1950s, 4/4, Billy Wilder, Drama, Review

Ace in the Hole

Image result for ace in the hole poster

#2 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.

This might be the most thoroughly cynical movie I’ve ever seen, and I love it. It’s a vicious look at the sausage making of sensational journalism, and it spares no one. The journalist who orchestrates it all is one of the worst human beings in film.  The wife of the victim is a close second. The local law are so easily bribed that it’s not even a challenge. The contractors so easily coerced by bad logic. The people who gather so easily led that they’re effectively sheep. And, at the center of the big circus that erupts, a man and his father.

Inspired by a similar event in Kentucky 25 years earlier (so similar in fact, that the man involved in the real thing got a settlement from the studio for stealing his life story), it tells of a newspaper man in the latest of a long string of jobs, each one smaller than the last, that he’s had to leave for different reasons, none too flattering for him. This reporter, Chuck Tatum, is so desperate to get the right story to take him back to the top of the newspaper world in New York that he’ll find any story, and if there isn’t one, he’ll bite a dog. Biting a dog is just what he does, metaphorically, of course.

A year into his stint at the small Albuquerque newspaper he’s found himself in, Tatum goes several hours out of town at the orders of his editor to cover a rattlesnake hunt. Along the way, they stumble across news of a man trapped in an old series of shafts in a mountain. Knowing a situation he can turn to his advantage when he sees one, Tatum blows off the rattlesnake hunt and zeroes in on the trapped man. It has all the trappings of a great human interest story, and Tatum knows exactly how to manipulate everyone into giving it the kind of legs that would give him huge exposure and star status himself, as the man who broke the story.

He bribes local officials including the sheriff. He convinces the sheriff to force the contractors to attempt the rescue a longer, and far more dramatic, way that will take six days instead of sixteen hours. The sudden explosion in interest in the sleepy, out of the way, trading post even convinces the trapped man’s wife to stick around long enough to make some money, even though she was going to use her husband’s state to run away again.

What makes this really fascinating is that Tatum is putting on a mask to everyone he interacts with, and just about everyone sees right through it. They chose to accept the mask instead of falling for it. The sheriff knows he’s being bribed, and he’s okay with it. The contractor knows he’s being forced into a bad decision, but he’s not the final say so he’s okay with it. The wife is going to make a lot of money from her husband’s misfortune, and she’s okay with it. It’s when Tatum first arrives, gets apprised of the situation, and calls back to his newspaper that the wife sees Tatum for exactly who he is.

At the center of all this duplicity is Leo Minosa, the man in the mine. He doesn’t see through Tatum. He only sees Tatum as a kind hearted man there to help him, and Leo is tragic for that misjudging of character. He places all of his trust in an awful person, out only for his own advancement. Late in the film, when it becomes obvious that Leo is going to die before the roundabout rescue will get to Leo, Tatum becomes emotional for the first time in the story, but it’s not because Leo is going to die. It’s because Tatum’s chance for saving himself from Albuquerque are going to die with Leo.

Kirk Douglas gives a fantastic performance as Tatum, a man with almost no redeeming qualities who is eminently watchable from the moment he rides up to the Albuquerque newspaper in his towed car to the moment he collapses on the floor of the newspaper office, bleeding to death. The circus that pops up around Leo’s unfortunate fate is the exact kind of awful portrait of easily led newspaper consumers that makes audience’s squirm. This movie is so wonderfully constructed, written, and executed, and it’s one of Billy Wilder’s best films.

Netflix Rating: 5/5

Quality Rating: 4/4

9 thoughts on “Ace in the Hole”

  1. Okay, another comment on the same film, on an old thread, but hey, I rewatched this and I’ve had a couple.

    This is probably the most complete condemnation of humanity that I have ever seen.

    I imagine Q, early on, showing this to Pickard, and a dumbfounded Pickard saying, “Wow, sure looks like we should be destroyed.”

    Q would smirk, but be a bit more nuanced in his response.


    1. Heh.

      Yeah, and the pure pessimism of the movie is one of the reasons I love it. It so wonderfully captures two completely awful characters and how they’re able to manipulate everyone around them.


      1. Just two? I think every character here is awful…even the ones who aren’t explicitly so (like Porter Hall) are basically standing there and saying, “Yeah, you’re awful, and I’m not going to stop it.”

        Liked by 1 person

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