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Media Scandal: Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole (1951) – Blu-ray review

April 28, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Hold the front page! Wilder unleashes a cinematic rattlesnake across the screen – and even today, it bites.

Ace In The Hole
(Billy Wilder, 1951)

Check the date again: this film was made in 1951. Yet Ace In The Hole has more to say about modern society than most films made during the past year. With 24-hour rolling news, the Internet and social media only exacerbating the worst excesses of human nature when it comes to rubbernecking in tragedy, Billy Wilder’s flop has become a belated classic.

The date is important, mind. As Kirk Douglas’ ferociously cynical, amoral newsman Chuck Tatum tells his boss, “It’s the second half of the Twentieth Century” – and Wilder’s state of the nation address is designed to speculate on how that might pan out, especially for a society so recently uprooted by war. The America in which Tatum thrives is one where religion is an inconvenience or a joke, wartime romances have soured in the banality of peacetime and money has become the be-all and end-all of existence.

Into this cauldron Tatum stirs a great news story – just an ordinary guy trapped in a cave, but “one man is better than 84” because of the human interest angle. Sure enough, the crowds are soon descending, but the tragedy machine doesn’t stop there. The heartless wife seizes the opportunity to make a few bucks, the sheriff realises the potential to help his re-election campaign and even the carnival reckons it can make a killing by setting up stall in the area.

Notably, all of this venality bar the latter has been anticipated and nurtured by Tatum, who needs the connivance of others’ greed to meet his own needs – even if it means delaying the rescue operation with the senseless but grand gesture of a giant drill to pad out the story.  Tatum is a far cry from other cinema newsman, more cynical even than Charles Foster Kane and nothing like Sam Fuller’s passionate defence of the ethical publisher in Park Row, whose star Gene Evans has a small role here.

What’s interesting from a narrative viewpoint, though, is that Tatum becomes Wilder’s dark-hearted avatar. Just as the reporter needs to keep the guy in the cave, so too does Wilder; just as Tatum needs a media circus, so too does Wilder need a literal one. Without these elements, this would merely be a short, but Wilder needs a feature.

Accordingly, things are mapped out with exacting, terrifying logic so that, despite the extreme nature of the scenario, it builds gradually enough to be plausible. The wit is scathing and lethal, and this is a writer’s film – most clearly during the first act, where Douglas spits words like bullets to get his worldview across, metaphorically taking charge of the film by refusing to let anybody else get a word in edgeways.  Tatum is the first in a lineage of Wilder anti-heroes (to be followed by William Holden in Stalag 17 and James Cagney in One, Two, Three) to get ahead through their gift of the gab.

Yet Wilder ensures that the film works visually. At first, we’re stuck in a claustrophobic hell with Tatum, with Douglas’ imposing face looming out of the darkness to speak to Leo: one of cinema’s great Mephistophelian creations. Yet the longer the film goes on, the further Wilder pulls back, until he establishes the visual coup of immense panning shots across the film’s huge set – shots so good they were borrowed wholesale in The Simpsons‘ reworking of the story: the famous “Timmy down the well” episode. There’s even a sublime sight gag – the ever-growing entrance fee to the site – that is worthy of that show in providing a bleak commentary on proceedings.

Ace In The Hole is released today by Masters Of Cinema on Blu-ray and DVD.  The transfer captures the sun-bleached noir to perfection, while extras include an hour-long conversation with a typically garrulous Wilder.

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