Old 05-04-2009, 04:06 PM
Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Six-time Academy Award winning writer/producer/director Billy Wilder has quite a fascinating range in his filmography. He has directed such well-known films as "The Lost Weekend," about an alcohol abuser, "Sunset Boulevard," about a fading actress, "Some Like it Hot," about two men dressing as women to escape the mob, and "The Apartment," about a lonely man who rents his room out for affairs. Unfortunately, "Ace in the Hole" is one of his masterpieces that tends to get overlooked.

Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a newspaper reporter who shows up in Albuquerque hoping to land a job at the local newspaper run by Mr. Boot (Porter Hall). We learn of how Tatum has been fired from several big-city newspapers for various reasons and that it is here that he is hoping to find a big story to put him back on top. When he is assigned the job of covering a rattlesnake hunt with a photographer, Herbie (Robert Arthur), they accidentally run into a much bigger story. Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has become the victim of a cave-in while looking for Indian pots in an old cave. Tatum immediately sees the potential this story has and begins milking it for all it's worth.

All throughout this film, I was reminded of Sidney Lumet's film "Network," which is a scathing, satirical indictment of the broadcast news business. Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" is a scathing look at the business of newspaper reporting, but without as much satire. The lengths to which Tatum go become absolutely ridiculous. Almost immediately upon discovering the story, he wants to be the first one to make contact with Leo, so he goes into the dangerous tunnel to where he is so that he can become friends with him.

His next task is to get the Sheriff (Ray Teal) in his pocket so that he won't bother him during the duration of the story. After a few promises regarding making him look good in the paper and the strong possibility of being reelected, the Sheriff becomes one of his supporters. He also has to deal with Leo's not-so-grieving widow Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who is planning on running away because she feels nothing for Leo anymore. After a quick talk about how much money the story will bring to the deserted trade store, she changes her mind. It seems Tatum has everything going quite nicely, so far.

There is nothing Tatum won't do to ensure a good story out of this situation. The diggers could easily go in and get Leo by bracing the walls with wood, but in order to drag the story out for a week, Tatum suggests that they drill in through the top of the mountain; the Sheriff, of course, agrees with him. This is the one strange part of the movie that begs the question, why doesn't the digger insist on the faster way to save the man? He does object, but is easily swayed. Another man objects to this method as well, but is quickly dismissed. It isn't until later, when Tatum finds out Leo is dying that he wishes he had gone the other way, but by now it is too late to change tactics due to the weak cave walls.

The events of the last half of the movie are particularly astounding. It is like something out of a dream when you juxtapose the situation happening inside the cave with what is happening outside. Leo is slowly dying of pneumonia while he's trapped inside the cave, but outside, there are thousands of people who have driven from all over to be there. There is even a carnival that shows up, complete with rides, music, and food. The events with Leo's wife are particularly incredible. By the time they are over, we are amazed Tatum has felt the impact of them at all after everything he's done in the film.

The screenplay by Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman is brilliant. It contains several quotable lines like "Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news." Then there is the scene when Mr. Boot comes to visit Tatum on location. Tatum tells him "I don't belong in your office. Not with that embroidered sign on the wall; it gets in my way," referring to the sign that says "tell the truth." The screenplay weaves together a very engaging story about a man who is willing to do anything for a big break, even if lives hang in the balance.

It is when Tatum realizes that Leo's life is in danger when we think that some compassion has finally taken hold of him. It is shocking to realize that he tries to change the plans only because he doesn't want a sad ending for his story. However, what makes his character so complex is one final act that he does in the end, showing a glimmer of hope for his compassion towards Leo.

Tatum is portrayed perfectly by Kirk Douglas, star of such other great films as Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" and "Spartacus." He plays Tatum as a character without any remorse towards the people he meets. He brings a great touch of egocentricity and selfishness to the character that really shows that he doesn't care about anyone but himself and that he doesn't care who gets hurt in the process.

It is a shame that this film gets overlooked in discussions of Billy Wilder because it is perhaps his best work. He's not afraid to tell it like it is when it comes to newspapers, just like Lumet did when it came to broadcast news in "Network." It's all about circulation rates or TV ratings. They knew that when it comes to stories about "human interest," it's all about the "interest." 4/4 stars.

Last edited by Hal2001; 05-04-2009 at 11:39 PM..
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Old 05-04-2009, 08:40 PM
Billy Wilder

Nice to see Billy as a focus of a post here JoBlo. this film I haven't saw-my Wilder favorites to name a few are-1967's "The Fortune Cookie" and 1981 "Buddy,Buddy" (they need to release this on dvd already!) gr8 films with Wilder's duo Lemmon &Matthau
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