“I’m in the boat, you’re in the water. Now let me see you swim.”
Right after the critical and commercial success of Sunset Blvd. Wilder turned his scathing view to the exploitation of the news media. He had given his home studio Paramount nothing but successes so far though Sunset Blvd. ruffled a few feathers in Tinseltown. This time around Wilder didn’t limit his criticism to Hollywood but cast his net much wider. Ace in the Hole is a bitter and poisonous story with a clinically unflinching outlook on mankind’s basest behaviors. Where Sunset Blvd. failed - that is ruin Wilder’s career - Ace in the Hole almost succeeded. Now regarded as a great classic, the picture was a critical and commercial failure at its initial release and sparked the outrage of Hollywood big shots, columnists and the Great Unwashed alike. Bosley Crowther of course did his customary hit job on the movie, sprinkling his review with darling little nuggets of wisdom:
“Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque…disgusting and shocking to observe”.
He - like most critics - considered himself a newspaperman and as such within the target range of Wilder’s criticism. I’ve seen Ace described as satire several times but it’s anything but. It’s simply an accurate representation of reality.
Wilder’s vision of a media which gleefully exploits the agonies of a dying man just because it’s hot copy is unrelentingly grim and unrelentingly unrelenting. The movie is not only prophetic but it’s more important than ever. It was a harbinger of things to come in relation to today's 24/7 tabloid journalism, disaster tourism, fake news, Twitter soundbites and all-important ratings. But Wilder went a step further. He did not only accuse the media of being driven solely by greed, he doesn’t spare the general public either. Wilder implicated literally everybody in the crime. With the arrival of hundreds of onlookers - who come to see the spectacle and turn the misfortune of another into a Big Carnival, the film’s alternate title - Wilder shouts out to the world that Everybody Is Evil, Dirty and Morally Bankrupt. Just the ticket to make them come and see your movie. Nobody likes to be told they’re blood-sucking leeches. Graham Daseler put it like this in his review Evil Under the Sun: Ace in the Hole: “You can skewer the press and the politicians and even the movie business, as Wilder had in Sunset Boulevard, and get away with it, but you can’t bite the hand that feeds you.” That’s a surefire way to lose an audience.
Wilder doubtlessly went for the sledgehammer approach with Ace. He liked to push buttons, envelopes and everything else and always had a propensity for cynicism but even for Billy Wilder, this movie is pretty Billy Wilder.
The failure of Ace in the Hole truly stung Wilder. He considered it the best picture he ever made. He learned a valuable lesson though. A picture needs a measure of humanism at the core. Following the disaster, he softened his films with some humor and heart.
Noir beyond the City
Far from the Mean Streets of Gotham or Megalopolis - where life should be safe, peaceful and calm - we find the Mean Outbacks of Rural Noir.
There is no doubt that Noir and the City have a symbiotic relationship and go hand in hand, most of the time. The city provides a psychological and aesthetic framework for Noir. But a gritty urban setting does not have to be the defining boundary of the genre. Noir can exist perfectly fine outside this particular environment. In Noir’s less-traveled hinterlands evil can hide too. It lurks even in the pristine heart of nature. In the mountains, in the deserts and in the forests where inhospitable wilderness offers nothing but a place to die and life is distilled to the primitive. Gun Crazy, They Live By Night, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Hitch-Hiker, Pitfall, On Dangerous Ground, The Prowler and Moonrise weaken the argument of The Asphalt Jungle: that the city itself is the corrupting force, that if people only stayed in pastoral backwaters they would never turn to crime.
The barren and dry grounds of the blisteringly hot New Mexico desert don’t offer a tranquil retreat. Instead they prove to be the perfect backdrop for a picture about greed and corruption. It is true that Noir’s protagonists quite often simply transport their city mentality to a rural setting, thus bringing Poisonville and Hate Street to the country. Tatum - the man from the city - acts as a catalyst but the evil was in Escudero long before he came. It barely needed an incentive.
Ace in the Hole is Noir through and through even though it dispenses with femmes fatales, gangsters, chiaroscuro lighting and Fate. Instead there is a sense of futility, desperation, entrapment - literally and figuratively - and a darkness of vision that is almost unparalleled. Molly Haskell wrote in her Criterion Collection article Ace in the Hole: Noir in Broad Daylight: “The noir is interior—inside a mountain tunnel where a man is trapped and suffocating, and inside the mind of a reporter rotting from accumulated layers of self-induced moral grime.” Ace in the Hole is daytime Noir.
Stuck in sun-baked Siberia
Kirk Douglas plays disgraced newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum who - due to some unsavory misdeeds - was run out of several towns and now has to work for a small-town Albuquerque newspaper, the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin headed by Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall). It’s the ninth circle of hell for Tatum. One fine day he stumbles across Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) trapped alive in a cave that collapsed on him. In a bid to milk the story for all it's worth and get himself back into the Big League, Tatum engineers a scenario to keep the man trapped for as long as possible creating a media circus in the process. Throw into the mix Minosa’s money-grabbing and hateful wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) who’s not in the least cut up about her husband’s ordeal, and we have a powder keg waiting to explode.
Douglas was an actor who considered subtlety a waste of time. He gleefully chews off vast lumps of scenery and spits them out again. He - like Joan Crawford and Burt Lancaster - went in for the Bette Davis school of acting who maintained that “Acting should be bigger than life.” I like subtle performances but I adore Douglas’s larger than life and over the top theatricals that are incredibly entertaining. Here he is at the top of his game. Snarling, blustering, threatening and full of furious energy and ferocious determination Douglas commands the screen entirely. And he’s not afraid to show the audience something else: seediness.
Tatum used to be a hot shot reporter back East but boozed himself out of every job. After being fired from 11 newspapers for reasons including - but not limited to - lying, cheating, provoking a libel suit and fooling around with the boss’s wife - the big papers aren’t interested in him anymore, there’s too much dirt on him.
Now he’s washed-up and scraping the bottom of the barrel but he keeps on digging. The guy coulda been a contender, it’s just his greed and amorality - in a word his personality - get in the way.
Noir is the genre of last chances and Albuquerque is Tatum’s last chance. Tatum is the Noir (anti)hero in exile, a man on the run who can’t escape his past. He’s on the run from his mistakes, his responsibilities and from himself. But he’ll be in the money again, of course he will. He just forgets one thing. There’s no place to hide. Robert Mitchum put it perfectly in When Strangers Marry: “Places are all alike, but you can’t run away from yourself”. The coffin lid has already closed on Tatum, he just doesn’t know it yet.
His shenanigans got him a lousy reputation, a reputation he somehow relishes though. Why else would he brag about his exploits and misdeeds in the big city to Boot?
To get out of this backwater he needs real news, hard news. Unfortunately for Tatum a year goes by without anything materializing. He’s nearly suffocating with boredom. The big chance comes when Boot sends Tatum and impressionable gopher/assistant photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) to cover a rattle snake hunt. Careful: heavy-handed symbolism here!
|"I wish I could coin 'em like that"
Tatum must be one of Douglas’s most unsavory characters, and that’s saying something. From the way he swaggers into the Sun Bulletin, lights a match on the return key of an employee’s typewriter and yells to see the boss, Tatum exudes a brash and aggressive confidence. He acts as if he owns the place. Hovering between arrogance and desperation, he pitches his services as a reporter to Boot for $50 a week telling him he’s worth $250.
Never let facts get in the way of a good story
He may be immodest but he has a point. He does know all the angles. He gives Herbie and the audience a lesson on how to make a compelling story out of even the most trivial event, like the aforementioned rattle snake hunt:
“Give me just 50 of them loose in Albuquerque…the whole town in panic, deserted streets, barricaded houses…50 killers on the prowl…one by one they start hunting them down, they get 10, 20…they get 40, 45, 49…where’s the last rattler? In a kindergarten, in a church, in a crowded elevator? Where? Stashed away in my desk drawer…the story is good for another three days…when I’m good and ready we can come out with a big extra: Sun Bulletin snags No. 50”.
From that moment on we know with absolute certainty that Tatum doesn’t play by the rules. This is not the first time he has cooked up his own story. Boot has his motto - TELL THE TRUTH - embroidered and framed several times on the newspaper premises. It’s the paper’s guiding ethics and for someone like Tatum this is a rather quaint notion. It smacks of utter naiveté. Tatum needs ethics like he needs the plague. He puts his own spin on the little bromide, he literally embroiders the truth.
There’s something else he believes in: “I can handle big news, little news and if there’s no news I’ll go out and bite a dog.” That’s what he’ll do with Minosa. If the big story will not come to Tatum, then Tatum must go and create the big story.
The cave Leo is trapped in is an ancient Indian burial ground where he prowled around to steal some artifacts for selling at his trading post. To the Navajos the dwelling is known as the “Mountain of the Seven Vultures”. Tatum doesn’t see the irony he only sees the story before his eyes. “Curse of the old Indian chief, white man half buried by old Indian spirits. What will they do? Will they spare him? Will they crush him?” He finally hit the jackpot. When a guy like Tatum smells blood, he won’t let off.
“Bad news sells best, cause good news is no news.”
For maximum possible impact Tatum needs disaster. When Herbie says they shouldn’t hope for a tragedy Tatum replies: “I don’t wish for anything. I don’t make things happen, I just write about them.” We know for a fact that this is not true. The engineer in charge of Minosa’s rescue declares that all that would be needed to get Minosa out is strengthening the walls of the cave and the job would be done in about 18 hours - but that wouldn’t give Tatum his story. So he contemplates what would happen if rescue workers were to delay the rescue for a couple of days.
It is here that Tatum’s utter ruthlessness really comes out. He suggest drilling a hole from the top of the mountain to extract the trapped man which is an unnecessarily slow process of several days. Damn a man’s life, full speed ahead. He brokers a deal with corrupt Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) to let him have his way and keep other reporters away. Tragedy equals opportunity. Leo Minosa may be barely alive, but the entrepreneurial spirit certainly is. Kretzer is up for re-election and if he plays his cards right there’ll be a “hero of the hour” headline in it for him. For Tatum there may be a Pulitzer Price in the offing. For Lorraine it means cold hard cash so she plays along. Minosa's health is rapidly deteriorating. But that is no reason to close the cash register.
Print the legend
Tatum quits the Sun Bulletin and sells his daily updates directly to his ex-boss in NYC.
"I'm on my way back to the top, and if it takes a deal with a crooked sheriff, that's all right with me! And if I have to fancy it up with an Indian curse and a brokenhearted wife for Leo, then that's all right too!"
The idea of the Fourth Estate as a guardian of truth and justice is a big joke to Tatum, because for him the story is always more important than the truth. The courageous reporter, the grieving wife, the dutiful sheriff…all lies.
The Big Carnival’s in town
Then another joyous event occurs. A vacationing family - the Federbers, “Mr. and Mrs. America” as Tatum calls them - stop at the trading post after reading about it in the morning edition of the Sun Bulletin. They alter their vacation plans just to have a look at a death watch.
A veritable mob soon descends on Escudero like locusts, with Tatum controlling the entire story beginning to end. The area becomes a tourist attraction complete with amusement park rides, concession stands and a tacky theme song. Busloads of people come from far and wide. One man’s agonizing and miserable death in a dirty hole becomes a raucous party for the onlookers. The public as bottom-feeding leeches whose human interest is nothing but a front for morbid scandal-mongering.
Some viewers were wondering why everybody lets Tatum run the whole show. The answer is easy. The guy is a force of nature with plenty of swaggering confidence and animal charisma. Everyone is seduced by it, even the paper’s old-maidenish secretary who giggles and simpers every time Tatum talks to her. He comes off as the coolest of cats.
Tatum is a master manipulator. Fear and/or the promise of glory, money and fame are great motivators to make people play his game. Herbie has a bad case of hero worship and even Boot, who sees through Tatum right away and should know better, still gives him a job. With Lorraine he bets on her sexual desire for him. Even if she hates him for being smarter than she is, she still has the hots for him.
Tatum may be a liar and a bastard, but he’s also a mover and shaker, someone who makes things happen. Ace in the Hole doesn’t have a femme fatale, instead we get an homme fatal.
He’s in a league of his own when it comes to unscrupulousness and selfishness. He has no illusions about himself, he embraces his rotten nature wholeheartedly and doesn’t wallow in self-pity. There wouldn’t be anything remotely likable about him if he weren't played by Douglas. Somehow Douglas makes this huckster unforgettable and almost likable. He's compulsively watchable even if he is loathsome.
Tatum acts like a director - and a dictator - on a film set. He sets out a blueprint, creates a story, drums up publicity, devises characters for his charade and makes them dance to his tune: when Lorraine doesn’t want to play the grief-stricken wife, he slaps her hard twice and tells her not to wipe away the tears. They’re useful for his story. It’s no way to treat a lady but then she’s no lady.
Jan Sterling’s bottle-blonde pouting floozy Lorraine is a hard-nosed dame with a spine of steel and the soul of a cash register. She’s pure unadulterated vitriol. Another exile from the big city who wanted more out of life than being stuck in the middle of Nowhere, NM toiling away in a dusty curio shop/diner. Her life’s been one big disappointment. She considered Minosa her ticket out of a bad job as a dime-a-dance girl. When they met Leo told her he had 160 acres of land and a big business. He just neglected to tell her it’s a 160 acres of Badlands and a shop that doesn’t generate any money. Lorraine is a gold digger who didn’t strike it rich when she married the wrong guy. Now she’s dangerous because her ambitions were thwarted.
The first shot of her sums up her whole character in one quick stroke. Standing at the mouth of the cave her husband is trapped in, she follows the rescue operation with a look of contemptuous boredom while sucking on a cigarette. For Leo the dirty freezing cave is a warmer place than his marriage ever was, though mercifully he never has to find that out. It’s quite ironic that the only time Minosa is of any use to Lorraine is when he’s dying. Then he brings in the dough.
Minosa isn’t the only one who’s buried alive. Wilder comes precariously close to belaboring the theme of entrapment and suffocation. Leo wants out of the hole, Tatum wants out of the boonies, Lorraine wants out of her marriage and Escudero. Back to the big city, to glamour, to freedom. When she hears about her husband’s accident, her first reaction is to clean out the last measly $11 bucks from the cash register, hop on a Greyhound and make a run for it. Tatum can’t let her leave, he needs Lorraine for the grief-stricken and devoted wife act. The more tearful the better.
The high cost of dying
“Get this, there’s three of us buried here, Leo, me and you. We all want to get out and we’re going to… You saw those people, a couple of squares, but to me they’re Mr. and Mrs. America…they’ll eat it up, the story and the hamburgers…there’s gonna be real dough in that cash register by tonight.”
That is what Lorraine likes to hear. She gets the hang of the game pretty quickly. The charges for a photo at the carnival/accident sight go up from nothing to a dollar pretty quickly. Anything for a buck. Tatum and Lorraine are two kindred spirits who’ve found each other.
Lorraine isn’t fooled though: “Much you care about Leo. I’m on to you. You’re working for a newspaper; all you want is something you can print.” She calls Tatum a twenty minute hard-boiled egg but only lags a couple of minutes behind herself. She is his female mirror image that sometimes even disgusts Tatum who sees too much of himself in her.
Tatum wants her to go to mass and pray for her husband’s rescue. That’s a big joke to her. Her refusal supplies her with one of the movie’s best lines: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”
I always considered Sterling an underrated actress. One of the 50s quintessential B girls, she delivers a gutsy portrayal. Sneering, tawdry and coarse, she’s the ultimate what’s-in-it-for-me? type of dame. A floozy to give all floozies a bad name.
Sterling plays her role with relish, absolutely unapologetic and callous to the bitter end. When the crowds disperse after Minosa’s death she’s only interested in trying to hitch a ride of out Escudero.
There’s nobody to root for in this movie. Wilder doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Minosa’s parents are nice people but they’re also completely ineffectual, doing nothing but praying and wringing hands. Minosa himself, besotted with a cheap tramp of a wife, is a poor gullible schlub and simpleton who never amounted to anything and who robs graves for a living. Wilder doesn’t treat him with too much sympathy. He never evokes more than condescending pity.
The Bulletin’s editor Boot is the antithesis to Tatum, an idealistic, honest and kind man but he’s no match for Tatum’s force of character.
Frankly, no-one comes out of this movie looking good. Not even Herbie. He picked the wrong role model and let the promise of glory corrupt him. He loses his innate goodness and innocence.
At best people are thoughtless and inefficient, at worst downright nasty.
With his high-handedness Tatum eventually digs his own grave. When he tries to choke Lorraine with a cheap fur scarf Leo bought for her she stabs him with scissors. He’s a dead man walking now.
The great thing about Ace is that the ending is so ambiguous. Viewers seem to be divided in their opinion if Tatum repents in the end and sees the error of his ways, or not. I’m in the second camp. This would reek of convention the movie thus far completely avoided.
When it becomes apparent that Minosa will not survive the rescue operation, Tatum is in a jam. After all, as he said, when you sell people a human interest story you must sell them the happy ending too. There is utter self-disgust, guilt and shame in Tatum’s face when he tells the crowd about Leo’s death. That is completely believable. It would be hard to believe he wouldn’t feel anything after Leo’s death. I can’t see the leopard change his spots though. Back in his room Tatum calls his boss in NY. Maybe for the first time ever he wants to tell the truth. That he and Sheriff Kretzer “murdered” Leo with their callousness. This is the last, the only story he has left. He must tell it. It would be a Tatum exclusive. But nobody wants to hear the truth!
Tatum ends up back in the offices of the Sun Bulletin right where he started. He collapses dead to the floor, in one of the best cinematic death scenes I have ever seen. His grand schemes failed, he isn’t even worth $50 anymore. We can have him for nothing now because that’s all he has left.
It’s interesting to note that neither Lorraine nor Sheriff Kretzner pay for their sins. They just go their way and are likely better off than they were before.
Leo’s death is already yesterday’s news. Without fanfare the county fair is over and the crowds go home. Only garbage remains behind. (Symbolism alert again!)
Wilder’s cynical vision and message survive unsoftened even if Tatum felt some kind of remorse before he died. Wilder simply did what the little embroidered homily said: he told the truth, the way he saw it. And the truth is at least 50 shades of black.