinyard, identified as a film scholar. Amusingly, the booklet insert which has essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Madden is in the form of an edition of the Albuquerque Sun=Bulletin.