When Billy Wilder is remembered at all, it is for classics such as Sunset Blvd., The Apartment, Double Indemnity, even Stalag 17 or Sabrina. Unfortunately, there is one picture that I consider better than almost all of them and almost no one has seen it. It’s called Ace in the Hole and stars Kirk Douglas.
Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter slowly working his way to the bottom. He’s been fired from big newspapers and shows up in a small town out west to offer his services to their paper. He’s slick, tells them he can save them money by asking for less than his usual salary. They’re not hiring, don’t pay as much as he wants anyway. Nevertheless, he convinces them that they need him.
He’s soon on his way to cover an inconsequential story he clearly has no actual interest in covering. Accompanied by the staff photographer, they stop for gas at a tourist place where people can buy genuine Indian artifacts from the grounds nearby, including a mine just across a large field.
No one is around, however. Just an old woman fervently praying. Turns out her son, who owns the place with his wife, is trapped in the mine. A section has collapsed and he’s been injured. Seizing on the opportunity to exploit this human interest story for all it’s worth, and thereby regaining his former glory, Tatum works with authorities to rescue the man. He convinces the wife – who was literally on her way to catch the next bus to bigger and better things – to stay. It’ll be good for the story, he says. And he convinces rescuers to drill in from the top, a process that will take longer than the alternative, but is supposedly safer.
As word gets out, eager onlookers begin to show at the site. “Is this where that guy is trapped in the mine?” they ask. It sure is. And for just a small fee, they can stand around and watch the drill working to free him. Before long, the field is full of gawkers. Business is booming. There’s even rides for the kids.
Tatum occasionally visits the man. There’s an opening big enough to talk through and even pass small objects such as food. Tatum assures him that the drillers are working hard and will have him out as soon as they can. Yes they’re taking the long way but it’s safer. Honest.
Tatum may be able to talk his way out of just about anything, but this picture never ceases to be bleak. There is never any genuine optimism or hope. It is easy therefore, to see why it failed twice (it was also released with the title The Big Carnival). There is no happy ending. There is no one to root for or side with. This is Wilder at his most cynical showing us a side of human nature that none of us wants to face.
If anyone thinks morbid curiosity is a recent invention, think again. This picture was released in 1951, when the popular medium for news and entertainment was still radio. They didn’t have 24-hour news channels, live streaming, or internet so none of those things are to blame for human beings being awful to each other or genuinely enjoying each other’s suffering. Why do passersby slow down when they pass a car accident? For the same reasons people in horse-drawn wagons did the same thing. It’s not so we want to help. It’s because we want to watch. We want to think we got the inside scoop. It’s an ugly, ugly side to us, and it is nothing new.
Ace in the Hole is a picture far ahead of its time, but it seems audiences may never be ready for it. In 1997, a picture called Mad City starring John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman vaguely tried to retell the same story. It also bombed (I didn’t see it so it is entirely possible it just wasn’t very good). As always, however, Wilder’s writing is nearly flawless, the story compelling enough to make you want to see it through to the end, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. And, despite his hatred for trick camera shots – he always said directors should not be seen – the final scene is not to be missed.
If you have any interest in Wilder’s work, Kirk Douglas, or simply great filmmaking, I highly recommend this one. If you know me, I might even lend it to you – or invite you over to watch it with me so I have an excuse to geek out.