Ace in the Hole's Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas at his best) is a big-city reporter, a sharp cookie who's made himself unemployable. When the movie opens he is talking his way into a job in New Mexico, despite his open contempt for the surroundings. "Even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque," is his review of the local paper. With a single dissolve, Wilder establishes the passage of a year, and we find Tatum's contempt has turned to desperation. He hasn't found a single story capable of getting him back into large circulation. But while on his way to cover a rattlesnake roundup, Tatum stumbles across a one-stoplight town called Escadero. There, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) lies trapped by a cave-in after going too far into an Indian burial site. Here's the human-interest story Tatum's been waiting for--if only Minosa will stay buried long enough for the reporter to milk the pathos.
The local contractor believes he can rescue Leo just by shoring up the walls, which would take about 16 hours. Good for Leo, bad for Tatum. With the connivance of the local sheriff, who is up for re-election, Tatum strong-arms the contractor into drilling through the top of the mountain, a process that could take five days. Thus begins the great ghoulish parade of people seeking something out of Leo's plight. Tatum, of course, wants his career back. His sidekick Herbie (Bob Arthur), a callow young photographer, wants to hitch his wagon to Tatum's. Leo's wife Lorraine, played so dense and so hard by Jan Sterling you could use her to pound a piling, wants out of her Escadero existence and away from the sad-sack Leo.
You can read this movie as an attack on tabloid journalism, which it certainly is, but the press isn't the main target. Tatum is a heel, but he does have a conscience, albeit one that kicks him only faintly and too late. None of these characters have pretty motives, but worst of all are the crowds of people who arrive to camp out, buy souvenirs and eat junk food while waiting for a man to be rescued or to die. Wilder includes a beautiful long shot of a train pulling into Escadero after years of passing the whistle-stop by. What pangs trouble the passengers as they jump out, so eager to mill outside a possible tomb that they leap before the train stops moving? The same that trouble millions of reality-TV viewers, that is to say, none. The throngs believe they are just indulging their God-given American right to be entertained.
Wilder didn't much care for the common American, but he dearly loved the common man's lingo. Here he uses the matchless variety of mid-century Americanese like a dimmer switch, taking the movie from bright to dark. The script starts off funny, as Douglas delivers each staccato burst of sarcasm con brio. "I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog," he says. To the Albuquerque paper's editor, Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall), he remarks, "I've done a lot of lying in my time. I've lied to men who wear belts. I've lied to men who wear suspenders. But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders." Asked if he drinks, Tatum says, "Not a lot. Just frequently."
The one-liners continue, finally climaxing in the biggest laugh of the picture, Jan Sterling to Douglas: "I've met some hard-boiled eggs in my time. But you? You're twenty minutes." The laughs are quieter from that moment, until all smiles cease together, as Leo's chances get smaller. Nobody laughs when, late in the movie, Douglas tells Boot, "I'm on my way back to the top, and if it takes a deal with a crooked sheriff, that's all right with me! And if I have to fancy it up with an Indian curse and a brokenhearted wife for Leo, then that's all right too!"
As scalding as he is, Wilder doesn't leave audiences utterly without hope. A Wilder picture almost always has at least one character who acts as moral grounding--Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity, Arlene Francis in One, Two, Three, Nancy Olson in Sunset Boulevard. You can measure the movie's cynicism by the amount of respect and exposure that character gets. The Apartment, often called bitter, is one of Wilder's most optimistic films, in that the character whose essential decency anchors the movie turns out also to be the protagonist, Jack Lemmon.
In Ace in the Hole, the last good man is the editor Boot. He has about four brief scenes. He may believe in truth, so much so he has his secretary cross-stitch "Tell the Truth" on a sampler, but he is badly outnumbered.
Ace in the Hole is based in part on the real-life story of Floyd Collins. In the movie Tatum talks about the incident, without mentioning Collins' eventual death. No, what's notable to Tatum is the payoff for the reporter on the scene. Listen for Douglas, saying "Pulitzer Prize" the way you hear "Medal of Honor" intoned in a John Wayne movie.
According to Wilder biographer Ed Sikov, the movie also has roots in the even more tragic story of Kathy Fiscus , a three-year-old who fell down a well in 1949. Jockeys showed up, offering to be lowered to rescue her, as did the Philip Morris cigarette midget and some other little people from the circus. This may have sparked Wilder's decision to create the full-scale carnival that springs up next to Leo's mountain prison. See the director's camera come to rest on the trucks delivering the Ferris Wheel and other fairground rides: "The Great S&M Amusement Corp." Sikov notes that head Production Code enforcer Joseph Breen objected to the word "lousy" in the script, but apparently the carnival name flew right over Breen's flat little head.
He didn't work on the script, but we'll let later Wilder collaborator I.A.L. Diamond have the last word, as quoted in Sikov's biography:
Sure, they called it cynical. And then you see thousands and thousands of people turning up at Idlewild airport in New York to watch a plane coming down with bad landing gear. People clog the runway waiting for it to crash--and you ask yourself how cynical Ace in the Hole really was.
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