Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman
Based on a Story by: Victor Desny (uncredited)
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall, Richard Benedict, Ray Teal
Producer: Billy Wilder
Running Time: 111 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I‘ve been ploughing through a lot of films from my ‘hall of shame’ over the last few weeks. By that I mean classic films that I haven’t seen for whatever reason and feel I should have. Finally getting around to watching Seven Samurai (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago) was the pinnacle of this and I’ve been chain watching dozens of films recently as my family are away for a fortnight, giving me full control over the TV (and office cinema set-up). Most of the films watched have been DVD’s gathering dust on my shelves for far too long (I buy more films than I have time to watch), but Ace in the Hole is something all together more exciting for me.
When I was a teenager and first properly getting into films I also had a desire to be a journalist. So, after falling in love with a couple of Billy Wilder’s most popular comedies (Some Like it Hot and The Apartment) and discovering he’d made Ace in the Hole, a film about journalism, I knew I had to see it. Unfortunately, the film has never had a DVD release in the UK that I’m aware of and the popularity of VHS waned as my love of cinema grew. So this film that I was so desperate to see as a teenager became a sort of holy grail. Over the last few years I gave up giving it much thought to be honest, but when Masters of Cinema announced Ace in the Hole would be joining its illustrious collection, I practically jumped for joy.
The film sees Kirk Douglas play Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter who has been sacked from every respectable big city periodical so ends up in the back end of nowhere in Albuquerque, New Mexico, writing for a local rag about such joys as the annual rattlesnake hunt. After a year there he’s desperate for a big story to break him back into the big leagues. This comes in the form of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a man trapped in a mine thought to be haunted by Native American spirits. In itself the story is of mild interest to the local populace, but under Tatum’s watch it becomes a behemoth which reaches across the nation. A good story needs to be sustained for just the right amount of time and hit all the right notes though, so Tatum manipulates everyone from Leo’s wife, to the local sheriff, to the men in charge of getting him out of the mine. This last manipulation uncovers the truly dark side to Tatum’s intrusion as he talks the workers into drilling Leo out from above, a much slower process than the quicker and cheaper method of going in through the main shaft, propping up the walls along the way. This gets Tatum the circulation he’s after, but comes at a great cost.
Like Sweet Smell of Success, another great film about journalism, Ace in the Hole is venomously nasty, with little let up in tone and no squeaky clean heroes to bring out any hope of redemption. Tatum is always brash and egotistical, crashing into town like a whirlwind, laying waste to those around him. At the start, although big headed and rude, he’s undeniably charismatic and you can see how people get swept up in his stories. As the film goes on though, his cruelty builds and it’s clear that he’s a ruthless and vicious character. You can see glimmers of regret in the final act, but by then it’s too late and his remorse turns instead into anger, erupting into self-destruction. Kirk Douglas does an outstanding job of delivering this, balancing the sweet talk, dominant machismo and desperation perfectly. He makes a truly horrible character strangely irresistible to watch.
As is to be expected from Wilder, the writing is what impresses most of all though. The dialogue is absolutely loaded with classic zingers and sharp cynical digs at the world of journalism. It’s these and the film’s setup in general which make the film still highly relevant too. The media still relies on sensationalising its stories to draw audiences, now more than ever due to the need to fill dozens of 24 hour news channels and hundreds of thousands of websites and blogs. The recent phone-hacking scandal has shown what depths journalists will dredge to get what they want, so Ace in the Hole’s story feels as fresh as ever.
The film lays things on a bit thick perhaps, with some of the lines and added touches like the sheriff’s pet rattlesnake making their point all too clearly. This bombastic approach fits perfectly with the tabloid journalism theme though of course, so it doesn’t really detract from the film’s qualities. It’s big and brash, but scintillatingly powerful and utterly riveting. Like Seven Samurai it was well worth the wait.
Ace in the Hole is out on 28th April in the UK on Dual Format Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the picture quality was generally very good, although a couple of scenes were soft and some of the dark shots in the mine were a bit faded. I imagine this is down to the source material rather than any laziness on the part of Eureka of course. The audio comes through great considering the age.
For special features there are two pieces. Listed first is an interview with film writer and professor Neil Sinyard, who talks in depth about the film. It’s well worth a watch. Secondly there’s an hour long interview with Wilder (with a few additions from other colleagues including Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon) recorded in the late 70’s or early 80’s (I couldn’t find any information on it, so I’m not sure). This is great. Wilder is very open and on top form, throwing out a few classic sound-bytes along the way.
Also included is the usual booklet looking further in depth into the film. This time around it is made up of one long essay by Emmanuel Burdeau which provides an interesting dissection.
The original theatrical trailer: