(1951) dir. Billy Wilder
Ace in the Hole is a film that I’d been interested in seeing for some years. Recommended by a friend when talking about writer/director Billy Wilder’s best films, I had searched in the days of VHS for naught, and now this film has recently been given the Criterion Collection treatment, and finally, I got a chance to see it.
Wilder was an excellent director but also an excellent writer. The patter and the dialogue snap and crack and wisecrack with a sharpness that epitomized the time, but are rich and funny. Kirk Douglas is excellent as the down on his luck smartass big city reporter who gets stuck in Abluqueque, New Mexico at a small town newspaper, waiting to find the story that will make him big again and able to return to the big leagues. The story that he stumbles on is a man trapped in a cavern in the side of a hill, and he capitalizes on it for his own glory. He quite literally turns the situation into a circus, not just a media circus, but with ferris wheels and fun rides.
The film’s depiction of the small town in the Southwest of the period is interesting. It’s rustic down to an almost classic cowboy world, though populated and operated by automobile. Douglas’s character pulls everyone into his scheme, either directly or indirectly. And when he hits his moral crisis toward the end of the film, he takes it out on all of them, too.
Ace in the Hole could certainly be analyzed from a number of perspectives, though the main one would be its analysis and criticism of media and media culture. Comparing the staid and somber character of the Albuquerque newspaper publisher, who’s cross-stitched motto “Tell the Truth” is placed all around their office to the hungry wolves out the exploit and recast “news” to entice the readers or listeners, the film depicts a contrast in integrity, though oddly enough the media monster and radio announcer cast longer shadows than the small town newspaper. Though Douglas’s character comes to a realization of his crimes, no one is really left to learn from them, the big city newspaper hangs up on him.
It does echo interestingly through the media today, though it has its own quaintness of the 1950’s. Media and what people are interested in, how they buy into the drama, become voyuers, feed back into the machine of the process without really having true interest in the “real” story, all could be re-made today. Of course, when the miners were trapped in Wyoming not so long ago, I don’t know that they set up a side show for onlookers, but certainly, the international media turned an everseeing eye onto that tragedy with a non-stop level of coverage.
Wilder is indeed one of the best of Hollywood’s autuers. I have to remind myself to see more of his films that I haven’t gotten around to yet.