Shhh…you guys hear that? Sounds like some kinda music…it’s just over this dusty ridge. Yeah, it’s music. And they’re singing about…some guy named Leo stuck in a cavern. Oh! It must be Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder’s blistering indictment of American sensationalist culture! Initially deemed too cynical on its release in 1951, Ace in the Hole stands today as powerfully ahead of its time. The public loves a good, rotten news story about death, that’s never changed. What Wilder does here is place the spectators, the politicians, and the journalists on the chopping block for the crime of producing such a vile atmosphere where the good people are exploited by the media to make a buck.
The mighty Kirk Douglas delivers one of his most savage roles as Charles Tatum – a skilled reporter who’s merciless in his thirst for the big story. He’s been canned from 11 papers for various offenses (slander and sleeping with the boss’ wife appear to be his two big ones) when he finds himself in the sleepy town of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After being chauffeured into town by a tow truck driver (a grand entrance that makes it clear early on that Tatum is a master manipulator), he silver-tongues his way into a job at the local paper.
A year goes by and Tatum is still waiting for his big break. In one of his most ferocious scenes, he pronounces his disgust with Albuquerque and its lack of baseball, dames, and NEWS. Just when he’s ready to pull his hair out (or take someone’s head off), he catches wind of what could be a bankable human interest story. On his way to cover a rattlesnake hunt (oh boy), he stops at a desert gas station where the owner, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has been trapped in an abandoned Indian cave dwelling. With the taste of journalism glory in his mouth, Tatum talks his way into the cave-in and speaks with Leo, whose legs are pinned underneath rocks.
When he emerges from the cave, it’s all there, right before his eyes. Tatum’s going to use Leo to sell a million papers and get his old job back in New York. He’s going to milk the cave-in for all it’s worth, even if it means one lowly man might die.
In order to nail his story and make it work, Tatum first has to convince the corrupt sheriff to make it an exclusive. No one can talk to Leo but Tatum. Then he takes control of the rescue operation by forcing the mining experts to use the longest route possible to save Leo. And Tatum gets away with it all because he’s drenched in big-city confidence. While the sheriff is feeding his pet rattlesnake chewing gum, Tatum has secured his fame and fortune. All the while Douglas’ trademark dimple mirrors the cave-of-no-return housing a doomed man.
Tatum also takes care of Leo’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling) – a former Baltimore barmaid “rescued” from a sordid life of grime by Leo, who she resents incredibly for her drab life int he sticks. She wants to leave her husband and this one-horse town for another big city, but Tatum won’t let her. See, he needs her for his story. What’s a tale about a man trapped in a cave without a photo of the crying wife praying in despair? This coercion leads to one of the best lines I’ve heard yet in a noir: when told she needs to go to church for a photo-op, Lorraine replies, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”
Ace in the Hole could have never been made if it wasn’t for the success of Wilder’s previous film, Sunset Boulevard, which won three of 11 Oscar nominations. So although the studio backed him, critics and audiences were appalled by the scathing cynicism and hopelessness of the film. Besides Leo, his parents, and his doctor, the film is entirely populated with scum. The main theme is the amoral aspects of tabloid news, but Ace in the Hole also points the finger at the bored housewife, the opportunistic politicians, and the parents who bring their children ringside to a man’s death. One couple even argues that they were the first people to set up camp at Leo’s cave-in, as if it’s some kind of achievement to be rewarded.
Earlier in the film, when Tatum pushes his way into the Albuquerque paper, he explicitly says, “And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” That’s exactly what he does with Leo. What would’ve been a two paragraph story about Leo’s follies gets turn into a media firestorm by Tatum. He even exploits the old Native American burial ground nearby, citing an old Indian curse as the possible cause of the cave-in. Within a day, families are driving in from all around, setting up trailers and tents. Then comes the concession stands, merry-go-round, and bandstand. There’s even a song, “We’re coming, we’re coming Leo. So Leo don’t despair…”
All this time, Leo (who could’ve been saved in hours) begins to fade away physically and mentally in the cave. As the story and crowd surges everyday, Leo is dying from Tatum’s insatiable greed. In one harrowing scene, Tatum and his crony celebrate in his bedroom, smiling and pleased with themselves because Tatum is going to get his old job in New York back. Then in comes a local woman, to pray and relight the candles for Leo. It throws a spanner in Tatum’s self-congratulatory moment, but doesn’t sway his thirst for glory.
The moment when his mad obsession begins to crack occurs on day five of the media circus – Leo and Lorraine’s anniversary. He tells Tatum where the present he bought for is and how he hopes she doesn’t find it. Tatum storms into her room and delivers it to her himself. It’s a mink scarf. She won’t wear it because she despises him. Tatum nearly chokes her out with it. This is when he realizes Leo may die in that hole, and it’s all his fault.
He doesn’t find any redemption though. In a lesser movie Tatum would have our sympathies when he comes around. But he’s known all along Leo’s situation down in that suffocating little cave. The drilling method Tatum chose to use isn’t fast enough because he wanted to milk the story. And it’s too late to go in the easy way. These are all facts he’s known from the start. Tatum, you fucked up.
The film is based on a the true story of William Floyd Collins, who in January 1925 became trapped while exploring a series of caves beneath his town in Kentucky. For two weeks attempts were made to save him, but by then Floyd had died of starvation. Aboveground, a media circus formed, with tens of thousands of tourists flocking to the site. 25 years later, screenwriter Walter Newan suggested to Wilder that Floyd’s story would make a great film.
Great film? Nah. Masterpiece? Hell yes. Ace in the Hole is a brutal, gritty, and cruel indictment of several facets of America: gutter journalism, sensationalism, voyeurism, and (perhaps the U.S.’s favorite) exploitation of tragedy. Kirk Douglas’ fierce performance is downright scary at times. His emotional arc is told through Wilder’s sharp and subtle direction. And while the film may have been panned, it’s proven nothing but prophetic in this age of tabloid aggrandizement and tragedy museums with gift shops selling hoodies.