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Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Ace in the Hole (1951)

* * * *

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Kirk Douglas

"The circus is over!" Chuck Tatum announces towards the end of Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder's most acidic picture. It's little surprise that the film was rejected when it was first released, attacking as it does the notion of journalistic integrity, not to mention the wholesomeness of American society itself, portrayed here as joyfully bloodthirsty, creating a reason to celebrate on a foundation of tragedy. It's also little surprise that eventually audiences found it, as its skill and power are undeniable. Without a single hint of sentimentality to it, Ace in the Hole remains one of the most searing American films ever made.

Reporter Chuck Tatum is down on his luck as Ace in the Hole opens. Although a top journalist who has worked in just about every major city, including New York and Chicago, he's managed to get himself chased out of each and every outfit and finds himself in Albuquerque with little cash and a broken down car. He talks his way into a job at the Sun-Bulletin, hoping for a big story which will allow him to launch himself back into the big time. A year passes and the story doesn't come, but he and the paper's photographer, Herbie (Robert Arthur), are given an out of town assignment to cover a rattlesnake hunt. En route they stumble across a story in the making when they hear about Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who has been trapped in a cave while hunting for Native American artifacts. Tasting blood in the water, Tatum uses all the tools at his disposal to create a story, quickly generating publicity that brings lookie loos from all over the country out to camp next to the site where crews are working at rescuing Leo. In order to stretch the story out so that he can milk it for all it's worth, Tatum has manipulated the Sheriff (Ray Teal) into strong-arming the engineer in charge of the rescue into using a drill to try to get Leo out, a method which will take several days longer than merely going in and bracing the cave and pulling him out.

The atmosphere below the cave becomes increasingly festive - a carnival opens up in the midst of it, tourists happily taking rides on the ferris wheel while just up the hill Leo is slowly dying - and Tatum enjoys exclusive access to Leo thanks to the Sheriff making him a Deputy and giving him special privileges. Tatum also enjoys special privileges with Leo's wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who is desperately unhappy in her marriage and at living in the middle of nowhere. She longs to get out of the sticks and, with the money she's making off of Leo's accident, she's got plenty of funds to get to a big city - and she wants to go with Tatum. However, as the enormity of what he's done hits him, he realizes that he's used another man's life callously and that it may be too late to change course. He's also corrupted Herbie, who is determined to follow Tatum to the big time and seems to have lost whatever qualms he previously felt about Tatum's manufacturing of the story. Meanwhile, trapped in the cave day after day, Leo slowly and painfully dies, the forgotten element in his own tragic tale.

Written by Wilder, Walter Newman, and Lesser Samuels, Ace in the Hole is a lean, hard-edged story that takes no prisoners. It is unafraid to let its characters behave despicably, and though Tatum suffers in the end (both of a physical wound and mental anguish), he ultimately can't be redeemed: he's simply gone too far. The film's view of humanity is incredibly dim, both in terms of the people actively profiting from Leo's predicament like Tatum, Lorraine and the Sheriff, and the people who have created a festive community around Leo's impending death, treating the thing as a spectacle for their entertainment. With the exception of Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), publisher of the Sun-Bulletin and a moral man who balks at Tatum's unscrupulous behavior, and Leo's grief-stricken parents, no one escapes the film unscathed. Society, as depicted here, is full of vultures and victims - and hardly anything else.

As Tatum, Douglas is perfectly cast, completely eschewing niceness but maintaining a rough charm and sneering charisma. That he's able to create a circus out of thin air, drawing people from far and wide to his story, is utterly believable, as is his shift towards the end of the film, when his satisfaction curdles into disgust as he realizes that he's been playing with another man's life for his own benefit. His mad dash through the final act of the film, as he desperately tries to set things as right as he can, nevertheless occurs in an unsentimental way - you don't feel sorry for Tatum now that he's learned the error of his ways and the film's ending is a fitting one, cutting off his chance to redeem himself through an act of confession. Douglas could be cold as ice when he wanted to be, and he was rarely more coldblooded than he was in this film, which is what makes the performance so great. He says at the beginning of the film that "If there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog" - he bites the dog, but takes more than he could possibly chew.

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