****/**** Image A- Sound B Extras A-
starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Bob Arthur, Porter Hall
screenplay by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman
directed by Billy Wilder
by Walter Chaw Ace in the Hole is full of bees. It's the most scabrous, uncompromised work from Billy Wilder, who never made a movie that wasn't kind of an asshole; and never made a movie that didn't reflect the essential nihilism of his worldview. He's a fascinating figure, Wilder--a director of obvious genius who has defied easy auteur classification not because he didn't have his distinguishing characteristics (the outsider hero yearning for assimilation, for instance), but because his films are only queasily liked and then only at arm's length. His stuff is poisonous. There's a sense that reviewing him is like trying to dissect a facehugger: if you poke too insistently, you'll release acid. You can point to Some Like it Hot as an exception, but I would respond that that film is about a notorious gangland massacre, repressed homosexuality, rape (kind of), chiselling, and the difficulties embedded in gender expectation and objectification. Wilder's treatment of Marilyn Monroe there and in the earlier The Seven-Year Itch, and his later comments about Marilyn's stupidity, her breasts, and his venal rationale for working with her twice, all feeds into the read that Ace in the Hole is close to autobiography. A curmudgeon with wit is an asshole by any other name. What would Wilder have done with his dream project, Schindler's List? Like Ace in the Hole, I imagine it would have been more about a world that would endorse such atrocity than about the atrocity itself.
Ace in the Hole is ostensibly about the media circus (it was rechristened The Big Carnival after tanking in the public/critical perception) that pitched its tent long before it became a popular whipping post. The picture covers a cave-in, an unfortunate treasure-hunter, and absolute, unrepentant, irredeemable bastard reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), relieved from his elevated post and a host of others in the Big Apple to bring his yellow journalism to nowhere, New Mexico. A statement about how low Tatum's been brought, certainly, it's also a statement about how the same ugliness grows indiscriminately, everywhere. In a lovely, brittle opening, Tatum ambles into the offices of the local fishwrap, announces his superiority to every moron in the joint, and bullies himself into a byline. But a little bit of Wilder repartee makes it palatable: Jimmy Olsen manqué Herbie (Bob Arthur) scores a quick rhetorical hit on Tatum-on-a-roll, and mild-mannered editor Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), representative of the dying old guard, shows himself keen with the best line in the film, something about a thrice-widowed matron and the prospects of winning her favour.
It sets up the troubled conceit of the picture, a dividing line between smart people who are predators and smart people who aren't. Even the erstwhile heroes own a tourist-trap junk shop that capitalizes on the local Native population. It's a movie about castes--not so much in the social sense (though suburbia will be skewered in the bodies of a vacationing family), but in a moral/intellectual sense. It has nothing hopeful to offer, which goes some way towards explaining why I've never bought into any of Wilder's romantic pairings. Ace in the Hole has been read broadly as a criticism of the news mechanism that caters to the lowest common denominator. I'd argue that it's actually a criticism of the lowest common denominator itself. This is Wilder's Hitchcock turn, his audience critique declaring that people are stupid, and malleable, and ugly, essentially, and that although it's possible to court their better natures for a while, a brutal, Hobbesian venality will inevitably out. I like the scene in a local diner with Tatum baiting the small-town sheriff while, in a box between them, a rattlesnake chitters away, having just been baited the same way by a piece of steak.
Tatum is hungry for a scandal or a tragedy. He tells the matronly receptionist (Geraldine Hall) that he wishes she'd get involved in a doomed love affair and get herself vivisected and stashed in a trunk, so he could win his Pulitzer reporting on her misfortune. On the way out to cover a rattlesnake festival (as guest of honour, some would say), Tatum boasts of his lack of formal education and his schooling as a street-corner paper peddler, and observes that bad news sells. Again, a comment not so much on bad news as on prurient appetites. Look at the way Wilder and his Sabrina DP Charles Lang shoot Tatum as he first enters the cave in search of his quarry: from beneath Douglas's stalactite chin, cadaverous like a ghoul telling a campfire scare. In the cave, under a ton of debris, is Leo (Richard Benedict), trapped there whilst excavating a sacred Native American burial site. He's the obvious good guy in Ace in the Hole, yet he's venal, despicable--even his crime speaks to ransacking the past for a slavering public. And the moment Tatum pulls out a camera to snap a couple of shots is the moment Leo perks up, wiping off his face, manufacturing a smile for posterity's sake. Maybe the hero is baby-faced shutterbug Herbie, every inch the Brandon de Wilde character from Hud, who picks the wrong role model and loses his innocence piecemeal, atrocity-by-degradation-by-inhumanity, until he's a mere shell: empty as the rest of us.
Tatum is matched by icy, bottle-blonde Lorraine (Jan Sterling), the slatternly, opportunistic wife of poor Leo who takes his misfortune initially as a good chance to blow this pop stand. "Go on and peddle your hamburgers," Tatum says to her. Right after he slaps her around a little for looking too happy and maybe wanting to thank Tatum for the sudden windfall brought to her miserable existence by the interest around Leo's avarice. In retrospect, it's not hard to see why Ace in the Hole was so unpopular upon its 1951 release. There's no one to root for. It would make a marvellous companion piece to Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place: films released within months of each other that appeared as if through wormhole from 1963 or thereabouts--from a darker decade in film, as well as an angrier one. Lorraine plays the doting wife, Tatum plays the philanthropist, then, in a scene in his hotel room with editor Boot framed against a crucifix, Tatum becomes the Devil. Wilder's outsiders are always looking for a way in. When Tatum is offered a means through which to return to his squandered city desk, he graduates from huckster to full-blown bastard, extending Leo's stay--fatally, as it happens--just to squeeze a few more days' copy out of the story. Suddenly, Ace in the Hole is a direct analog to Wilder's own Double Indemnity. It's as dirty a noir as ever there was. Its world is fallen and irredeemable; its people are either unrepentant assholes or impotent ideologues; and concepts of faith, love, and order are revealed as insufficient, childish lies.
Douglas is too broad by half here, especially having demonstrated restraint previously as the snake in Out of the Past and subsequently in Paths of Glory. His Tatum is all clenched elocution, the source of a hundred parodies of the Douglas demeanour. He's lucky the script by Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman (Wilder's first following his separation from long-time writing partner Charles Brackett) is as angry as it is. Anything less and he would've looked stupid. Ace in the Hole is a film indicated not by great performances, but by a stream of uninterrupted bile. It's a beautiful film full of meticulous framing that alternates between extreme claustrophobia and wide-open New Mexico tableaux that come to be infested by human contagion. There's a connection here between how the Native Americans lost this tract of land and the way the unreflective mass rallies around any misfortune. Too easy to speak of vultures, the more precise analogy is the piranha. Prescient, it's easy to say--the better word is "observant," because Ace in the Hole is Wilder's contention not that the world is getting ugly, but that it was always ugly. Not that we don't notice, but that it doesn't do any good to notice. Not that there aren't good people, but that it doesn't matter. It's too late. It always was.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion reissues Ace in the Hole in a dual-format Blu-ray edition. The 1.37:1, 1080p transfer traces back to a 4K scan of a 2K restoration combining a duplicate negative and a patchwork source print, and the resulting image is impressively consistent. I remember when this film was extremely difficult to see in any way, shape, or form--the first time I taught it, I resorted to screening a Korean bootleg--so I'm forgiving of stray scuff marks, not to mention a certain softness. (The opening title is milky and borderline blurry, perhaps as a result of not being properly preserved once the picture was renamed.) To be sure, this doesn't have the razor-sharp sheen of the best b&w HD releases, but it is a step up from the standard-def version, sporting far more nuanced dynamic range with sootier, tabloid blacks and of course a better-resolved grain structure. The centre-channel LPCM soundtrack is clear, free of distortion, and relatively full. Of interest to scholars should be the time or two B-movie composer Hugo Friedhofer's score actually does intrude. The only emotions other than rage in Ace in the Hole are black irony and bitter sarcasm. Good times.
Framed by soundbites from Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, "Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man" (58 mins.) is a 16mm Annie Tresgot documentary from 1980 featuring Wilder in conversation with critic Michel Ciment. Wilder is in fine form, going on at length about highlights from his career (including the optical illusion that constituted The Apartment's office set) as well as the troubles with Ace in the Hole's theatrical run. He's acerbic, wry, playful--all the things indicative of his persona, on full display along with what feels like disdain and perhaps impatience. I never know whether I like Wilder completely, though I like his films very much. "Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute" (24 mins.) is an interview conducted by George Stevens Jr., edited for content. What I wouldn't give for a transcript of Wilder and Stevens Sr. having dinner together. Wilder discusses his life between the wars, his writing process, and why it is he never returned to Europe. He waxes rhapsodic for a while about Austria and speaks of how his economy with budget afforded him a great deal of latitude with studio heads. I have a tough time believing that, but so it is. Furthermore, he considers the nature of comedy--overall a nice, comfortable piece.
"Kirk Douglas" (15 mins.) is an interview from 1984 that has Douglas reflecting on the giants he's worked with and how the part in Ace in the Hole where Tatum lights a match with the carriage of a typewriter rebounding is typical of Wilder's genius with character business. It's a trenchant analysis--the highlight of the piece. He speaks of Wilder as an "arrogant" director in a positive sense, and reveals that he was offered William Holden's role in Stalag 17 but turned it down out of "stupidity." I'm impressed. An audio interview with Walter Newman (10 mins.) finds the screenwriter going over his career, from writing for the radio to this first and only collaboration with Wilder. Not much here save an anecdote involving a rattlesnake and the Paramount logo.
Spike Lee provides a 6-minute afterword wherein he chats about meeting Billy Wilder and shows off a half-sheet for Ace in the Hole he got signed by Douglas and Wilder. I have renewed respect for Lee following his unfairly-maligned Oldboy remake, and now I covet this priceless bit of memorabilia. Oh, his insight into the film is pretty good, too, separating him from douchebags like M. Night Shyamalan, whose participation has devalued the supplements of many a Hitchcock DVD. Lee correctly observes that Ace in the Hole is about America. Nicely played, sir. Additionally, you can step through a 32-image stills gallery of behind-the-scenes and premiere photos and watch a trailer that maybe sells the film too well. All of this video-based material has been upscaled to 1080i for Blu-ray.
A 2007 commentary track from Wilder scholar Neil Sinyard has good information, but suffers from silences and a broad character analysis that seems to take the place of thematic insight. While he makes a few connections to Hitchcock strategies that are interesting in a theoretical sense, observations such as that Tatum has assumed some traits of his editor (i.e., belt and suspenders) are left as that: observations, with no connection to the piece at large. He turns artful phrases like, "The sign says "Land of Enchantment" but for him it's a "Land of Entrapment,"" which is frankly not so much analysis as it is colourful scene recitation. The film deserves better.
Criterion goes clever (read: cutesy) for its insert this time around by mocking up a page from the "Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin" (5 cents!) to present essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin. Haskell's piece is...let's just say that it's dead on. I'm glad I didn't read it before writing my own. Maddin also does yeoman's work, focusing on Douglas's beyond-intense performance and reminding of all the other committed performances Wilder elicited throughout his career. It's intelligent and visual--hallmarks, both, of Maddin's filmmaking sensibility, as it happens. I don't agree that Douglas is great in Ace in the Hole, but I do agree that his intensity is.