Film Recommendation of the Day 2/07: Ace in the Hole (1951)
It will come as no surprise that director Billy Wilder will be remembered as one of the finest storytellers Hollywood ever had the pleasure of obtaining. He was such a diverse and pragmatic master of storytelling that he could move from overtly silly comedies to serious contemplative dramas so seamlessly that it was difficult to imagine that it was the same writer and director leading the projects. And while his comedies are among some of the best written (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sabrina) he has been known mostly for some of his more prominent dark narratives, such as the iconic Sunset Boulevard, the alcoholic destructionism in Lost Weekend, and the infidelity scheming in Double Indemnity. But there is none darker than Wilder’s rounding indictment of the world of sensational journalism in the overdramatic and phenomenal noir film Ace in the Hole. And a fascinating noir film it is despite the setting embodying the antithesis of the noir genre. There are no private detectives in their disorganized offices and no traditional femme fatales in poorly lit hallways. Instead the protagonist is an amoral journalist trapped in the isolated and sunny terain of New Mexico desperately seeking that big story to re-ignite his career. The atmosphere of the noir that persists is in the walls of the mountain tunnel where a man is trapped and dying as well as the dimly lit moral compass of reporter Chuck Tatum, who is portrayed by the eccentric Kirk Douglas in probably the finest of his signature exaggerated performances. Ace in the Hole changed the direction of noir by not displaying overtly the depravity of the world around the characters but instead by targeting the flaws in human nature that hide in plain sight. This theme continued in the 50s with other notable directors such as Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause), Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Rear Window), and Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life). Ace in the Hole works best as a satire of the media circus (a second release title for the film was The Big Carnival) and is astonishingly prophetic of a press and a public who become drunk on media sensationalism.
This prophecy was the result of an observable trend at the time in a post-war America that lost its moral imperatives once the need for breaking stories and constant adrenaline rushes were needed either through printed press or the television. This lacking moral world and the idea of embellishing stories for circulation gain can be seen through Tatum’s haunting journalistic analysis on how “human interest” in one human being in mortal danger is better than 45 people. All of the deplorable characters that fill Wilder’s meditative film- the fed up housewife glad to be rid of her trapped husband, the corrupt Sheriff manipulating re-election off a tragedy, or the rabid journalists looking for a scrap of newsworthy material- are the vultures that the cursed mountain alludes to in the film. Ace in the Hole was the first of many films in the 50s to tap into this scathing criticism of news sensationalism and the corruption that follows with other noteworthy examples such as Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1955). But the fate of Wilder’s morally repugnant character Chuck Tatum eventually comes head on with the consequences of his self-promoting choices resulting in a cynicism that is potent in its ability to come full circle. Douglas’s Tatum eventually reaches a point of self-loathing in coming to the reality of his choices along with the constant mirror image of his revolting self in Jan Sterling’s portrayal of the callous Lorraine as she continously reminds him of his own venality. Ace in the Hole, while originally a flop because of resentment from film critics of the day, stands as a marvelous conceptual film that greatly deserves its stance as the film that expanded the term film noir.