The legendary Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite director. Many friends and those who read my reviews wrongly assume that Alfred Hitchcock is, and that’s understandable. No other director, before or since Hitch, has had as intuitive a grasp of film as a visual medium, or of how to use not only the camera but also the editing to tell a story.
However, as much as I admire Hitchcock’s classic thrillers, no director has inspired awe in me as much as Wilder. One of his enduring creations, aging screen siren Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Blvd., voiced words that, coincidentally, explain what made Wilder’s movies so memorable: “There was a time in this business when they had the eyes of the whole wide world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the world, too! So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! Talk!”
And what talk! For the Austrian-born Jewish émigré, who fled Europe in the early 1930s when Hitler rose to power, the slang he picked up after he arrived on our shores was frenetic jazz music to his ears. It didn’t take him long to channel his love of American lingo into feisty dialogue for comedic screenplays that he crafted with co-writer Charles Brackett. An urbane New Yorker, Brackett sanded the rough edges off Wilder’s somewhat broken English. Their one-two punch of pugnacious palaver for such movies as Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka made them a hugely popular screenwriting team.
For example, in Howard Hawks’s 1941 Ball of Fire, Barbara Stanwyck plays a wisecracking burlesque dancer. When fussy linguistics professor Gary Cooper examines her throat and gives his diagnosis, Stanwyck shoots back: “A slight rosiness? It’s as red as the Daily Worker and just as sore!” It’s typical Wilder dialogue: sharp, silly, and stylized.
No director has inspired awe in me as much as Wilder.
Just as Hitch was the “Master of Suspense,” Wilder was the master of farce. Think of Tony Curtis donning yachting clothes and deadpanning a hilarious Cary Grant impression in order to win Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.Or think of Jack Lemmon singing off-key and straining spaghetti through a tennis racket for Shirley MacLaine’s dinner in The Apartment. But Wilder’s genius was not limited to comedy: his dramas were among the best ever filmed.
Though he wrote for first-rate directors like Hawks and Lubitsch (whose elegant, lighthearted touch he later emulated), the fiercely independent Wilder decided to strike out on his own and direct when Mitchell Leisen butchered his and Brackett’s screenplay for Hold Back the Dawn. Wilder turned out a pair of well-received movies for Paramount—the Ginger Rogers comedy The Major and the Minor and the World War II thriller Five Graves to Cairo. But it was his 1944 adaptation of James M. Cain’s controversial pulp novel Double Indemnity that propelled him into the first rank of directors.
For that classic, Wilder audaciously broke every rule of movie storytelling. He cast nice guy Fred MacMurray as the heavy and made perennial gangster Edward G. Robinson the movie’s moral center. Then he gave away the ending in the opening narration, as sap MacMurray, bleeding to death and slipping into unconsciousness, confesses into a Dictaphone: “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money—and a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”
That daring paid off, big. Audiences were riveted to their seats as femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck lured the hapless insurance man to his doom. In 107 minutes, Wilder (working with famed crime novelist Raymond Chandler) created a new movie genre: what French movie critics would later call film noir.
Although Double Indemnity would become the template for hundreds of crime movies through the late 1950s, Wilder never again made an outright noir. Instead, he incorporated many of its elements—voiceover narration, close-ups combined with dissolves, and a dark, cynical view of human nature—into gripping melodramas like The Lost Weekend (for which he won the best director Oscar in 1945) and Oscar-winning comedies like Sunset Blvd. and Stalag 17.
After he and Brackett won the best original screenplay Oscar in 1950 for Sunset Blvd. (their last collaboration), Wilder embarked on an ambitious project: He would write, direct, and also produce a film. For the 1951 Paramount project, he brought in radio dramatist Walter Newman as his collaborator and playwright Lesser Samuels to polish the dialogue. He also cast in the starring role the young Kirk Douglas, fresh off his volatile performance in Champion. The result was Wilder’s ruthlessly dark yet larger-than-life masterpiece: Ace in the Hole.
For more than a half-century, Ace in the Hole has languished in Paramount’s vaults. But it finally has been released by Criterion Collection, in a pristine transfer to DVD. The story behind this forgotten classic’s fate is as intriguing as—well, as a Billy Wilder movie.
But first, the tale itself.
Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a sensationalistic New York newspaperman down and out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His car’s got bad brakes and a busted wheel bearing. His reputation is in need of even greater repair as he ambles arrogantly into the publisher’s office of the small-time Sun-Bulletin, trying to land a job.“I’ve been fired from eleven papers with a total circulation of seven million,” Tatum brags to editor Jacob Boot (Porter Hall). “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I'll go out and bite a dog.”
Boot is a no-nonsense straight arrow, over whose desk hangs the paper’s motto, immortalized in cross-stitch: “TELL THE TRUTH.” Warily, he hires Tatum. For his part, Tatum aims to get a scoop in a week or two—a big story that the wire services will pick up and that will land him back on a big East Coast paper.
After a fade-out, the story resumes a year later. Tatum’s still stuck in the “sunbaked Siberia,” covering mundane stories about county fairs and grip-’n’-grin ceremonies. He and young photographer Herbie (Bob Arthur), who idolizes him, are dispatched into the countryside to cover a rattlesnake hunt. On the drive, Tatum knocks Herbie’s journalism school education and touts his own cynical philosophy: “Bad news sells best—because good news is no news.”
But just as the film seems to be only a new spin on The Front Page—set to Hugo Friedhofer’s jaunty, Gershwinesque score—it takes a sudden, dark turn. The pair stops to fill up their tank in the tiny hamlet of Escudero and learn that a man is trapped underground in a pueblo cliff dwelling, where he was searching for Indian relics.
Despite a cop’s objections, Tatum bullies his way into the cave with Herbie tagging along. Excited, he recalls the (real-life) Kentucky cave-in that trapped explorer Floyd Collins in 1925 and tells Herbie, “A reporter on the Louisville Herald crawled in for the story—and came out with a Pulitzer Prize!”
They find Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) pinned beneath fallen boulders. Tatum snaps his photograph and tries to build up his confidence, telling him help is on the way. Emerging, he sets up his typewriter in the general store and pounds out a tall tale about how luckless Leo was trapped underground by vengeful spirits of the Indian dead.
The next morning, though, local construction contractor Sam Smollett (Frank Jaquet) estimates that his crew can shore up the walls and have Leo out in just sixteen hours. Tatum suddenly sees his Pulitzer slipping out of reach—and it’s too much.
Muscling his way across the screen, Douglas delivers a frightening, sinister performance. He promises the corrupt local
sheriff (Ray Teal) that he’ll use his byline to get the man re-elected—if, in exchange, the lawman will pressure Smollett to change his rescue strategy. Instead of doing it quickly, they’ll rescue Leo by setting up a drilling rig on the top of the mountain—a delay that will give Tatum a week to milk the story.
Jan Sterling plays Leo’s bottle-blonde wife, Lorraine, a tramp who feels trapped in a lousy marriage. She married Leo for the same reasons as any other gold-digger, but resents that she only struck dirt, while her naïve husband worships the dirt she walks on. Tatum has snowed Leo’s parents into thinking he’s their son’s savior, but Lorraine is wise to his deception. “Yesterday, you never heard of Leo. Today you can’t know enough about him,” she smirks. “Aren’t you sweet.” As she prepares to blow town, Tatum reproaches her for abandoning her husband beneath the fallen rocks. “Honey,” she shoots back, “you like those rocks just as much as I do.”
Wilder uses a lot of symbolism from the book of Genesis to depict these scoundrels: Lorraine, the story’s Eve, slyly bites into an apple; Sheriff Kretzer, a serpent of a public servant, keeps a pet rattlesnake in a shoebox; and meanwhile, Tatum plays God for the seven days of Leo’s usable media life.
As social commentary, Ace in the Hole was years ahead of its time
Chuck Tatum’s an Elmer Gantry—a smooth-talking charlatan who inveigles his way out of anything and everyone out of his way. But there’d be no Gantrys without the Babbitts who fall for their hokum. As Tatum’s copy gains traction with the public, curiosity seekers move on Escudero by the dozens, then thousands, hoping to make their own lives more important through their proximity to tragedy. The land outside the cliff dwelling is transformed into a literal media circus as a carnival erects a Ferris wheel. “We’re coming, we’re coming, Leo!” croons a country singer while a woman sells the sheet music of the song (a biting reference to country-western singer Vernon Dalhart’s exploitive 1925 song “The Death of Floyd Collins”).
When no one’s looking, Tatum feels guilty and silently grieves for Leo, although he keeps things in “proper perspective”—the story comes first, and a lone man’s race against time is how the story plays best. But the mob is Wilder’s real villain: They set up camp tents, shill cotton candy, and ride the tilt-o-whirl; for the rabble, it’s all just entertainment.
Wilder never lets up the tension, either. The narrative and Friedhofer’s orchestrations (now full of thundering timpani and Richard Straussian chromatics) pound ceaselessly, like the drill smashing through the rock, inching ever closer to Leo. The movie’s bravura finale sent a lightning-quick chill straight up my spine.
As social commentary, Ace in the Hole was years ahead of its time, foreshadowing such cautionary films as Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd and Sidney Lumet’s Network. It flopped when first released, so badly that the studio pulled it from circulation and re-released it with the title The Big Carnival. Critics in the print media savaged it because Wilder had the chutzpah to attack their bread-and-butter methods so pitilessly. As a result, Paramount so neglected the movie that it’s rarely shown even on television and, until now, has never been released in any home-video format.
In an interview, Wilder called this tale “sanitized” compared to his experiences as a young writer for a scandal sheet in Vienna, when the paper sent him to interview the parents of murderers and their victims and to ask the universally reviled question, “How do you feel?”
The film was not successful because I brought the audience into the theater expecting a cocktail and instead I served them a shot of vinegar. . . . People rebelled against this image of themselves. Yet, when there is a plane wreck at Kennedy Airport the freeways are clogged with automobiles of people wanting to see the carnage. Meanwhile someone is going around selling weenies and spun sugar.
Has anything changed? If you want to see human depravity and mob psychology at its worst, just tune in to the 24/7 electronic media and witness their coverage of whatever disaster du jour is dominating the headlines. You’ll see that the circus is still going strong.
Ace in the Hole is not easy to watch. It’s not supposed to be. Kirk Douglas’s commanding performance as Chuck Tatum had me flinching, squirming. Billy Wilder didn’t live long enough to see this movie earn its rightful place alongside so many of his great classics, but he always knew its worth. “For a long time, when people asked, ‘Which is your favorite film?’ I answered, ‘Ace in the Hole.’ I like that picture. I am proud of it.”
As a man of integrity and independence, he had every right to be.