When speaking of the great old time directors Billy Wilder is often one of the first names thrown out there. After all, he created some of the most famous and most widely renowned films of Hollywood's bygone era - from Some Like it Hot, to Double Indemnity and, even, to something like The Apartment. Rarely mentioned among those classics is the 1951 drama Ace in the Hole.
Ace in the Hole tells the story of a down on his luck yet still amazingly egotistic journalist Charles Tatum (played by Kirk Douglas) who stumbles into small town Albuquerque looking for a second (or maybe its third) chance to prove his lack of journalistic integrity. Promising to increase circulation through his sensationalistic articles - even if he has to manufacture the news himself - he is hired by the paper's straight laced editor.
The real action kicks off when Tatum stumbles into the story of a lifetime. He encounters Leo Minosa, a man trapped in an unfortunate cave-in and, with the help of that man's rather disinterested wife (Jan Sterling), exploits the situation for all its worth. This is where Ace in the Hole truly shines. Wilder begins with a rather simple situation but, through a rather disturbing chain of events, turns that situation into a full blown circus complete with ever increasing admission prices.
Wilder is almost prescient in the world he creates. We, in the modern world, tend not to look twice when seven media outlets converge on the site of a tragedy. In that way Ace in the Hole is perhaps more resonant today then when it was originally released. It takes a now rather commonplace occurrence and forces the viewer to thoroughly examine their own perspective on the media. By telling the Minosa story through the journalist's lens Wilder is able to personalize what is now seen as an impersonal art. Wilder creates a disturbing situation in which all of the societal elements that should be helping Minosa achieve freedom (from law enforcement to local politicians), instead milk his entrapment for all its worth.
It helps that Douglas' portrayal of Tatum is mostly fantastic. As Tatum realizes just how rotten his actions are (not only is he purposely prolonging the extraction of Minosa but he is also romancing his wife) his inner shame bubbles up until it boils over in a frenetic ending segment. There are elements of his character that are rather unbelievable (the final denouement, while a showcase of impressive acting, seems a bit rushed) but Douglas has the rare ability to grab the watcher by the neck and say take in my character, no matter how repulsive he can be. Unfortunately the side characters are mostly forgettable with rather boring character arcs and average acting performances but its hard to criticize the film for that when it is almost wholly focused on Douglas' turn as Tatum.
The romantic elements also feel rather tacked on, but I think its a testament to Wilder's skill that the relationship between Tatum and Minosa's wife comes off as repugnant. Despite the little screen time devoted to their coupling it is still a memorable part of the story and it still carries a hefty emotional impact. The ending as well feels a bit rushed and conventional - as if Wilder had a direction he wanted to take but was forced down a different path due to stringent Hollywood morality codes.
However, even with those drawbacks, Ace in the Hole is a wonderfully written and deep expose of the seedier side of our media driven world and is filled with singular, memorable moments that define it as an unsung classic. Sticking out in my mind is an effective series of establishing shots that show a filled to the brim ferris-wheel rotating slowly, Minosa's mountainous prison looming in the background and then a group of workmen, taking a lunch break on top of the mountain, gazing out in amazement at the chaotic carnival like scene unfolding below. The story Wilder tells is rather simple, but it is moments like these that make it unforgettable.