Wednesday, March 10, 2010

#42: Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)

Released: July 29, 1951

Director: Billy Wilder; Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman and Victor Desny (uncredited); Cinematography: Charles B. Lang, Jr.; Music: Hugo Friedhofer; Producer: Billy Wilder; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Kirk Douglas (Chuck Tatum), Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa), Robert Arthur (Herbie Cook), Porter Hall (Jacob Q. Boot), Frank Cady (Mr. Federber), Richard Benedict (Leo Minosa), Ray Teal (Sheriff Kretzer), Lewis Martin (McCardle), John Berkes (Papa Minosa), Frances Dominguez (Mama Minosa), Frank Jaquet (Sam Smollett), Harry Harvey (Dr. Hilton)

- “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you… you're twenty minutes.”

I am very pleased to see Billy Wilder finally enter this countdown, as for the last few weeks I have been on a serious Wilder kick. Outside of the regular viewing that I have been doing in re-watching a lot of noirs to map out exact rankings, the majority of my movie watching has been devoted to Wilder, who is quite possibly becoming my favorite director – as in favorite of all time. The merits of Wilder, as both a director and a writer, would fill an entire essay on their own, but for now I’ll just point to his versatility as being the thing that never ceases to fascinate me. Comedies (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment), mysteries (Witness for the Prosecution), and film noir (Double Indemnity) are all areas where Wilder was able to shine with equal proficiency. I go back and forth on which Wilder I like best. Being the noir fanatic that I am, it’s hard to deny the lure of masterpieces like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. Lately I have been very much into the caustic wit that Wilder is able to infuse into each of his comedies, combining his fantastic writing ability with his obvious directorial skills.

All of which makes Ace in the Hole an interesting film for me, because I look at it as something of a cross between a Wilder noir and a Wilder comedy. Although it is set mostly outdoors on a New Mexico mountain, the noir credentials are solidly established through themes like the distorted American Dream, entrapment, and a woman that – if she is not a true femme fatale – is at the very least hardhearted. By comedy, I don’t mean laugh-out-loud, rollicking humor like Wilder would deliver in later films. The comedy here is the result of a cynical, biting script, the bizarre, out of control scenario, and one-liners and humor so dry that it nearly cracks the celluloid.

Kirk Douglas turns in a whirlwind performance as veteran reporter Chuck Tatum, a onetime big city newsman who is stranded in New Mexico looking for a job. He swallows his pride and signs on at the small town Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. But he longs to find one popular story that will be his ticket back to the big city dailies. While on assignment for a rattlesnake hunt, Tatum and young photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur) stop at a filling station and hear about a local accident. They learn that a young man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has recently become trapped in a cave while hunting for Indian artifacts. Seeing the opportunity for a national headline, Tatum moves quickly to begin manipulating the situation to his advantage. He begins to manufacture a national drama out of a local incident, building the story bigger and bigger. Tatum conspires with the local sheriff and lead engineer to leave Leo in the cave for a few days longer than necessary so that the story can continue to swell. He forces Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) to stay in town and play the grieving wife rather than allowing her to leave as she originally planned to do. What results is a media circus that was probably too outrageous to be believed in 1951, but today looks frighteningly prophetic.

The prophetic nature of it all is what is most striking. The idea of people flocking to a remote mountainside in New Mexico, buying souvenirs and concessions as a man is trapped in a mountain sounds ridiculous? Oh, really… how about thousands camping out for days to make fools of themselves on a national television singing competition? Or paparazzi camped out on Los Angeles streets to make sure and document what type of coffee the latest Hollywood star is drinking? Suddenly, it seems less preposterous. But it’s not just the media that Wilder attacks – he lampoons everyone involved. Tatum is the heartless reporter, someone who will let a man die just to get a story and further his career. Herbie, the naïve young journalism school graduate, is powerless to resist Tatum’s planning for career advancement. Even the general public – the audience of the film included – is ridiculed, as Wilder mocks how willingly people enjoy the misery created by people like Tatum. This is Wilder at his most cynical, as everyone is shown to be a buffoon.

This might be Kirk Douglas’s greatest performance. As solid as the supporting performances are, particularly from Jan Sterling as the widow secretly hoping for her husband’s demise, Douglas dominates every scene. He perfectly delivers the sordid comments and observations created by the superb screenwriting team of Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman. I might regret not moving this one into the Top 40, but it is no slight to be positioned where it is. This is one of Wilder’s best and absolutely essential for any fan of cinema, not just film noir.


  1. Sunset Boulevard also has the noir/dark comedy feel you attribute to Ace in the Hole. Wilder is a brilliant director and his three noirs are some of my favorite films ever. Douglas is brilliant and along with Paths of Glory this is his greatest performance in my opinion. The scathing cynical vibe is totally in line with classic noir. His finest films can stand along side the best of any director ever.....M.Roca

  2. Dave, it's not so much prophetic as retrospective, as the movie itself references the Floyd Collins mania of the 1920s. I don't know if there was a "big carnival" on this scale surrounding Collins, but the press of the day acted as if there was. In any event, Ace has always struck me as epic noir given the gigantic scale, and it may be one of a kind in that respect. It's definitely a definitive Douglas performance from that period when it seemed obligatory for him to die on screen. I can understand ranking it below some other Wilders on a noir list, but overall it's my own favorite Wilder picture.

  3. Another excellent review, Dave! I just saw this one a couple of months ago and enjoyed it a great deal...this and "Sunset Boulevard" are my favorite Wilder films. Your comment on how the media creates it's own circus around non-events (or small, local events) is right on the money, more so today than in 1951.

  4. Fo me this ranks in the Top 10 film noirs, but again this is the beauty of a countdown like this, where the competition is fierce. It's one of three Wilder films that wears the masterpiece label with SUNSET BOULEVARD and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and it's always a challenge to try and assert which of the trio stands the tallest. As of late I've stood behind SUNSET BOULEVARD, but it'as the kind of question that can't be comfortably answered. Yes, it's as cynical a film as has ever been made in Hollywood - but those other two Wilders push close in that category too - and it's the definitive take on the heartlessness of the media. I also mark this down as Douglas's greatest performance in a career with a number of masterful turns.

    Excellent point here:

    "By comedy, I don’t mean laugh-out-loud, rollicking humor like Wilder would deliver in later films. The comedy here is the result of a cynical, biting script, the bizarre, out of control scenario, and one-liners and humor so dry that it nearly cracks the celluloid."

    Of course, one could easily categorize it as a black comedy in the definitive sense, but Wilder does as you state stage a no-holds-barred assault on just about everything in the civilized world.

    The supporting cast, Charles B. Lang's superlative cinematography and Hufo Friedhofer's music contribute mightily to one of the greatest of American films, and this is one of teh countdown's most accomplished essays, as I expected it would be.

  5. Great stuff Dave!
    Absolutely one of Wilder’s best and at his most cynical! The media circus is a prelude to what we have today, as you mention, with helicopter’s hovering over Michael Jackson’s estate at the time of his death, the paparazzi following movie star after move star as the go to the bathroom reporting each step as a momentous event.
    Douglas is phenomenal in this film. One of the complaints you read about Wilder is he in not visually enough with his camera, he is all about the writing. Anyone who thinks that should take a look at the ending when Tatum falls down dead almost crashing right into the camera that Wilder set low on the ground. This is just one of a few nice camera shots in this film. I am sure we will be seeing more of Mr. Wilder coming soon.

  6. M.Roca - I agree on Wilder, he's one of the best to ever direct. This is as cynical as it gets and, as Wilder seems to be laughing at, wildly entertaining.

    Samuel - Interesting stuff... I knew nothing of Floyd Collins, so glad you could add that to things here. It's certainly no slight to be ranked behind some of the other Wilder noirs that are going to be included in this countdown.

    Kevin - I agree, and am struck by how it doesn't seem all that outlandish when you think about it. The plot is built up to be a circus, and it certainly is, but it doesn't seem unbelievable at all.

  7. Sam - Thanks for the kind words. I certainly remembered that this was a favorite of yours. The other thing that I discovered about it, and that I didn't really bring up in the essay, is how well it holds up to repeat viewings. Douglas' performance is strong enough to carry you through a number of viewings, but you almost need multiple times to take in everything going on around him.

  8. John - We certainly will be seeing more of Mr. Wilder. Great point about Wilder's visual sense, too. True, when people discuss Wilder it is not usually because of his visuals or camerawork, but as you point out he could still do some very creative things behind the camera.

    That writing, though... it's just out of this world!

  9. I have agree to with Sam on ACE IN THE HOLE ranking in the top 10 and this being one of three Wilder noir masterpieces. They are all essential works! What makes this ranking intriguing is what will be coming up ahead of it.

  10. Of couse both Tony and John have penned their own excellent reviews at their places:

    John Greco's essay is one of his best ever.

  11. Wilder's top five for me (in order)
    1. Sunset Boulevard 2. Double Indemnity 3. Ace in the Hole 4. Some Like It Hot 5. Stalag 17 Like Sam and John I consider the first three to be his absolute essentials......M.Roca

  12. A terrific movie, this one, and one of m favourits. Loved the movie, esp. Kirk Douglas' brilliant turn as a cynical journalist.

  13. I saw it for the first time this past summer, and it kind of blew me away. I considered myself fairly accustomed to Wilder's work, but wasn't prepared for its bitterness at all. I loved it, it just completely took me by surprise.

  14. A fantastic movie, the last Wilder's film of the pre-1960s period that I needed to watch. An awesome performance by Kirk Douglas. I don't know why he didn't do more noir, instead of that God-awful "Spartacus." (I hated that crap, and I hated Douglas for being in it, and I even refused to watch anything with him after that, until I came across "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.")