director: Billy Wilder producer: Billy Wilder screenwriter: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, Billy Wilder cinematographer: Charles B. Lang Jr. music: Hugo Friedhofer studio: Paramount Pictures, 1951 main acting: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall
When we open to Billy Wilder’s 1951 masterpiece Ace in the Hole it’s to what could probably be the conclusion of an altogether other great Noir. In that unfilmed, unrealized Noir, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas at his razor sharp best) is a hot shot reporter in New York City willing to do anything for his prized Pulitzer. Something terrible happens to him as something always does to those living in the shadowy recesses of the Noir newsroom and the world that produces the headlines so coveted therein. When the newsman is as unscrupulous as our hero Tatum is, you expect him to be cast aside to the gutter to die, or worse, to the realm of no longer seeing his name printed on the front page newsprint in beautiful black ink. Death is no match for a life lived in obscurity when vanity or ego are our protagonist’s character flaws.
But he doesn’t die as our unfilmed flick escalates toward conclusion, no, he’s cast out on a long voyage out West, past the Mississippi, through the Bible Belt (making sure to not let any of these phony morals latch onto him of course), into the desert of the American West. Like Jesus, he’d have his 40 days and nights and emerge stronger, more secure. In the country around him he’d create something wholly new and pure out of this vast frontier. He’d cry his forgiveness, pay for his sins, then he’d have his resurrection.
Instead it’s where our actual film opens, to the immediate reminder that the pilgrimage through the desert and the tempting of Satan haven’t gone for him as they did for Jesus (it’s interesting to then consider the film in its other westward reading: the white Easterners journey of continued American Manifest Destiny. Consider how much the Native American exploitation is commented on in the film; heck the first lines Tatum delivers upon setting foot into the Albuquerque newsroom are ones of sly racism towards a Native American then to the trapped man in the hole who was in the midst of pillaging an Indian burial ground). Tatum sputters into town—not even on his own volition as he’s towed—and we’re reminded at just how destitute he still is by the wobbly visual of those bald, egged tires. He’s immediately able to use his big city resume, and bigger city mouth, to secure himself a new, if quite a bit monetarily reduced, newspaper job. He bates his time waiting for a big story to latch onto, forever keeping the dream of being a big city newsman again. Tatum’s bored, nothing is happening in this two horse town, but he keeps his chin clean and lays off the drink. When on an assignment for another worthless story he happens upon a man trapped in a cave he quickly glimpses his way out: by keeping another buried deep.
Watching the film again, 50 years or so on, I had the most interesting thought: here is a film of great importance and influence (just off the top of my head I’m reminded of a scene in the Coen’s Barton Fink that intentionally lifts several lines almost verbatim), which strikes me as the greatest thing a film can do. As if becoming a living thing, speaking to future films and taking a residence in a corner of film history as a huffing puffing heart beating organism. But then I took it literally; the film creates an actual world that can be thought to continue existing today. In a rare form of actual cinematic genealogy we see, no feel, Tatum’s jackhammer thrusting into and on top of poor Leo Minosa. Not only is his life becoming in more dire jeopardy with each booming thrust, but it’s a clear metaphor for his marriage’s fate too; yes, his lungs are being filled with dust, but his heart is being pierced with the sharp prick of a careening, careerist wife. The constant thud, with its accompanying throbbing, is nothing but a constant reminder to what is happening several hundred yards away between Tatum and Lorriane Minosa (Jan Sterling at her nonchalant bitchy best). The impending doom about to befall Leo seems to be for us all: can I assume 9 months after this fictitious event—this satanic sexual collusion between two of cinema’s darkest characters—gives birth to a slimy reptile. A salamander perhaps? No, a gecko. A Gordon Gekko to be precise.
The dates work, more or less (it’s made even more interesting because we’re dealing with a real life father/son combination). A crass media egomaniac’s male genes mixed with the female genes of a contemptuous, sexual greed-monger. Born in the early 1950’s, one just has to wait 35 or 37 years. Have this young man see the optimism of the 1960’s fail with the birth of neo-conservatism in its place, have him further lose his innocence (and his virginity) during Nixon, have him regain it (however misguided) as Reagan is ascending into America’s dark void. Have him learn his economic tricks under a world of Allan Greenspan’s making, where like his father he’ll see his fame in trapping thousands (though probably more like millions) in mine-shafts and cave-holes of corporate loopholes and ponzi schemes of his orchestrating. The system would be broke, but he’d love it all the more for it. For him, fame wouldn’t be the prestige of a Pulitzer or another award from your peers, it’d be the reward of cold, hard, lifeless cash.
Viewed this way, Ace in the Hole isn’t just a scathing critique of (American) journalism (I put ‘America’ in here half-assed as these aren’t ills privy just to American media) and what’s to come, but it’s also an evolutionary foreshadowing of how everything happens: media with the government (consider the role of the Sheriff in the film) around its little finger in bed with the blind greed of big business. We all get the offspring of the loveless marriage.
Here’s the history.
a line is uttered at the films beginning by Tatum that the Albuquerque newspaper boss’ appearance, and paper in general, is “pretty Albuquerque even for Albuquerque”, and on this makes the greatest defense of this being Billy Wilder’s crowning creative statement: “it’s pretty Wilder even for a Wilder”