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ACE IN THE HOLE

(1951)

Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Porter Hall; dir: Billy Wilder

 

The brilliantly titled Ace in the Hole stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a former hot-shot reporter so derailed by egomania that he needs to rebuild his career in a desert backwater like Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is here that one day an ex-GI winds up trapped underground in a cave-in in the appropriately named ‘Mountain of the Seven Vultures’ (the plot is based on an actual story of the 1920s). Tatum sees his chance to regain national recognition through manipulating the event into a media circus, recalling a predecessor who, he says, "crawled in for the story and crawled out with the Pulitzer Prize."

Naturally things go wrong and naturally - this being a Billy Wilder film - the ugly behaviour extends well beyond the protagonist. Wilder was a former crime journalist and latched on to this story as his first project following the departure of longtime producing and screenwriting partner Charles Brackett. Englishman Brackett’s urbane influence balanced Wilder’s combative irreverence and even though the Ace screenplay was Oscar-nominated, Brackett’s absence shows. This film’s portrayal of humanity is rightly regarded as one of Hollywood's most cynical ever.

Wilder is one amusing misanthrope though and a perfectly judged mordant humor courses through the entire film. One forgets how funny it is – who can forget Tatum’s old-fashioned newspaper editor who’s so cautious when it comes a story’s credibility that Chuck calls him a "belts and braces man", a reference (accurate!) to his two-pronged strategy for keeping his pants up!

Kirk Douglas here gives a crackerjack performance, spraying random sparks of electricity wherever he goes; he’s never been better. As Tatum’s awareness grows, Douglas deepens his characterisation, producing a transformation that is telling but not overplayed. As Leslie Halliwell said, "Chuck Tatum’s sins are many, and they include pride; but he has the stature of a tragic hero, just as Macbeth or Coriolanus."

If you had a bone to pick with Ace it would be its overly melodramatic last fifteen minutes, but this does enable Wilder to produce a suitably neat, circular resolution (which may have fit better in a more stylised medium like the theatre) that leaves audiences satisfied.

Ace in the Hole is a film that was way too ahead of it’s time. It died at the box office, losing Wilder a lot of clout at the studio. Despite his contractual right of title and final cut, Paramount pulled it and re-named it The Big Carnival without his knowledge. But reality has caught up to this carnival, with its images of banks of TV cameras awaiting a heartland tragedy eerily prescient of the execution of Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh exactly 50 years later.

"It was a totally uncompromising film at a time when the movies were said to be totally compromised", said Maurice Zolotow (in his Billy Wilder in Hollywood, 1992); "It is shocking even now".

- Roger Westcombe