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Friday Noir: Ace in the Hole

Written by Waleter Newman, Lesser Samuels and Billy Wilder Directed by Billy Wilder U.S.A., 1951

Written by Waleter Newman, Lesser Samuels and Billy Wilder
Directed by Billy Wilder
U.S.A., 1951

OOver the past century, media in all its shapes and forms has evolved at an incredible rate. From newspapers circulating in limited print and old fashioned radios in the early 20th century to a gargantuan number of social media platforms on the internet, online news outlets, and an unfathomable quantity of news report television stations, many of which have global reach, with correspondents often covering the same events. Ideally, the usefulness of these platforms is to help people ‘stay connected’ as the expression goes, to not only remain informed on the happenings in the world but to feel something about said happenings. The first part about caring for one’s community, however big or small, is being aware of its developments, both when things run swimmingly and when they hit rocky waters. The reality of the situation is that many people fail to truly connect with the events at hand, preferring to make use of media platforms to express some sense of fleeting, mostly disingenuous sadness or rage and then move on. For such people, for whom being ‘part of the conversation’ comes first, the concerns are vastly more egocentric than what was hoped for when the chosen media platform was conceived.

Billy Wilder, in his scathing 1951 social-noir Ace in Hole, takes the notion of the media circus and all the artificial hoopla that surrounds it to an embarrassing extreme. However, said embarrassment is not aimed at Wilder or anybody that worked on the picture. Nay, it concerns the aforementioned anti-social socialites that gather around a tragic event because that’s where the action is, that is where they can be seen and, if everything operates in their favour, give off the impression that they care about the victim’s ordeal. Certainly some genuinely do, but it is no secret that many do not, at least not really. The film stars the legendary Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a down on his luck newspaper writer who arrives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Once a prominent role player for the large Easter newspapers, Tatum, a man with no shortage of ego and personal problems, now scrapes by with whatever he can find. In this case, it’s a temporary spot as a reporter for the local newspaper, under the auspices of Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall).

When assigned to cover a rattlesnake hunt nearby with photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur), they find more than they bargained for when happenstance has them stumble upon a story with a steeper inclination for human interest. A man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is caught deep inside a cave where he went to hunt for Native American treasures. The Curse of the Seven Vultures has struck! His frustrated wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who runs the diner and souvenir shop, displays little interest in her husband’s plight, save for when Tatum weaves a diabolical strategy to complicate and extend the rescue mission, resulting in thousands in people, both from the media and general public, hailing from various counties and states, arriving to the scene of the story. Before antone knows it, the proverbial media circus is in full swing, with Lorraine’s diner earning plenty of profit (much to her delight) and Tatum finally catching his break that will land him a job back in New York.

For anyone even casually familiar with director Billy Wilder’s oeuvre, it is no secret that the German émigré had an eye not merely for interesting, rich stories, but ones that frequently pulled back the layers of humanity and dug deep into the darker recesses of the human heart and mind. For every Some Like it Hot (which itself is supported by decent thematic texture), there is a Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and, of course, an Ace in the Hole. He was never afraid of pulling up a mirror and forcing people to look at themselves, both for their brilliant potential and for their infuriating faults. What makes Ace in the Hole such a compelling example of Wilder’s propensity for exploring Man’s dark side is how it still showcases a lot of the sort of acting that dominated the era, with performances that many modern audiences, especially younger ones, might deem melodramatic, whilst laying the ground for arguably his most unapologetically cynical film. Douglas was an excellent actor, but without question one that fit right in his period, as do Real Teal as the corrupt sheriff Kretzer, Frank Cady as a ‘gee-whiz’ tourist with reoccurring appearances throughout and even Richard Benedict as the man stuck beneath the mountain who inadvertently brings so many people to ‘support his cause’.

Ace in the HoleEveryone offers excellent performances in that mid-20th century Hollywood way of acting, yet pulling the strings is director Billy Wilder, shoving a story in audiences’ faces with such brutality that even modern viewers, or a section of them at the very least, will feel the impact. Despite being over 60 years old, the film is depressingly accurate in its depiction of how people behave like cheap sheep whenever a major story breaks out. Sometimes the story is something actually worth exploring, learning more about, or taking to heart, yet how many people pay it mere lip service, more concerned with sharing the spotlight, even if it is in their infinitesimal way.

Obviously, the ways in which individuals and communities consume stories and become a part of them have drastically changed since 1951, what with technology bringing events to people’s fingertips. That said, the madhouse that erupts outside the mountain in the movie is but the 1951 version of what a vast amount of people do on the internet in the early 21st century. Under the hot New Mexico sun tourists listen to a folky song a band plays in tribute to Leo, or buy Native American memorabilia, or try to get interviewed on a radio show to argue that they arrived first on the scene. In 2016, people go to Facebook and post sad emojis (before completely forgetting about the story the next day), share a picture on Instagram (before forgetting the story the next day), or post a message on Twitter with relevant hastags (before forgetting t-…readers probably get the point by now). As such, Wilder’s picture proved eerily prescient. As the expression goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

There is an interview conducted in the 1980s with the director featured on the Criterion blu-ray in which he explains that he never had proclivities for fancy shots that aimed strictly at impressing cinephiles. While that is generally true, the fact of the matter is Wilder could amaze with certain shots despite how aesthetically simple they often were. The leading candidate occurs a little after the midway point. It is a dolly shot of a train making a stop none too far from the now famous mountain, with the aforementioned song about Leo plays on the soundtrack. People get out of the train and run across the sand to the left of the frame. The camera then slowly pans from right to left, as if following the train passengers in their jog, but shortly thereafter it becomes too difficult to see them anymore because the viewer’s attention is suddenly caught by the hundreds of cars parked about, as well as the thousands of people walking and eating, and, for the coup the grace, a clearly visible circus tent in the background. The shot represents everything the viewer needs to know about Ace in the Hole and director Wilder’s subtly confident style. It impresses just as much as it horrifies.

Kirk Douglas acted more popular roles, such as Spartacus. Billy Wilder directed films whose titles come up more quickly when his filmography is discussed, such as Some Like it Hot and Double Indemnity. Even so, there is something about their collaboration for Ace in the Hole that makes it, perhaps not their best film, but certainly one of their more perversely captivating ones. Douglas had played shrewd, nefarious characters before, as in Out of the Past, but his Chuck Tatum is a true monster in disguise, only realizing the folly of his ways far too late, a noir staple. One cannot take their eyes away from Ace in the Hole despite that it is, for all intents and purposes, wearing its message on its sleeve in the most obvious way possible. Its utter lack of subtlety is actually one of its greatest strengths, a praise rarely bestowed upon a film.

Amidst all the brazen cynicism, there is one moment of beautiful, human connection. Once Tatum announces atop the mountain via speaker that Leo is dead, the tourist family the viewer has met a handful of times throughout is seen packing their tent. The wife suddenly begins to cry and the husband quickly embraces her consolingly. It is a refreshing moment, one that speaks to the genuine emotions people can and sometimes do feel when observing tragic events. Wilder has evidently not completely lost faith in humanity, nor should the ordinary man or woman. They just need a good smack on the backside of the head sometimes to remind of what real human interest is all about.

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