Billy Wilder is one of the greatest Hollywood auteurs of any era, an emigre from Austria-Hungary (now Poland). He spent some time in Berlin before the Nazis came to power working on movies. Being Jewish he decided to leave the new Nazi regime, leaving to go to America. However, his experience of being a Jew in Nazi Germany informs all most all of his films, he brought a cynicism and bitterness to the screen which undercut even the most romantic of films. He began as a successful screenwriter then moved on to directing. He challenged Hollywood ideals as he went, he was as much of a maverick as Orson Welles, he challenged censorship with Double Indemnity, he made the first serious investigation into alcoholism in The Lost Weekend and even made Greta Garbo laugh in 1939's Ninotkcha!
Billy Wilder made a series of beloved and revered films, from Some Like it Hot to The Apartment or Sunset Bvld or Double Indemnity. To list his masterpieces would take some time as they are so numerous. However, it is this lesser known work which has perhaps aged the most gracefully. Ace in the Hole is perhaps Wilder's bleakest movie. It highlights the dark heart of the American Dream, you may strive for greatness and the pursuit of happyness and wealth but you will almost always, with unspoken agreement, stand on another on the way to your goal. It is this moral corruption that the film's New Mexico sun burnishes so brightly.
Ace in the Hole’s plot was inspired by two real life incidents. One, a man was trapped in a cave during a landslide and another in which a child was trapped in a well. In the first incidence the man in a cave became a media sensation in which a journalist who covered the case won a Pulitzer Prize, during the second accident thousands of people came to watch the rescue effort. Wilder combined these two incidents to create his plot outline. In both cases, the man and the child died before they could be rescued.
Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum a down on his luck reporter who has been fired from eleven newspapers for a series of acts, including alcoholism and adultery. Tatum is a snarky, quick witted, snakeoil salesman played by Douglas without any old school Hollywood charm. This is no Bogart or Mitchum with their shining white armour beneath the grime. Douglas plays him as unlikeable as any protagonist before or since. Wilder shoots Douglas in such a way he look all cheekbones, the angles underlining Tatum's inherent sinister nature. This is such a fearless move by an actor it should be categorised with Henry Fonda becoming evil incarnate for Once Upon a Time in the West.
For a year Tatum spends time on his new newspaper in Albuquerque writing pointless stories about boring subjects. While covering another of these worthless stories Tatum hears about a man trapped in a cave. Sensing a golden opportunity Tatum slows the rescue attempt in order to prolong the story. As crowds gather to see the rescue and Tatum's story grows the film spirals beautifully out of the characters control.
Added to Kirk Douglas's unscrupulous newsman, there is an idealist photographer who is slowly corrupted by the thoughts of his dreams and perhaps the trashiest wife ever committed to celluloid. She is the perfect foil to Douglas as a woman who has seen it all and done more. Jan Sterling plays the role with great relish spitting glorious one-liners like the famous "I Don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons".
Wilder does not restrict his satire to the media, encapsulated by Douglas, but he implicates the whole crowd who gather and by inference you who is watching this movie unfold. He is judging his audience in a way Michael Haneke, with his recent effort Funny Games U.S., undoubtedly approves. He implicates us all in the unfolding tragedy. Perhaps the most cynical prospect of the movie is that everybody profits but the victim. A subtle attack on the vagaries of capitalism. Wilder’s searing indictment of the media and America barely lets up until the final scene. It is a wonder that he managed to get such a bitter movie made with the Hollywood system. If Sunset Bvld was biting that hand that feeds you then Ace in the Hole ate the whole arm.
It is not surprising then that the film was a commercial and critical failure upon release. Perhaps in that more innocent time people did not believe in the grotesquery of human nature, they could not buy that the mob mentality could be so easily constructed. However, in recent years there has been a richly deserved critical renaissance not least by Roger Ebert. The film deserves it's critical re-evaluation not just for the fine tuned performances, the masterful scripting and the glorious black and white photography but most importantly for the prescient nature of the movie. This film called the future of the media 25 years before Network called Television to task. In our age of the 24 hour a day news cycle this film magnificently captures the spirit which has driven the standards of journalism to an incredible low. This is the meadia age of spectacle over content.
Billy Wilder directed, co-wrote and produced the film and it was released in America as The Big Carnival in 1951, however it was known in Europe as Ace in the Hole (it was released on DVD in USA in 2007 with the name reverted to Ace in the Hole) and is perhaps Billy Wilder’s least seen movie. It is imperative that if you are a film fan you must see this movie.