Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is downright diabolical. This brilliant dark drama about a reporter who’s hit rock bottom and sees his ticket back to the big time in a dying man, trapped in a hole, is a masterpiece of cynicism and shock. Kirk Douglas gives a ripping performance as a man whose poverty and boredom overcomes his basic human decency and with Wilder’s witty direction, Ace in the Hole becomes an all time classic.
Kirk Douglas stars in Ace in the Hole as Chuck Tatum. Chuck’s been fired from numerous jobs across the country, his biggest gig in New York City where his drinking cost him a really great life. Now, Chuck’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he charms his way into a job writing for a local newspaper. Chuck is a slimeball, an arrogant jerk who has charm but little care for the feelings of others.
In New Mexico, Chuck begins to turn his life around. He gives up drinking and commits himself to writing news stories. Things are working out relatively well but Chuck is bored, he’s eager for a story to break. He gets his chance at a big story when a local man named Leo Minosa gets trapped in a cave while searching for artifacts. Chuck insinuates himself into the plan to rescue Leo and pushes the story to last longer, before turning it into a national obsession.
Things get uglier when Chuck gets into an affair with the trapped man’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). Chuck also disillusions a young, local photographer whose innocent observations become consumed by Chuck’s obsessive, greedy, desire to keep Leo Minosa trapped in the cave to keep his now national scoop going and keep the accolades and cash for his writing rolling in.
The cynicism of Chuck Tatum is the defining trait of Ace in the Hole. Douglas rages and roils with petty, cynical diatribes. Douglas carries a vicious intelligence and frightful wit that he uses against the small town New Mexico folks any chance he gets. The gleam in Douglas’s eyes when he sees Leo’s predicament for the first time is chilling. He senses that this is the story that could win him prizes and his big ticket back to New York City. His calculations are villainous and yet, because it is Kirk Douglas we hang in with him far longer than we might with a lesser actor.
The story of Ace in the Hole is based on a true story. Floyd Collins of Kentucky became trapped in a cave collapse in 1925. The story of how so many people failed and and made terrible choices in their attempts to rescue him were the basis for a tremendous episode of the history podcast The Dollop. Ace in the Hole takes the perspective of a reporter, just as a reporter was at the center of Floyd Collins’ story, only he was more blundering and less malevolent than chuck.
Billy Wilder is a genius director. His compositions are basic yet brilliant but it’s his characters and dialogue where the legend forms. There is a nasty bite to Douglas’s dialogue that comes from a before its time level of cynicism and calculation. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award for Wilder and co-writers Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman. For Samuels it was a second consecutive Oscar nomination following his script for No Way Out in 1950.
It’s a reflection of just how harsh and abrasive yet bracing Ace in the Hole is that the Academy snubbed the film for Best Picture and Best Director in 1951. The film was just to ahead of its time, too nasty, too sardonic for the era of the Hayes Code which forced the film into an ending that, though true to the characters, betrays just how down and dirty the story is for most of its running time.
Ace in the Hole is available on Tuesday, October 2nd, for the first time on a Criterion Collection Blu Ray release. The Blu-Ray has terrific special features for hardcore film fans including academic commentary tracks, multiple interviews with the late director, Billy Wilder, and a video essay featuring director Spike Lee. I highly recommend picking it up for yourself or your favorite film fan.