Ace in the Hole (1951)

Dir. Billy Wilder. Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Ray Teal

The father of the man who is trapped in an old Native American burying ground underneath “the Mountain of the Seven Vultures” is a hangdog type, one who may have doomed his son to tragedy via phrenology alone. Papa (John Berkes), or Dad, for he is always called by some name indicating his age and generally paternal nature, faces his last straw when the carnival parks outside the mountain where his son is buried alive. His daughter-in-law, Lorraine (Sterling) has already charged twenty-five cents and then a dollar to park around the mountain, but when the men in trucks packing rides and concessions drive up, it’s too much for him. Why do we let them in? he asks her. Because if I didn’t, they’d sit across the freeway and do it and somebody else would make the money, Lorraine replies coolly. (She must still be hearing the echo of “When they bleached your hair, they must have bleached your brains, too.”) She has struck at the essential nature of capitalism: if I don’t make money off of this, someone else will. A decade and change earlier, Scarlett O’Hara said the same thing to Ashley Wilkes when he protested at her use of convict labor at their mill. Our friends have kept their honor, he says. Yeah, and they’re starving, she replies.

Ace in the Hole is widely remarked upon as a cynical movie, which I suppose it leans into, but it hardly strikes me as more cynical than Out of the Past or The Lady from Shanghai or, indeed, Wilder’s own Double Indemnity. What people really mean when they talk about the cynicism in “journalism” or “media culture” or “American culture” is capitalism, and capitalism has managed to outstrip cynicism so far that you can track it in redshifts. Here stands an ideology which is predicated on the idea that same people will have more than others—that some people will have much, much more than others—and by the early 1950s that ideology had advanced to mean, as it does today, that some people deserve more than others do. (Hints of “deserving” echo through the movie; in the early going, Leo Minosa looks for a reason why he’s stuck in the mountain. It must be the Indian spirits, he says. They’re tired of me nicking stuff out of here and I guess this is my punishment. Chuck, who’s no dummy, runs with Leo’s hypotheses and gives his original stories a touch of “Curse of the Pharaoh” on top of the zealous sensationalism we so frequently throw at people buried alive.) There may be a vast mob outside the mountain having themselves a grand old time, but they are neither the primary beneficiaries nor their government enablers. When this is over, it will be a memory and whatever it cost them in hot dogs and hamburgers and gasoline.

Chuck Tatum (Douglas) is a primary beneficiary, leveraging himself into a job at a New York paper in exchange for his copy on the plight of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict). His buddy, greenhorn photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur) is one too. Lorraine, making money hand over fist at her little store, is a primary beneficiary. Sheriff Kretzer (Teal), using the press storm and the planned triumph of removing Leo from the mountain as a launching pad for a reelection bid, is as well. (When Leo is originally trapped, the sheriff is at the rattlesnake roundup that Chuck was supposed to cover in the first place. Wilder and his fellow screenwriters, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, were not necessarily the subtlest guys.) The people who get to say they were on the radio, who compare being stuck in an elevator for six hours to Leo’s plight, or who try to turn a man-on-the-scene interview into an ad for personal insurance, can say they were there. All of it is built on the back of the man who makes their good time and their profits possible, a one-man team on a shift lasting more than one hundred consecutive hours. Even if the number of people giving their lives for the hoopla outside the mountain is small, Wilder seizes on the very problem with capitalism: it hides human suffering and how it informs the products others enjoy, and in so doing dehumanizes the laborers until they cannot give any more pleasure to the consumers with their work. Once they can do no more, they are disposed of and a new joyride is built in some other way.

Chuck Tatum realizes that truth as it concerns Leo Minosa, which is another reason why this is not a cynical story in the end. He preaches a new evangel after Leo gets the last rites from a priest who follows Chuck into the cave, and it has a distinctly different timbre from the old one. Tatum is filled with remorse when Leo dies, a feeling easier to associate with with Joe Gillis than Walter Neff. He steals a microphone and singlehandedly ends the “big carnival” with the same force of will that allowed him to begin it. After all, he is the one who suggested to the sheriff and his team that it wouldn’t hurt anyone to use a more indirect way to get Leo out. Of course, that would give him an extra week or so to stir the pot and make his story worth national news. The beginning may be cynical—check out Bosley Crowther’s contemporary review, which contains so much handwringing you wonder how his fingers managed to type this up—but the end sure isn’t. There is a supreme comeuppance for Chuck Tatum, the arrogant sonuva who tells a prospective employer that he can make him two hundred dollars a week…by taking $50 a week instead of the $250 he’s worth. Chuck is sure that Leo will last the week trapped in a single spot by heavy stones, and he is sure that the story will play out precisely as he sees it in his mind’s eye. His attempt to come to grips with his irresponsibility sends him back to the bottle and back to the newspaper office where framed needlework (“TELL THE TRUTH”) looks down on him as he collapses, presumably dead.

Ace in the Hole has one of those characteristically Wilder screenplays, in which people fire insults at one another and twist words around in clever, but still natural, turns of phrase. Chuck, who has been tossed from a previous job for drinking, explains to Boot (Porter Hall) that he doesn’t drink a lot, but frequently; this is after he critiques Boot’s fashion sense, noting that the man wears suspenders and a belt. He has a lengthy monologue about how much more fun and exciting New York is than Albuquerque, which by itself wouldn’t be fascinating, but its genesis is pretty good: it’s prompted by the presence of chicken tacos on his desk rather than chopped chicken liver. (Time hasn’t really been kind to that gag, but Kirk Douglas has a specially strident tone of voice he seems to save for food that doesn’t meet his expectations: see 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for more of the same.) In a moment which is funny but telling, he says that he would be willing to bite the dog if it meant he got the headline. These are the way into Chuck Tatum before we see the operator, the newspaperman, the rabble-rouser. His sardonic humor, as it often is for noirish men in these movies, is the way into his sickness.

Jacob Boot, publisher and editor of the Albuquerque paper that Chuck works for, is very different from his analogue in Double Indemnity, Barton Keyes. Keyes knows immediately that something’s fishy with the Dietrichson case, though he can’t quite put his finger on the problem, but while he does so he is a beacon of propriety and good conduct. Walter has it in him to combine insurance fraud with murder, but Keyes has neither one of those impulses in his blood. In much the same way, Chuck is so desperate to get back to the big city and the excitement of big stories and big money that he’s willing to risk someone else’s life to get it. Boot, unlike Keyes, is a tired man. Keyes has energy and even a little bombast, which is a characteristic one does not usually ascribe to an insurance geek. Boot, perhaps a little “sunbaked” or a little exhausted, cannot raise powerful objections to what Chuck does in the way that Keyes rails against the plot he knows must have gone down to kill Dietrichson. In his interactions with Chuck, he is wry rather than forceful; even in scenes which try to bring Chuck back to the fold of “good journalism,” of truth-telling and investigation and public service, are weary with import. No one can look Chuck in the eye and shout him down to right-living, but least impressive of all is the arbiter of what people think journalism is really about. In something of a Method twist, Hall died two years after Ace in the Hole debuted.

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