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Ace in the Hole

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Directed by Billy Wilder (1951) Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Richard Benedict

Chuck Tatum (Douglas) is stuck in the small town newspaper in New Mexico after being fired from the big city papers.  He offers himself to the owner of the Albequerque for cheap, sure that he’ll be on his way out in a few weeks.  A year later, he finds the story that will return him to the top: A man has gotten trapped in a tunnel under a sacred Indian Mountain.

I was torn from the start because Kirk Douglas is really hot in this movie, but he’s such a jerk!  A jerk who wears a belt and suspenders as a running metaphor from the first five minutes.  In any case, the point is to watch him fall, not really to reach some kind of redemption.  He builds up Leo’s (Benedict) predicament so it becomes a large media circus with a literal circus–like, the carnival comes in with rides and everything, as much as the big tent full of Tatum’s former co-workers.

Meanwhile, poor Leo is trapped in a cave and Tatum has made a deal with the sheriff so that he’s the only reporter allowed in to see him.  In order to make the story last, they convince the engineer to go through a more difficult route to save him, which will take days, compared to an easier route which would only take 16 hours.  The drill drives him insane so he can’t sleep, and to make matters worse he’s convinced that he has made the Indian spirits angry, which is why he’s stuck down there.

Leo’s wife (Sterling) wants to leave him and only sticks around because Tatum needs the sympathetic wife figure.  She ends up with a cash cow since the tourists coming by need something to eat and they’re the closest restaurant.  Her character is like the female version of Tatum–she just wants to get out and has no moral qualms about it.  Eh, I didn’t really find her that interesting.  She’s another one of Wilder’s highly amoral, maybe two-dimensional characters, like the boss in The Apartment.  She usually made an attempt to work against Tatum and then gives it up since he’s hot.

Wilder kind of hammers in the morals here, but he gets out some good performances and cool shots.  It’s his commentary on the media, which is lastingly relevant.  However, the throw away jokes are really awkward in their age, but they’re given in the first fifteen minutes, so it doesn’t effect the real plot.

I really like Wilder and Douglas, so this was kind of a disappointment, but that was just my high expectations.  It’s pretty decent, just not my favorite.



About Allison

Student in North Carolina who happens to have an addiction to film, comics, books, and the internet.

3 responses »

  1. I actually think the film plays better now than it ever could, and that might explain the discrepancy between its purely old-school elements (the broad, direct jokes, the melodrama) and the stuff that is more relevant now (the cold assessment of the media, Douglas’ vicious misogyny which was actually condemned where other movies of the day might not make such a big deal of the sexism).

    As someone who wouldn’t mind getting into the actual journalism side of this journalism degree I’m pursuing — it’s not like film criticism is paying now — I see some shocking truths in this. You’d be amazed at the callousness of reporters even on the local level, and the gallows humor I’ve heard from some visiting big shots makes it sound like a damn war zone or operating theater. It may actually be my favorite Wilder, or at least the king of the race for second with The Apartment forever and always at number 1. Kirk Douglas is at his flailing, snarling best: he was the best on-screen asshole of all time, and I’m impressed he somehow put that talent in his seed since Michael Douglas is the second best on-screen asshole of all time.

    • I have a feeling that I started watching Kirk Douglas films on the wrong foot–Lust for Life and Paths of Glory don’t really highlight his usual on-screen asshole quality. Seeing it here was kind of a shock after that, but he really plays sons of a bitch well.

      I kept comparing “Ace in the Hole” to “The Apartment” while I was watching, which is why the outdatedness stuck out to me. The Apartment is pretty timeless compared to the jokes here, but it does seem more relevant to think of “Ace in the Hole” as a movie for media as it is now.

      • Well, any movie that gets compared to The Apartment is going to come up short, methinks. That’s become my instant, without-hesitation pick for the best-written film of all time. I agree that The Apartment manages to be of its time and far ahead of it, where Ace in the Hole generally works only when viewed though a modern cultural prism. But then I think the critics who lavished it back in the day for being a slanderous indictment of journalism — they did, after all, still consider themselves journos — neglected to bring up the subject of people like Hearst, who died the same year this came out. It’s become a cliché to mention his statement on the Spanish-American War — “You furnish the photos, and I’ll furnish the war” — but that really did happen. Even Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the highest prize for journalistic writing is named, spent years trying to outdo Hearst with equally outlandish stories (though he at least also ran piercing and highly journalistic pieces on the plight of immigrants in New York as well as other key issues). It’s weird to think there was a time when people would hang that totally on the idea of journalism, that the idea of a movie that portrayed even the major publications he talks to in New York as slimy, scandal-hungry goons looking to increase publication by any means.

        So it might just come down to the way you look at it. I never saw it before I decided on going into journalism, and I had already seen some of the things evident in this film out in the real world (plus, if you watch the Daily Show, you can see how the media fails every Mon-Thurs). So whatever might be dated in the film, and most films that old are simply because you can’t be aiming 50 years into the future, it’s also a lot more prescient than a number of movies from that era.

        I’d recommend some Samuel Fuller to go along with it. He actually was a tabloid writer back when that typically meant stories on crime and social tension instead of what drug Lindsay Lohan did today, and his movies are even more dated by just how blunt he is, but there’s a sort of gutter poetry to his ways. Criterion is reissuing his Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor (one of my favorites) in January. Those, The Steel Helmet and Pickup on South Street display the sort of journalism Ace in the Hole commented on simply through the dialogue. He also made a newspaper movie, Park Row, that is half-idealist, half-hopelessly cynical. In other words, it is the perfect tribute to the newspaper and those who write them.

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