Ace in the Hole

Billy Wilder | USA | 1951

1951 Venice
2021 (restored version) Beijing

Since re-emerging in the 2000s, Billy Wilder’s superb Ace in the Hole, so ahead of its time in the 1950s with its acidic and unflinching examination of journalistic ethics and human morality, has taken its place alongside Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment as among the director’s greatest works. In one of the most powerhouse performances in American screen-acting, the great Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter who stumbles upon a potentially career-making story in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When Tatum begins to influence the story’s outcome, a descent begins that finds more than one man caught between a rock and a hard place. An electric narrative that stands as one of Wilder’s tautest and most (melo)dramatic plots (penned with Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman), Ace in the Hole plays today as both a prescient examination of the modern media landscape, and the public appetite for the disastrous news-story that leads to toxic wish-fulfillment.
– Masters of Cinema.

Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole appropriately opens in motion. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t waste time. Consideration, nuance, empathy — words that are anathema to a man who prizes action and momentum. In a striking opening shot, we see a tow truck pulling a convertible behind it as it idles into a small western town. Tatum’s sitting behind the convertible’s steering wheel, though you wouldn’t guess from his cocksure expression that he’s out of work and in dire economic straits; for him, this truck is merely a substitute for the limo he’ll inevitably return to. The truck stops in front of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin’s office, and Tatum marches in and gets himself a crummy newspaper job after launching into a series of double and triple entendres that establish him as a brilliant reporter who can’t work for anybody. Talent, after all, only means so much when you’re drunk or screwing your boss’s wife, though Tatum intends to prove that hunger, more so than even talent, trumps any setback or limitation.

Over 60 years after its initially underrated release, the film remains a prickly, hopeless, weirdly pleasurable masterpiece. Cynicism turns Wilder on, and he has the propulsive talent to ensure that it turns you on too, though he’s too much of an artist to deny the human cost that fuels the various sensations he offers. The film, in Tatum, synonymizes interpersonal nastiness with an American’s ultimate right to do whatever the hell he or she wants, because whatever most anyone wants will almost certainly be bad for themselves and everyone else. That’s the great American riddle of freedom that Wilder’s unpacking. If anything, this picture has grown even more caustic over the years since its release in 1951, as films more prevailingly favor pat moralizing that crosses every platitudinous T.

Wilder thrusts you headfirst into a frenzy of parasitic activity. You wait for a respite from the debauchery, for a character who testifies just a little to life’s potential for decency or at least mercy, and Wilder, aware that you’re awaiting such reassurance, toys with you again and again. Even the film’s sacrificial lamb, Leo Mimosa (Richard Benedict), is morally tainted, as he’s stuck in a mine cave-in because he was looting Native American artifacts. That’s not illegal, it’s Richard’s family’s land, but this action only reaffirms Wilder’s worldview of society as a series of negotiations pertaining to gradations of violation, whether personal or business. Everyone’s after a cut; and Tatum’s the presiding ringleader because, like Wilder, he doesn’t fuss with pretenses of civility. The Mimosa ranch is initially populated by just a few bored elderly families, who read Tatum’s first story of Mimosa’s plight, but it quickly grows into a literal carnival that’s serving cotton candy and hot dogs to an eager public that’s indifferent to a man dying below their feet.

Wilder’s real daring, though, is to equate the gathering of the mob of Tatum’s eager fans to the formation of America itself; the director uses the carnival in a symbolic fashion similar to Sam Fuller’s later use of an insane asylum in Shock Corridor. In several gorgeous and despairing master shots taken from Tatum’s point of view as he surveys his kingdom from atop a mountain perch, the carnival, with its corrupt law officials, firemen, lonely wives, school children, and even a restaurant, suggests a boom town at the dawn of the gold rush. In this extremis, the country’s political and social machinations are peeled of elaborations and subtleties to reveal one gloriously intricate long con that started with our fleecing of the Native Americans’ land (a recurring subtext) and pushes on with our fooling ourselves with a media system that we use primarily to sate our greed and ghoulish curiosities.

Wilder never worked with a performer who expressed his bitterly ironic proclivities as ideally as Kirk Douglas. A big, poetically blunt actor unafraid of grand gestures, he renders Tatum a whirlwind of vice and invention — an expression of everything that’s wrong and right about America. Douglas also understood that this wasn’t a role to soft-peddle or to editorialize, and so he fires out Wilder’s astonishing fire-and-brimstone screeds with almost visible spittle. You like Tatum, against your better instincts, for his commitment, his life force, and for the weird idealism that quietly lurks underneath his monstrousness. Tatum perverts the power of the news for his own wont, but there’s a crusader’s fervor in his desire to reach the big league New York publications again. He’s as gloriously enslaved to his own bullshit as his victims, which is why he’s an ideal salesman, and therefore a perfect American.
– Chuck Bowen, Slant Magazine, 13 May 2014.

Recently (2014) restored in 2K, Ace in the Hole looks very good in high-definition. There are some minor sharpness fluctuations, but most close-ups and large panoramic shots boast very good depth and clarity. The dark footage from the cave is also crisp. Contrast levels remain stable throughout the entire film. The blacks, whites, and the variety of grays are well balanced. There are no traces of problematic degraining corrections. However, in select areas some extremely light traces of fading are visible. There are no problematic sharpening corrections. Overall image stability is very good. Finally, large debris, scratches, cuts, stains, and warps have been removed as best as possible.

Depth and clarity of the sound are very pleasing. The range of nuanced dynamic is rather limited, but this should not be surprising considering the age of the film and its original sound design. The music has primarily a supportive role. The dialog is clean, stable, and easy to follow. Also, there are no pops, cracks, audio dropouts, or distortions to report.
– adapted from Dr Svet Atanasov, 12 April 2014.

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