Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, Billy Wilder
Starring: Kirk Douglass, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Cody
Success and money don’t change a person, it only magnifies their character whether it be for good or despicable reasons. In this timeless tale, it displays the rise and fall of a man so attached to his hubris that utilizes other humans for his own gain. A story put together by great direction and tremendous performances.
No longer accepted as a newspaper writer in New York, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglass), makes his way down to New Mexico to start over. He lands a job and quickly becomes unfulfilled with the type of assignments he must cover. One day, while covering an event, he witnesses a man gets stuck in a near-collapsing cave and upon his report, the entire country shows great interest. Seeing this as his opportunity to regain his prestige position, he utilizes this situation to his advantage.
Americans love to make attractions out of tragedies. Somehow, seeing it attracts our attention, which partly contributes to the popularity of reality TV and seeing others struggle for entertainment purposes. This occurs upon Tatum’s reporting of the man stuck in the cave. The story becomes such a large point of interest that a literal theme park opens up around the cave to make money off the situation. Instead of actually helping the man, thousands will flock to the scene just to mention that they attended the event like it was some sort of concert. Truly despicable, but it sells because tragedies sell newspapers and all of the media characters know this. It explains why news outlets always focus on negative things happening, as it creates intrigue and holding onto a viewer ensures increased engagement. The system rewards this type of behavior and in Ace in the Hole, it all becomes a spectacle to the detriment of the person actually needing help. It certainly only makes it worse when a truly selfish and power-hungry man dictates everything occurring.
Tatum becomes such a despicable character throughout the story, which made it surprising that Kirk Douglass took on the role. Mostly known for portraying hero archetypes like in Spartacus, this role represents the worst in humanity. Tatum arrives onto New Mexico with an unearned smugness towards the people there considering he just lost his job in the big city. He forces his way into the newspaper team like he represents a gift to these lowly people. With that attitude, he gets the big break he needs to be done with New Mexico and get his city life back. He prolongs the rescue of the man in the cave because he realizes that if he can lengthen the story, he’ll earn more money and the attention of his previous employers. Tatum helps make the decisions and his choice to prolong the story shows his utter disregard for the man desperately seeking help. Even with the scummy nature of Tatum, Kirk Douglass brings a charm to the role that makes it difficult to not have some investment in his process.
Ace in the Hole provides another example of the brilliance of Billy Wilder. This excellently crafted film stands out as one of his greatest films among a filmography of incredible classics. It does not have the dread of Double Indemnity or the humor of The Apartment, but Ace in the Hole has its viciousness unique to other Wilder films. He creates a character meant to represent the ideal American man. Tatum has the look and charisma that men wanted to be at that time. Tatum takes what he wants and asks for permission later. Wilder builds him up in that way only to tear him down piece-by-piece, as it shows the ugly nature of this type of man audiences are willing to ignore. Tatum seduces you into rooting for him when in reality, he indulges way too much with alcohol and abuses everyone around him. Tatum should not be some aspirational figure to follow and Wilder makes sure of that. Through his films, Wilder always felt like he thought well beyond his time with the social messages he embeds in his film. He does no different in Ace in the Hole, as Wilder uses Tatum as a cautionary tale for all to see. A legendary director displaying his aptitude and expertise in filmmaking.
While the story focuses on Tatum, it makes a wider comment on how easily the opportunity for fame and money corrupts even the noblest individuals. A major assistance Tatum needs to ensure he remains the exclusive source for the events occurring in the cave is the local sheriff to block off other reporters, who arrived from all around the country for coverage of the event. In order to maintain his exclusivity, Tatum bribes the sheriff with the promise of positive coverage, as the sheriff enters re-election. A promise Tatum could keep and would be highly beneficial for the sheriff, seeing as Tatum’s writing has turned him into quite the celebrity. Even the characters meant to hold up law and order lose their backbone when presented the opportunity for financial gain. Each time Tatum would appear to speak with the man in the cave, the crowd would erupt with cheers because they see him as a man trying to do the right thing when it could not be farther from the truth. These institutions crowded around a man solely into this business for himself with little disregard for the impact of others. As things start to go downhill for Tatum, the relationship between all of the partnerships he formed certainly gets interesting.
Simply, a tremendous film with plenty to say about the state of manhood and spectacle in the 1950s. A perfect combination of actor and director to show the consequences that will occur if one disregards the care for others. Ace in the Hole is the hidden gem of Wilder’s filmography that does not receive the same amount of attention as Wilder’s other classics. Nonetheless, it serves as a warning sign and it appears that in the 21st century, not many have paid attention to this lesson.