Has there ever been a movie that wallows in its lurid, misanthropic tendencies in a prouder fashion than Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole? In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a surprise as the ground work was in place; Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity established the director as one who enjoyed exploring the darker side of human nature. However, it would still be a fair assessment to say that nobody was prepared for what the director had in store for them next. Ace in the Hole is now 61 years old, and was released during a time when mainstream films didn’t typically employ the use of acidic dialogue and amoral central characters weren’t common place—in other words, the exact opposite of the cynical world view that most Americans now claim as their own. The fact that the film is now considered to be one of the best efforts in Wilder’s legendary, classic-filled cannon is more than a minor miracle, as it was derided by most major critics, ignored by audiences, and lost the all-important backing from its studio just prior to its debut.
Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a reporter who has effectively been banished in the newspaper game due to his unscrupulous nature. Fired from his gig at a comfy New York City newspaper, he pulls up stakes and moves out west—New Mexico to be exact—in hopes that tales of his slanderous, heavy-drinking, adulterous ways have yet to make it past the Mississippi. Chuck has been relegated to journalism hell, he knows it, and he will do anything in his power to climb out of the basement and back into the penthouse. While out on assignment covering a rattlesnake hunt, our wayward reporter learns about Leo Minosa, a local man of great misfortune who has become trapped in a cave collapse while disentombing Indian artifacts. As seen through Tatum’s eyes, this is the golden opportunity he has been waiting for. He takes charge of the situation before him, manipulates the equally amoral sheriff and the coordination of the extraction plans, effectively dragging out efforts so it gives him an opportunity for the story and himself to stay on the front page of newspapers nationwide. People from all around flock to the rescue sight, creating a media circus that would become commonplace in today’s society; carnival rides are set up, songs written about Leo’s plight, even (steadily rising) admission is charged for entry. Will Tatum’s stall tactics result in a tragedy under the hot New Mexico sun? Or will he realize the error of his ways, that there is more to life than looking out for one’s own self-interest?
The jet-black nature of the film didn’t do it any favors; Ace in the Hole would hit a new benchmark for nastiness in the director’s oeuvre. As a result, Paramount Pictures knew it had a tough sell on their hands, and in an effort to make the movie easier to market, they even went as far as changing the title—without Wilder’s consent—to The Big Carnival, a nom de plume that would stick until it was aired on Turner Classic Movies. Later in 2007, the film was finally released on home video via The Criterion Collection with its rightful name restored. Ace in the Hole would also become Wilder’s first critical and commercial failure. He would quickly venture back to crowd pleasers like Sabrina, films that would virtually guarantee laughter and box office results. Wilder should get a standing ovation for having the gumption to release such a cynical, hard-boiled film noir, one that carries with it themes that serve to indite capitalism as being evil and has enough guts to say that the world is essentially a place where greed and selfishness reign. In addition, Wilder was able to draw out, in my opinion, Kirk Douglas’s best performance. For the most part, Douglas was a performer that had a tendency to overact, and Wilder had the vision to see this defining characteristic of the actor’s style as something that would help round out the personality of Chuck Tatum rather than acting as a detriment. To Douglas’s credit, he goes for it here in a way that most actors would be afraid to. Being a big Hollywood star, he had a lot to lose by playing a character that gives the audience no easy way out, delivering dialogue that flays the audience’s sensibilities with the precision of a perfectly sharpened knife. Wilder and Douglas essentially hold a mirror in front of their audience, inviting them to not be disgusted by what they see staring back at them. It should come as no surprise that the resulting word of mouth was terrible; Ace in the Hole was critical and box-office poison.
Flash forward to present day and Ace in the Hole has rightfully claimed its spot as one of Wilder’s true masterpieces. Gone is the viewpoint that the film is an unfair depiction of the media. In fact, popular opinion has done a 180 degree turn; it’s now looked at as prophetic in the concepts and themes that were rejected upon its release. In fact, one could argue that without Ace in the Hole, there would be no Network. In 2012, our world is one where the line between entertainment and journalism hasn’t been blurred, it’s been obliterated. It’s not bad enough that what Kim Kardashian thinks about the death of Whitney Houston not only passes for a scoop, but there are channels that are fully vested in reporting this version of the “news” 24 hours a day. Taking it one step further, Chuck Tatum may have seemed like a far-flung fantasy in 1951, but his corrupt mission statement focusing only on what course of action would benefit him the most closely mirrors the personalities that reporters and pundits such as Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck have chosen to adopt as their public persona (at least I hope its just a public one). Sadly, Ace in the Hole has one more gift to give modern audiences as it offers an eerie look at how the media and public have come to react to real-life events—the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden or the tragic events of September 11 spring immediately to mind—a fact that would even cause a hardcore-cynic like Billy Wilder to take pause.