Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Ace in the Hole: Kirk Douglas and Billy Wilder’s Winning Hand

Movies don’t come much more timely than Billy Wilder’s 1951 drama, Ace in the Hole.  It was shot two years after Wilder directed perhaps  his most influential drama, Sunset Blvd., and just before he embarked on a long string of exuberant comedies, including Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Ace in the Hole also marked the single teaming of Wilder with actor Kirk Douglas, who had just zoomed to stardom in Champion. In that tough-minded boxing film, Douglas had scored as a cynical pugilist. Ace in the Hole  moves him into the world of daily journalism, putting a provocative spin on the idea of “fake news.”

The Austrian-born Wilder, who started his career as a Berlin journalist before the rise of the Nazis, obviously knew and cared about the power of the press. Press freedom of course is a cherished American ideal, but one that is easily exploited by men (and women) who are ruthless and opportunistic. Such a one is Douglas’s Chuck Tatum, a newspaperman who finds himself stuck in small-town Albuquerque, but will do anything to get back to the bright lights of New York City. All he needs, it seems, is the right human-interest story, one that will feed the public’s imagination day after day and allow him to place himself at the center of the action.

Such a story pops up in a rural backwater, where a local has entered a crumbling Indian cliff dwelling and found himself trapped. Tatum immediately begins calling the shots, personally communicating with the trapped man and his family, using all his wiles to endorse a rescue plan that encourages the maximum amount of public attention. (The film references a famous 1925 real-life incident in which Kentucky cave explorer Floyd Collins became similarly trapped for some two weeks. The local newsman who brought his day-to-day story to the world won a Pulitzer Prize, and the whole tragic episode proved the power of broadcast news to galvanize the entire nation.)

Ace in the Hole seems to me a rather perfect title, reflecting as it does both the idea of a man entrapped and a gambler’s reliance on a stroke of luck on which to base his cold calculations for success. But Paramount Pictures also toyed with titles like The Big Carnival, reflecting the party atmosphere that springs up around the site where Leo Minosa lies buried, complete with carnival rides, food booths, and folksingers wailing out ditties in the felled man’s honor. The national press, of course, descends too, as had happened for real in 1949 when little Kathy Fiscus fell into a California well. If it’s a media circus, Tatum serves as the ringmaster, cajoling Leo’s restless wife (Jan Sterling) into looking appropriately grief-stricken, and craftily furthering his own career.

This being 1951, he gets his comeuppance at last, but guilt hits him all too late. The bitter taste of his last line to the assembled crowds – “The circus is over” – probably rankled midcentury audiences, living in an optimistic post-World War II era. So Douglas’s indelible performance was mostly ignored. The film was not a hit in the U.S., and got little in the way of awards attention, despite a strong showing overseas. Today no less than Spike Lee considers it one of Hollywood’s very best films, one that boldly predicted the power of mass media as we know it.. He also sees it (along with the equally cynical A Face in the Crowd) as one of the film industry’s strongest statements about American greed: “If there’s a buck to be made, it’s gonna be made.”

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