Friday, April 27, 2012

Ace in the Hole

I didn't know anything about Ace in the Hole before I watched it. I knew it was by Billy Wilder, who has made some of my favorite movies. From the premise, I actually thought it was a comedy, and it even started out somewhat light. But I didn't expect what I got at all: A dark, cynical, noirish satire.

Ace in the Hole is a 1951 film starring Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a disgraced New York reporter who must now resort to begging for a job at a tiny, inconsequential newspaper in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has been fired from so many other jobs that he is perfectly honest and upfront with the editor about his past indiscretions. The editor gives him a chance anyway.

Tatum wiles away the time until, on assignment to cover a rattlesnake hunt, he lucks his way into a man trapped in a mine. Seeing his opportunity back into the big time, he uses every dirty trick in the book and manipulates the story of the man into a national sensation.

The man in the hole, Leo Minosa, is everything a reporter could want: He fought in the war, he worries that he's awakened an ancient Indian curse, and he has a wife and family waiting for him back home. Tatum manipulates the facts to his favor, going so far as convincing Leo's wife, Lorraine, just about to run out on him, to stay and reap the benefits of her husband's plight.

As the story goes national, crowds begin to form, gawkers camping in front of the mine to watch the rescue effort and be a part of history. The site becomes a carnival, both figuratively, and quite literally, as vendors come and set up rides, live music, and food. Leo's family's little roadside shop, once devoid of life, is now booming with business.

Ace in the Hole doesn't let up for a minute. It's about as vicious and viciously entertaining as a movie can get. Kirk Douglas' Chuck Tatum isn't exactly likeable, but he sure is fun to watch. Blinded by greed, he makes dirty deals with the sheriff, cleverly cuts all the rest of the news reporters out of his story, and even works to keep Leo in the hole longer to drag things out.

I read that Ace in the Hole was not very well received. That doesn't surprise me. It's not exactly a feel-good movie, and I can't imagine it was something an audience from 1951 would go nuts for. Fortunately, it has aged ridiculously well. The dialogue sounds as good and real today as it did then, and the ruthless skewering of the press milking a story for all its worth is only a million times more relevant now than it was sixty years ago. It actually reminded me of Sidney Lumet's Network in its prescience, though Network was so on-the-nose it's scary.

Any lover of classic films should definitely watch Ace in the Hole. The same goes for pretty much every Billy Wilder film, from what I can tell. He was smart, observant, versatile, and unafraid to shy away from adult issues. I'm sure there's a Billy Wilder movie for everyone. I think my favorite will always be The Apartment, but I still have a lot more to watch.

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