Classic Hunter: “Ace in the Hole”

I have a soft spot for classic films. My list of favorite movies often differs greatly from those of people my own age, and I will always find Turner Classic Movies’ host Robert Osborne more of a man than George Clooney and Brad Pitt put together. Here, the classic geek in me reviews classic movies. Sometimes, it will be as I see them for the first time myself; other times, it will be after re-watching one of my favorites. Either way, I hope you’ll check these out, especially if the majority of movies you watch are in color. 

 

Billy Wilder’s 1951 classic “Ace in the Hole” is a great movie about bad people. Or perhaps it’s a great movie about good people corrupted by the idea of greatness.

Charles Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas, certainly knew greatness once. As a hot-shot journalist in cities likeChicagoandNew York, he ruffled more than a few feathers. But libel lawsuits and Tatum’s notorious alcoholism shot him straight back to the bottom. He shows up at a quaint newspaper in Albuquerque,New Mexico, looking for that one big story that will restart his career and bring him back into the good graces of New York’s media elite.

After spending a year writing about rattlesnake hunts and tornadoes that never showed up, Tatum gets his story when he hears about a local man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who is trapped under rubble in a mountain while digging for ancient Indian artifacts. He sees an opportunity to exploit the story for all it’s worth.

Kirk Douglas made his career off of playing honorable heroes in such films as “Spartacus” and “Paths of Glory,” but there’s none of that here. He’s mostly a snake, and, even his brief moments of humanity are in stark contrast to his actions. He’s not really a character to root for, but, withDouglasthis memorable in the role, he doesn’t have to be. WatchingDouglasis like coming into contact with a terrifying force of nature; the on-screen spectacle he creates is never anything short of mesmerizing.

The campaign to “save” Minosa, led by Tatum, reveals a colorful cast of characters, including the sheriff, who hopes to use the rescue as an opportunity to boost his reelection campaign, and Minosa’s wife, Lorraine (played with icy effectiveness by Jan Sterling), who desires to use her husband’s predicament as an opportunity to split town and make something for herself.

Billy Wilder was one of the first Hollywooddirectors to subvert the traditional archetypes of hero and villain, and one of the first to reject the typical happy ending. Even his comedies, such as the famous “Some Like it Hot, end on a note of apprehension and uncertainty about the future. The same goes here. The only truly “good” characters here are Leo Minosa and Tatum’sAlbuquerque editor, Jacob Q. Boot (Porte Hall); one trapped in a hole and the other facing irrelevance as the sensible “old guard” of journalism is swept away by sensationalism and the desire to be the first rather than the best. In Wilder’s world, the crooked are powerful and the good are often fighting against a system that finds them increasingly useless.

Looking back on the film today, it’s amazing to see how prescient it was about the course of journalism. In an era of increasing sensationalism, Wilder saw honesty as the first thing to go. Indeed, Tatum fabricates story elements in order to give the people “what they want.” In a world of quick-hit online journalism, this idea is more relevant than ever. But, more importantly, Wilder nailed the idea of the reporter as celebrity and active participant rather than impartial observer. Tatum takes an active role in the rescue efforts and does all he can to bolster his public image. In the process, the publicity becomes more about him than the man stuck in the mountain. This was all before the television even came along. It’s not hard to watch someone like Anderson Cooper today and nod in acknowledgement.

Tatum becomes fiercely protective of “his story” as the big city reporters start to move in on his turf. “This is my story,” he tells the sheriff, “and I’m going to make sure it stays mine.” The idea that stories are shared, and that people’s lives are not a commodity, does not cross his mind. Meanwhile, the popularity of the story brings in spectators from all over the country, and a carnival is set up to entertain the guests. It’s not a subtle image, but it is an effective one.

Without giving too much away, hardly anyone gets what they want by the end. And, with a story this cynical, how can they? Wilder desired to reveal the lowest depths human nature has to offer, and he did so splendidly. Despite this, the movie remains a joy to watch, filled with fine performances and particularly good black-and-white cinematography, emphasizing harsh shadows and showcasing the barren desolation of the desert landscapes.

“Ace in the Hole” is a truly great movie, and an oft-forgotten one in the Billy Wilder cannon. And, in today’s increasingly fast-paced and bottom-dollar world of journalism, it’s an important reminder that, when the humanity is taken out of “human interest,” nobody wins. It’s available on Netflix instant until the end of the month.

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