Ace in the Hole, Blu-ray (1951/2014)Director: Billy Wilder Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Bob Arthur Cinematography: Charles Lang Studio: Paramount Pictures/The Criterion Collection 396 [5/6/14] (3-disc dual-format edition) Video: 1.33:14:3 black & white 1080p HD Audio: English, DD mono Subtitles: English Extras: “Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man: Billy Wilder” (1980 documentary – 1 hr.), Interview with Kirk Douglas, Afterword by Spike Lee, Audio-only excerpt from interview with co-screenwriter Walter Newman, Excerpts from 1986 appearance by Wilder at AFI, Theatrical trailer, Newspaper-format notes with essays by filmmaker Guy Maddin and critic Molly Haskell. Length: 111 minutes Rating: ****1/2
This film, which was also released in the U.S. with the title The Big Carnival, was a scathing indictment of the culture of getting a media hit thru any means possible, no matter how reprehensible. It would make a terrific double feature with the Tony Curtis Sweet Smell of Success, but in a way the newspaper character played by Kirk Douglas is even more slimy. The many extras provided by Criterion also set up the viewing of this hard-hitting exposition in fine fashion, and printing the usual booklet of notes in a tabloid newspaper format was a most fitting idea. All the extras are also available on the two DVDs included.
Douglas plays an amoral reporter named Chuck Tatum who winds up in Albuquerque NM when his car breaks down. Willing to do anything to get the lurid headlines in the newspaper, he horns his way into the small local newspaper office and waits around until a report comes in of a man trapped while seeking native vases and materials in an abandoned mine. This provides him the opportunity to blow up the story for all it is worth to get him back into the top of the world of journalism. He crawls into the mine to where the man is trapped and befriends him, giving him comfort and hope. But on the outside he switches the rescue operation from going straight in as he did, to drilling down from high up on the mountain when he founds out that may take a week instead of a quick rescue thru the mine. They gives him more time to file more stories and get more attention. Soon thousands of cars are parked around the site and even a carnival sets up with ferris wheel and live musicians and everything. It becomes a media circus (hence the alternative title for the film). Wilder spares no one from his portrayal of those who keep the lies alive, who benefit from them, and who perpetuate them. (The notes point out that even in his comedies, such as the wonderful Some Like It Hot, Wilder has some cynical bits, which are so amplified in this noir effort.) Tatum roughs up the blond “flooziesque” wife of the trapped man, but this being 1951 Hollywood—never mind the noir aspects of the story—there is no sex between them. In the very end Tatum realizes what he has done, but it is far too late.
This brilliant film failed to make any box office money for Paramount so they dismissed it. It’s become almost a cult film with fans, regarded as a neglected masterpiece. This restoration should bring it many new fans. In a way, it was way ahead of its time, and now seems more pertinent than ever, when most of the media are just looking at the numbers and trying anything to get more readers or viewers.