CAPSULE: ACE IN THE HOLE from 1951 is Billy Wilder's take on human selfishness and callousness makes for one of the most angry and cynical films ever made. Kirk Douglas stars as a newsman who manipulates people to develop an unfortunate accident into a national news story at the expense of all who cross his path. There is a lot of bitterness and a lot of truth in this film. Rating: high +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Billy Wilder was one of our great directors of film noir going back to 1944's DOUBLE INDEMNITY. His trademark evolved to a combination of human comedy and cynicism. These days he may be best known for lighter comedy films like SOME LIKE IT HOT, but he was transitioning in the early 1950s. At that time his films, such as SUNSET BLVD, were heavier on the dark themes and lighter on the comedy. Later films like THE FORTUNE COOKIE had less social message and more comedy. For my taste the darker and grittier films are his best. My choice for his number one film (yes, better than SOME LIKE IT HOT) is ACE IN THE HOLE. This may be his most biting look at humanity. The film was a failure on its first release in 1951. It was later re-released as THE BIG CARNIVAL (which is the title it played under on television as well), and again it flopped. But today it is respected as one of Wilder's best.
The film was a formidable convergence of Wilder and Kirk Douglas, who himself made several razor-sharp, bitter films in the early Fifties. This was only his second of those films, the first being CHAMPION. Here Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a former big-city reporter who has been fired from eleven of the biggest newspapers in the country mostly for drinking and philandering. Now his car has broken down in Albuquerque and he is forced to get a job on a tiny local newspaper. He is keeping an eye open for a story he can ride back to a big time newspaper, but after a year that eye is a little bleary. The magic story seems never to come along. Then on his way to cover a rattlesnake hunt he stops at an isolated gas station and finds the owner has been in a cave collapse in the rock cliff Indian burial ground behind the little gas station/lunch-bar. Tatum sees his chance to make this a national news story with real human interest in the victim and his rescue. All he needs is to get some local cooperation. And Tatum knows exactly how to play everyone from local officials to roadside gawkers. As he works the movie audience gets a course in how the media manipulates local officials and their own readership.
As the rescue attempts become a national news sensation, Tatum knows just how to play the locals, the big city reporters, and the victim's less than grieving wife. She is not sure if she wants out or Tatum. But Tatum's biggest love is Tatum.
This is not a film for the timid. The view is one of humanity rushing in to take advantage of the accident with so little regard for the victim. They have little more concern for man at the center of the misfortune as insects do as they crawl over a carcass. Tourists argue over who was the first to arrive at the accident site. Trains leave off visitors who run to the quickly assembled traveling carnival with its Ferris wheel and cotton candy.
Wilder's writing is dark and funny. Douglas's dialog is sharp and pulls no punches:
Tatum: Mr. Boot, I was passing through Albuquerque; had breakfast
here. I read your paper and thought you might be interested in my
Boot: Indeed I am.
Tatum: Well, to be honest, it made me throw up. I don't mean to tell you I was expecting the New York Times, but even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque.
Boot: Alright, here's your nickel back.
Tatum takes an almost sexual pleasure in telling one of the older writers on the newspaper how he could build her murder into a great news story. "I could do wonders with your dismembered body," he says purring like a big cat.
Seeing this film is a strong affecting experience. I rate it a high +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0043338/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper