Billy Wilder made Ace in the Hole as a follow-up to the acclaimed Sunset Boulevard, essentially writing his own ticket in Hollywood. The story he opted to make was a cruel indictment of the American media, one which has only become more accurate and biting over the years. The film opens with reporter Chuck Tatum, a refugee from big city newspapers who's now stuck in a desolate New Mexico town. Desperate to get back on top (and earn enough money to feed his drinking habit), he stumbles upon the perfect story after toiling away for a miserable year in the sticks: A treasure hunter (a looter, if you will) has gotten stuck in a cave-in in some old Indian caves. Guy in a well: That'll sell papers, right?
What follows is genius, as Tatum engineers the story to be far bigger than it really is: He colludes with a rescue engineer, a smarmy sheriff, and the wife (Jan Sterling) of the trapped caver to ensure that he's kept in the earth as long as possible. Rather than simply shore up some of the cave passages (Tatum can actually crawl to within a few feet of the guy), he convinces everyone to dig a new tunnel all the way to our poor trapped victim. This gives Tatum time to write more stories, sell them at top dollar to other newspapers, become a major celebrity in his own right, and land piles of cash.
Naturally, he's going to lose his soul in the process. The only question is how soon, and how badly.
Things hit rock bottom around day six, when a bona-fide "media circus" springs up outside the mine, complete with a big top and a ferris wheel. Thousands gather to hear the latest updates on the rescue operation, camped out like today's onlookers at any number of celebrity spectacles. I won't spoil the ending, but the last ten minutes of the film -- as the victim inches closer to death -- are among the best cinema has to offer.
Not only did Wilder pillory the media in Ace in the Hole, he made monkeys out of everyone. Look at you, he said, you eat this drivel with both hands full of it. And in an era where Paris Hilton's release from a couple of weeks in jail and the launch of a new cell phone dominate headlines, you can almost hear Wilder laughing at you from heaven as you click over to TMZ to read the latest, idiotic gossip. (Hey, I'm guilty too.)
Douglas, at the top of his game here, owns this movie completely. Though supporting players like Sterling are equally on target, the movie shines when the impossibly smarmy Douglas is working his scam on screen. He perfectly captures everything about the worst of today's reporters, arguably outdoing Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success. It might be my favorite Douglas performance ever.
Criterion couldn't miss with this DVD release, and it's a fantastic one: audio commentary from Neil Sinyard, a documntary about Wilder, a 1984 interview with Douglas, and various snippets of interviews and archival footage, all spread across two discs. Put down that copy of Us and get it now.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 29th June 1951
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Fresh: 24 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 8.2 / 10
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Billy Wilder
Starring: Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, Jan Sterling as Lorraine Minosa, Robert Arthur as Herbie Cook, Porter Hall as Jacob Q. Boot, Frank Cady as Mr. Federber, Richard Benedict as Leo Minosa, Ray Teal as Sheriff Gus Kretzer, Lewis Martin as McCardle, John Berkes as Papa Minosa, Frances Dominguez as Mama Minosa, Gene Evans as Deputy Sheriff, Frank Jaquet as Sam Smollett, Harry Harvey as Dr. Hilton, Bob Bumpas as Radio Announcer, Geraldine Hall as Nellie Federber, Richard Gaines as Nagel