BluRay/DVD Reviews

ACE IN THE HOLE

By • Jul 17th, 2007 •

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If you’ve never seen Ace in the Hole, you might guess that it’s about a conman. Or maybe it’s just me; having heard the title mentioned in passing over the years, I got it into my head that I’d already viewed this film, seeing in my mind’s eye a vague amalgam of The Lady Eve–a Preston Sturges comedy, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda (there’s a card sharp theme in there, and the expression “ace in the hole” is derived from stud poker) and Some Like it Hot–okay, that’s about gangsters, not con men, but it was directed by Billy Wilder. The opening shot was not similar to the phantom movie I’d composed in my head, but it still confirmed the genre–a madcap lark about an audacious snake oil salesman down on his luck.

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) arrives in Albuquerque in style; he peruses the local paper while being chauffeured in a convertible. Except that the convertible is broken, and the “chauffeur” is the town tow truck. Douglas’ nonchalance as he relaxes in the driver’s seat of his nonworking vehicle mirrors that of many a clown with less luck than self-esteem–Charlie Chaplin and especially Harold Hill (The Music Man) spring instantly to mind. But those of us eagerly awaiting a light-hearted comedy are about to be profoundly dismayed. It turns out that this opening sequence is a bit of devious misdirection on the part of the filmmakers. As we are lead deeper and deeper into the story, the film gets darker and darker–appropriate, since the heart of story takes place within the bowels of the earth.

Tatum, it turns out, is a washed up big city newspaper-man–can’t get a job back East because he drinks too much. Although the editor of the Albuquerque news, Mr. Boot (Porter Hall) sees through Tatum’s bravado, he’s too decent not to give him a chance, as long as he stays sober.

All is going as well as can be expected–with a mildly disgruntled Tatum missing New York and chopped liver, biding his time covering the hick town news, until Mr. Boot sends Tatum and boy reporter Herbie (Bob Arthur) out of town to cover a rattlesnake hunt. But when they get up to barren, godforsaken Escudero, they stumble across an opportunity that awakens the dormant seed of Tatum’s ambition. The owner of Escudero’s coffee shop cum trading post, Leo Minosa (a poignant Richard Benedict) has gone into the local caves, seeking Native American artifacts, and the mountain has fallen upon him. That’s the event that fertilizes the seed, and it grows like kudzu.

Tatum and Herbie rush up to the disaster site, on the way encountering Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), formerly a dime-a-dance blonde, now the desperate, bored housewife of the victim. Tatum grabs his ticket back to big time journalism. He takes the thermos of coffee and the blanket that Lorraine has brought for Minosa, and, like a hero, walks into the cave and befriends the pinioned man. The hapless Leo comes to consider Tatum his best buddy and protector. Tatum knows he has the story of a lifetime, because, as he tells Herbie, “one man’s better than 84. Didn’t they teach you that?. . .It’s human interest.”

Tatum’s right, “bad news sells best.” Once the story is printed, not only do newspaper sales jump, curiosity seekers and ambulance chasers bring their families to sit vigil. Due to all those tourists, business at the trading post spikes; Lorraine’s face lights up with avaricious joy as she regards the contents of her cash register. Paparazzi from all over descend on the Mountain of the Seven Vultures (the Indian name for the site–how ironic), but Tatum makes an agreement with the slimy local sheriff (Ray Teal), so that the story belongs to him. A crane shot reveals the acres of cars and tents, the milling crowds waiting outside the site of the accident. Wilder’s commentary on the media circus doesn’t seem dated at all. No wonder this movie was called The Big Carnival when it was first released.

I happened to watch this movie right before I went to the gym, where I get my fix of junk TV while sweating on the Precor. What should be on but Rock of Love–which is like watching a train wreck, making me as craven as the spectators at The Big Carnival. And it occurred to me that the bottle blonde, big-boobed creatures who debase themselves for my pleasure are Jan Sterling’s natural heirs. They have been reengineered by surgery, which allows their artificially enhanced figures to maintain cantilevered perfection, and the hardness, meanness, and small-mindedness that they display in the situations created by “reality TV” go far beyond anything Mrs. Minosa would have allowed herself to show. Hard as she is, Sterling’s Lorraine has a scrappy, downtrodden air, which gives her a tragic dimension that is utterly lacking in today’s Teflon coated femme fatales. There’s a scene where Lorraine lets Tatum know that she’s onto him (“I’ve met some hard boiled eggs, but you’re twenty minutes”), but she’s grateful; the publicity that Tatum is generating for Leo in a hole is getting Lorraine out of one. She’d be happy to let Tatum know just how grateful. In her face we can see her longing, her anticipation. She’s expecting Tatum to follow through and make her, the same way he’s making the story. But instead, he slaps her, hard. As Molly Haskel writes in the DVD liner notes, that slap makes “Jimmy Cagney’s grapefruit assault on Mae Clark look like friendly teasing.” If anybody slapped one of the sculpted Barbies on reality TV that way, he’d be eaten for breakfast.

Tatum’s not interested in sex, and he’s not interested in a partnership; all he wants is to parlay a good story into a Pulitzer. His enthusiasm for the myth he is creating knows no bounds. If his orchestrations bring out the bottom feeder in everyone, that’s just a side benefit. But Tatum has too much confidence in his own omnipotence, and things go horribly awry. I am not going to place a spoiler here, except to say that the end of the movie is clever in a Sunset Boulevard sort of a way, but both my husband and I felt that there was too much melodrama.

Up to that point though, we thought the story was great–you couldn’t see where it was going until after you’d made the journey, but then when you looked back every hairpin turn had a certain, doomed logic. And the leads–Douglas and Sterling–made their characters oddly sympathetic in spite of their cynicism. The movie was a flop when it came out, and Wilder apparently referred to it as “the runt of the litter,” but, fifty-six years after its release (1951) it is still bracing, gritty, and on target.

The DVD comes packaged with a copy of the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin–really a clever design for the liner notes, which include credits, plus essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin. There’s a commentary track supplied by film scholar Neil Sinyard, and he has interesting things to say about the film in general, particularly his analysis of the way the shots were created and cut together.

The secondary DVD contains an afterword from Spike Lee, plus interviews with Kirk Douglas (on film), Wilder’s writing partner on this film, Walter Newman (radio), and two filmed sequences with Wilder. Those two sequences are the real treats on the extra disk. Both were filmed when Wilder was quite elderly, the first one a 1980 documentary titled Portrait of a 60 % Man, and the second, in 1986 at the New York Film Institute. He’s charming, witty, and articulate. It’s inspiring to hear the tale of a boy who came to this country with no English but who had the determination to become one of the most prolific American screenwriters of the mid-twentieth century, and who became an accomplished director in order to keep control of his writings. It’s interesting that he actually bemoans the loss of the studio system, because it sheltered artists and allowed them to develop. Usually comments about the studio system are about how the studios exploited everyone. And about that word “artist”–Wilder is very refreshing. He was an artist, but he knew the context he was working in, and he was slyly aware of just how far he could push it.

I wish I’d known him. I am going to rush right out and get the many other Wilder movies I vaguely thought I’d seen but that I may never actually have watched: Sabrina, The Fortune Cookie, Fedora, The Apartment, The Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, Irma La Deuce, Witness for the Prosecution, Love in the Afternoon. . . And then there are all the ones he didn’t direct. . .

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