Wilder: Ace in the Hole (1951) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder: Ace in the Hole (1951)

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Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a down-on-his-luck reporter, takes a job with a small New Mexico newspaper. The job is pretty boring until he finds a man trapped in an old Indian dwelling. He jumps at the chance to make a name for himself by taking over and prolonging the rescue effort, and feeding stories to major newspapers. He creates a national media sensation and milks it for all it is worth - until things go terribly wrong.

Billy Wilder predicted the future better than any other film I can think of at this moment. Sure, he didn't have characters carrying around iPhones or watching TV on flat screens, but when it comes to journalism and where it was going, Wilder hit the nail squarely on the head in 1951's Ace in the Hole.

Before getting into movies, Wilder was a journalist in Europe and he knows what he speaks of in this very bleak film. I find it funny that a contemporary film like Good Night and Good Luck is at the opposite end of the spectrum of Ace in the Hole. The director of that film, George Clooney, wanted to go back to a time, the 50's, where being a journalist meant something and the news yearned to make a difference, while Wilder made a film in the 50's showing how the death of news and rise of sensationalism was going to come about.

Ace in the Hole was a huge bomb when it came out both critically and financially with people even calling for Wilder's deportation. This is not surprising because I think it is by far his angriest film with very little levity thrown in. It starts with the main character, Chuck Tatum, who is not a charming scamp who will win over the audience's love but a mean SOB that will do anything to get to the top of his mountain.

What is even worse is that mountain that Tatum is climbing isn't to break a huge story that impact everyone or change the world, but rather he just wants a front page story and the fame that goes with it. Who cares if an innocent man is damned in the process? Getting the story and becoming famous was the only thing that mattered to Tatum.

Change out "man stuck in a cave" to any tantalizing story that the news media has covered in the last 15 years (celebrity trials, a man who murdered numerous wives, good looking girl missing in another country) and you can see how much Billy Wilder got right. Tatum, who is played wonderfully by Kirk Douglass, knows the score from the beginning and has a wonderful monologue on how he yearns to escape New Mexico and make it back to his hometown of New York. Look at the following dialogue and see how much is true in this even if we the viewer don't want it to be:

"I'm stuck here, fans. Stuck for good. Unless of course, you Miss Deverich, instead of writing household hints about how to remove chili stains from blue jeans, get yourself involved in a trunk murder. How about it, Miss Deverich? I could do wonders with your dismembered body. Or you, Mr. Wendell. If you'd only toss that cigar out of the window - real far, all the way to Los Alamos - And boom!! Now there would be a story."

When Tatum finds his big story of the poor Leo Minosa trapped in the Indian Mine he spins the story into what the consumers would like to read. Find the grieving wife (even if she is not so grieving), paint a story that can be followed by everyone, make it emotional and by all means stretch it out as long as possible. No one is let off easily in this movie including the elected officials, the newspapermen, the fame seeking family and most of all the audience.

The readers of the paper fall for this story quickly and everything that Tatum thinks of that audience, no matter how low and insulting it is, is true. Again this movie was a huge failure at the box office because Wilder was pointing a finger at everyone watching it, implicating them... and it just so happened that the finger he was using the most was his middle one.

Yet, is Wilder wrong? I said in the beginning that he saw the future and got it right, and I believe that 100%. Take his screenplay and remake it today and how much would you have to change? Other than updating some references and probably switching his job from a newspaper reporter to a broadcast one, I believe you could keep everything else the exact same and it would ring true. That means that we as a society are as much to blame for the rise of sensational journalism as anyone else because if those stories didn't get the ratings, the networks would not be showing them.

I know I went on for quite a while, Danny, but what are your thoughts of this film?

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Well, Ryan, I won't call it as predicative as I would honest. Ace in the Hole pitches its title sequence above a pile of dirt, which plays a central role in the movie. Leo is buried in it, and Chuck loves it.

This is his first movie without Brackett and the first film Billy Wilder produced. This results in a lot of Wilder moments that are fun to notice, like the goofy way Tatum arrives in Albequerque in a broken down car being towed. For a man broke and behind the wheel of an nonfunctional car, he's still cocky as hell. Later, when he lights a match off a typewriter, his disdain for the newspaper is practically reverberating off of the screen.

And I suppose this is where I'll have to disagree with you, Ryan-- I like Chuck Tatum, and not just because Kirk Douglas embodies more swaggering menace than a dozen Harvey Keitels. No, Tatum is rotten and scheming, but his fatal flaw is that he never thinks things through. We miss a year in this movie from when he first swaggers into the Albuquerque Star Bulletin to his discover of Leo Minosa's sad plight, and it's obvious that the small town was hard at work civilizing him. It even got him to the point where he's wearing suspenders and a belt, the exact thing he sneers at the moment he arrived. In a different movie, when he makes that rant you posted above about creating his own news, Marilyn Monroe would have popped up, soothed his nerves, kissed him, and the movie would end with a climax of strings.

But Chuck didn't find a girl, and in fact rejects anything that's not going to get him his scoop. The worst thing he does is his rejection of nature, from him mocking a rattlesnake (not a good idea) to his insistence of drilling that hole to save Leo, right through the holy mountain.

That leads me to a weird question for you Ryan: is this Wilder's most spiritual film? Not that I'm saying he's showing off his own faith in any way, other than usual sense of Production Code enforced justice, but in the way he shows religion and the people of the southwest. With the place Leo is buried being a holy site to the Indians to the last rites that are delivered with a cross on the head, the currents of religion and faith run rampant throughout. Leo curses the spirits and Tatum plays them up for effect, but consider the circus we see, I don't think it's too far to assume that Wilder might have made the intention that the Indians really do get their revenge here for the mockery and ill treatment their culture receives.

But I think the most horrifying part of the film isn't how far we see Chuck go-- hell, he at least tries to make up for it-- but how we see the world react to Tatum's stories. They arrive in droves, and the first pair that shows up, the Federbers (which is such a wonderfully goofy name), intend to stop for a half an hour but stay on for the week, even getting indignant when other people claimed to be the first ones there.

Just last week I was writing something (I don't remember what for the life of me) about how everyone tries to fit their lives into narratives, and this is what Tatum is doing for people: turning real life into a story. He's delivering the tension, and he just needs to give them the happy ending and they will feel satisfied. The only problem, and one that everyone realizes, is that he doesn't pull it through in the end. He fails them, and so the crowd of thousands wordlessly shuffles to their cars, desperate to forget the fun and excitement they were having.

And then there's Lorainne just wandering in with all of the cars as they depart, unable to find a ride... she'll never fit in. I like her character, but I've been going on for long enough. Who'd you feel sorry for, Ryan? Anyone?

The only person I feel bad for in the movie is Leo because the only thing he did wrong was trusting one wrong person and marrying another one. It seems like Leo is a good person that likes his life and comes from a loving family. He likes his simple life and is the fact that he wants nothing more a damning trait in this movie?

Like you mentioned the movie has a spiritual beat to it with Native American sacred grounds and Catholic rituals but I think the biggest spiritual movement in the movie is the "worshiping of false idols." Tatum loves that the people come, love that his by-line is everywhere and really enjoys being the voice of the tragedy. To become this trusted figure is Tatum's one goal and he can't be bothered with women or anything of the like.Look at how disinterested Tatum is when Lorraine throws herself at him. He can't mess around with her at that time because it would mess with his story of the grieving wife. He even assists her as the grieving wife with some tears after he slaps her around a bit.

This brings me to the next topic I want to discuss and that is how Wilder uses women in his movies. Billy Wilder wrote great roles for his starring ladies and some of them have gone down as the most iconic roles of all time. A director can't help create the cult of both Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn without loving women and writing them great characters, BUT he also seems to have a mean streak when it comes to their treatment in some movies.

Tatum slaps, pushes, berates and even strangles Lorraine in Ace in the Hole, Neff shoots Phyllis in cold blood and up close and personal in Double Indemnity and Harry kicks his ex-wife over at her low point in The Fortune Cookie. Were these horrible women written by a person who secretly thought women were shrews out to get men or was he an equal opportunity writer, giving women as many chances to "play in the mud" as the men in his movies? I personally go with the second thought. The movies wouldn't have been as good had he toned down the awfulness of the women. The movies would not have had the bite they had that have made them so timeless.

What are you thoughts of women in Wilder films Danny and do you avoid church because kneeling bags your nylons?
Oh, I don't know about Leo. He's kind of a dink who gets used throughout the picture, and Wilder makes sure we know why: besides out and out stealing artifacts to sell at his roadside stand (which itself looks like an affront to the whole Indian culture) to the way he had to keep dragging his wife back home after every time she tried to escape-- Leo may be a romantic in the end, but it's obvious before we met him he was a cavalier and confident ass. If you'd say he was worshiping a false idol, I'd say his wife is it.

But, as to your question, I've heard misogyny leveled at Wilder a couple of times, and I will say there are times where the complaint is more valid than others. Again, he is working under The Production Code, which pretty much gutted women's roles to the point that everyone either had to be a housewife or a femme fatale, with 3/4 of them dying before the credits role.

External forces can only be blamed for so much, but I still don't think Wilder had any more hatred for the female gender than he did for the male one. Swanson's more showy in Sunset Boulevard, but there's not much doubt that Joe Gillis is just as cruel and petty as Norma Desmond any day. Misogyny implies a very real dislike or stereotype of women, and I think you can see, especially coming up in stuff like Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch, that Wilder has a lot more faith in them than he does in men. But we can talk about this more when we get to The Apartment, I think.

I'm glad you brought up Double Indemnity, though, since we got a rather obtuse reference to it when Mr. Federber starts shooting his mouth off on the radio. It sounds like he worked for Pacific All Risk, the same company Neff had his escapades at. Further proof that Wilder doesn't hate women, just people in the insurance industry.

One other funny thing I noticed during the media circus: the carnival that moves in to take advantage of the crowd was The Great S&M Amusement Corp, which is such a wonderfully pointed joke name. Sadism and masochism, of course, being two big items throughout the film, practically defining Chuck Tatum and his mad desires.

What's very subtly amusing is that Chuck seems like a total aberration to everyone else in the film with almost every character he meets doesn't believe that he's honestly that corrupt and hungry. From the office's laughing response, they don't buy his determination any more than any newspaper seems to care that Tatum's greed led to Leo's murder. Everyone's more bemused by him than upset at first, until he actual gains a morsel of power and can rock some boats.

The only person who really seems to get Tatum is Lorraine, and I think that may be because she's as disillusioned as he is. She was a post-War bride, someone who rooted for her guy but found when he came back that he was a grave robber and a louse. She's completely curdled, so much so that even Tatum is outmatched by her barbarism at points. Again, I wouldn't classify this as misogyny on Wilder's part, but a rather needling point about how women were expected to conform after the War. Lorraine made a mistake she couldn't escape until Tatum gave her everything she wanted. She doesn't regret it, but like I mentioned at the end of my last section: she doesn't get picked up with that sea of cars as she's trying to leave. She's gained her freedom, but she'll always be an outcast to society.

Tatum gets his power, but loses it because of his empathy. Lorraine gets her freedom, but won't fit in because of it. The corrupt sheriff will be reelected, the engineer will keep his contract, and the photographer will get his old job back from the sympathetic boss. The public got their thrills, but didn't get a happy ending. And Leo's parents... well, I think they're the real losers in all of this.

Any other thoughts, Ryan?

I find it fascinating that we see Leo in two very different ways. I always thought he was kind of a dumb guy who never did anything of harm to anyone purposely. I believe that he might have brought Lorraine back again and again but I don't think he ever did it forcefully. More likely he won her over, not by being dashing or exciting but by showing her that going back with him would always bring stability for her.

Like you said, she isn't going to fit in anywhere after this ordeal and I don't think it will be long before she misses what she had. It might not have been love and it might not have been her dream but she was at least cared for in this situation. If none of this would have happened, I see the two of them becoming Federbers in 10 years.

You are also right that this films is far from a happy ending. The jerks get what they want, the losers are the good people and no one has really learned anything from the ordeal, at least no one who is still breathing. We have talked about this movie being the first that he wrote after his breakup with Brackett and I think it is the movie that is most purely Wilder.

For me, this film has the most quotable lines from any of his films. If I wrote out every single bit of dialogue I liked in this piece the word count would be in the thousands. Not only is the script so damn good the directing is lean and mean like the film. Other than the shots of the media circus being constructed many of the shots in the movie are close and almost claustrophobic. Wilder shoots Tatum and Lorraine in their moments together in a way that Tatum feels like a threat to her, there is always the chance of some sort of danger between the two that finally boils over in the end.

Ace in the Hole is the masterpiece of Wilder's career that is not nearly as well known as it should be. All film lovers should see this movie but be warned after watching it there is the feeling you have been punched in the stomach because, as to paraphrase Lorraine, I have seen a lot of hard-boiled eggs, but Ace in the Hole is 20 minutes.
I'll say. I think nothing encapsulates that more than Chuck and Lorraine's kiss. Usually even in the most unpleasant movies we'd see both of them come together and smooch. Here we get Tatum's hand grabbing Lorraine's hair and pulling it in, so all we see is the back of her head. His anger, her compliance. It just goes to show what a monster he is.

But that's one last point I wanted to bring to you: Billy Wilder is not usually what I'd call a flashy director. His most memorable scenes, like Phyllis' reaction to her husbands murder or Norma walking down the stairs, all rely on a stationary camera, letting an actor act and the music... uh, musique.

Here he plays with what he can do a bit more, and besides that kiss there's a couple of scenes that demonstrate it. One is where Tatum and the Sheriff exchange blows about digging Leo out early. Tatum knows Leo will die if they don't take a quicker way in, but the Sheriff balks at the possibility of having their fraud exposed, even at the cost of Leo's life. They come to blows, and Leo stands triumphant over him. The short fight is done in one shot including a slow zoom, but what's interesting is that part between the last blow and Tatum stalking towards the Sheriff, who's crumpled on the ground. That unflinching moment demonstrates how powerfully angry Tatum is that Leo may die, because his blackmailing worked far too well.

Another good moment of this is the final shot, which Cameron Crowe calls out Wilder for in the aforementioned Conversations With Wilder. Tatum, stabbed and in the last throes of life, repeats an offer from the beginning of the film to work for the small town newspaper and then collapses right into the frame. This death is gruesome and humiliating, and the way Douglas' smarm wears away and freezes into stone is chilling. His death is a damnation.

I think you like this film more than me (it's got better moments than a great whole), but I still think it's a rather interesting document from the 1950's about what kind of picture was allowed to get by the censor boards but was still rejected by the public for being too immoral.

The movie takes umbrage not at journalists who try to create news, but at anyone who recklessly profit from other's misery, which pretty much includes the public at large. There's a scene of dialogue that doesn't seem very important when it's happening, but I think encapsulates the whole picture wonderfully. Tatum's photographer sidekick, Herbie, is just returning from Albuquerque after informing them of Leo's story and wants to see Tatum at the ruins. However he finds that Lorraine has started charging admission to the cave dwellings where once the entrance was free. You see, now there's an attraction.

Herbie turns to the ticket taker: "I'm with the press. We never pay."

"Everyone pays," the kid retorts.

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Next Week: Stalag 17 (1953)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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  1. Thank you gentlemen, I really enjoyed your discussion on the film. I always try and push this film on people, for the reason you note – it’s deserves to be a higher profile in Wilder’s work. I don’t think it’s been on TV in the UK for 20 years which is an absolute crime.

    • I annoy my friends and family with how hard I try and make them watch this film. I agree with it needing a higher profile. I hope you enjoy this series and know that there is another lover of this film out there.

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