Tuesday, January 1, 2008


When the writers for DVD Talk put their heads together to decide what their Top 20 DVDs of 2007 were, the one that came up most often was Billy Wilder's lost masterpiece Ace in the Hole. No surprise, then, that it was a hotly sought-after item back in the summer when it was up for review, and since I hadn't been the lucky so-and-so that had scored the assignment, I jumped at the chance to write the blurb for the countdown. As such:

"Billy Wilder's cynical, noirish tale of a big-city newspaper reporter (Kirk Douglas) manipulating the news for a small-town rag has been a sort of holy grail for film fans for decades now. Lambasted on its release in 1951, it's been out of circulation almost completely since, never released on home video and only rarely showing up on cable TV. So, it's no surprise that when this lost classic finally got a proper re-release, it would end up on the Criterion label and receive an awesome two-disc collection to reward us all for being patient. With a package designed to mimic a newspaper and packed with illuminating extras, Ace in the Hole is the DVD that got the most of us excited around these parts. Snappy dialogue, excellent performances, and a compelling plot that was ahead of its time and still socially relevant today, the movie more than lives up to its mythical reputation."

I hesitate to really call Ace in the Hole noir. Noirish, I guess, is passable. Though it does bear some similarities to the harsh world of film noir and its stylistic use of light and shadow, Wilder's evisceration of sensationalistic media and the audience that loves every over-blown, dirty minute of it is about as far from the normal city streets and petty crime of noir as you can get. Those shadows really only come out when Douglas is down in the cave, a metaphorical representation of the darkness of men's souls. A good man is trapped down in there, the trusting husband and loving son, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), being crushed to death by the weight of exploitation and the public's appetite for tragedy. There is a reason Kirk Douglas' Chuck Tatum can't get through to Leo and can only see him from a small hole on the outside. There is something that will always separate guys like him from men like that.

Wilder must have had some kind of crystal ball when he wrote the movie with Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman. (It really was Billy's picture all the way. He also produced.) A remake of Ace in the Hole today wouldn't have to alter the story much. Tatum wouldn't work for a small-town newspaper anymore, he'd probably work for some crappy local TV station. Create a disaster-related logo and add a news crawl, and there'd be no difference between the media circus as depicted in 1951 and the kind of bottom-feeding we saw on cable news all through 2007 and I am sure will again in 2008.

Leo and his parents really do seem like the only good left in a world gone nuts. Though the Big Carnival--as the film is alternately called--is kicked into gear by Big Slick from NYC, the first gawkers on the scene are Ma and Pa America, a nuclear family who alter the map of their vacation to come see the man buried under a mountain. Wilder makes them as bland and average as possible, easily interchangeable with any other everyman. Pa isn't some dumb loser, but a man who is at least successful enough in his business (insurance salesman, somewhat poetically) to be able to afford a mobile camper and a car to pull it with. It would be easy to sit in our chairs at home and say, "Hey, look at the dumb yokels getting off on another guy's misery," but we're the ones watching the yokels, and does that not make us complicit in the exploitation? You can make the gesture of downloading Sting's charity single, but if you actually like the song, you grabbed it for reasons that aren't completely selfless, and even you, yes, profit from the pain. Shake it more than once, as my dad would say, and you're playing with it.

On the noir front, I suppose you could say that Chuck Tatum is a noir hero in exile. Though a newspaper reporter, he isn't that far afield of the crook on the lam, run out of town for the things he did, not able to show his face lest his neck get chopped. A hood would have to buy his way back into the good graces of a mob boss with the missing jewels or large sums of money, Tatum needs a juicy story to get back on a major metropolitan paper. His misdeeds were lying and adultery, messing with the boss' livelihood and then fooling around with his wife. Trade one gang for another, back-alley thugs for newshounds, but the crime is the same.

So is the inevitability of the past catching up with you, of wherever you go, you're still going to find yourself. As a prowling leopard, Tatum certainly hasn't changed his spots. He is still willing to fudge the facts and alter the situation to make Leo's story work better. He tells himself he's not lying, and he didn't create the situation, but he has done whatever he can to prolong it. More days underground for Leo means more headlines for Tatum. Likewise, it puts more money in the family business that Leo was running, an out of the way trading post (read: souvenir shop and diner) in New Mexico. Leo's wife of five years, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), has had the itch to wander for a while, but now that the cash is rolling in, she'll stick around. She'll also do it for Chuck. Again, the reporter has learned nothing at all.

At least not yet.

"Cynical" is probably the most commonly used adjective when describing Ace in the Hole, and I can't decide if that's wholly accurate or not. Is cynicism merely realism in disguise, or is it that realism is cynicism when she puts on her make-up? Wilder's opinion of humanity is at an all-time low in Ace in the Hole, he sees the mob as one giant, uncaring animal; however, his opinion of the individual is rather high. For all of his selfishness in commandeering Leo's accident for his own purposes, Tatum isn't so lost that he doesn't eventually realize what he's done. Sure, it takes Leo's death to wake him up, but at the same time, he could have covered his tracks, let the responsibility fall elsewhere. Instead, he makes a last-minute scramble to set things right. Thus, Wilder believes that each and every one of us can find the good within ourselves, he's just not sure it matters when facing a crowd hungry for doom. Tatum tells the truth, but no one wants to hear it. It's far less interesting, and accepting reality also means accepting their own role in the affair.

As the individual who tries to stand up, Tatum pays the ultimate price. Yet, his desire to do right takes him back to the one place where he knows truth matters. For all of its vilification of the hoi polloi, Ace in the Hole does end up vindicating the uncommon morality that can still exist inside the common man. Tatum returns to the one man whom he knows has kept his head through this whole thing, and who sees through the spectacle that the reporter has kicked up. Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) was the man who hired Chuck Tatum when no one else would, and he was the guy who called him on his bunk as soon as he saw the Big Carnival getting out of hand. Boot is the guy who wears both a belt and suspenders. It's not that he's convinced that either can't handle the task they were made for, but he can't see why when you know that one thing is right, you shouldn't double-up and be extra sure. By starting where he began, and by taking us back to Boot, Wilder is giving us hope. Cooler heads can prevail, and they will stand strong even when the rest have scuttled back to whence they came.

Ace in the Hole, a noir that isn't a noir, the cynical movie with love and hope in its heart. I guess it's no wonder that it scared its audience the first time. Billy Wilder gets a little too close to the truth that's in all of us, our contradictions and our maladies. He's the Jacob Q. Boot of this world, and he's sticking that boot right up our collective behinds.

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