Ace in the Hole appropriately opens in motion. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t waste time. Consideration, nuance, empathy—words that are anathema to a man who prizes action and momentum. In a striking opening shot, we see a tow truck pulling a convertible behind it as it idles into a small western town. Tatum’s sitting behind the convertible’s steering wheel, though you wouldn’t guess from his cocksure expression that he’s out of work and in dire economic straits; for him, this truck is merely a substitute for the limo he’ll inevitably return to. The truck stops in front of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin’s office, and Tatum marches in and gets himself a crummy newspaper job after launching into a series of double and triple entendres that establish him as a brilliant reporter who can’t work for anybody. Talent, after all, only means so much when you’re drunk or screwing your boss’s wife, though Tatum intends to prove that hunger, more so than even talent, trumps any setback or limitation.
Over 60 years after its initially underrated release, the film remains a prickly, hopeless, weirdly pleasurable masterpiece. Cynicism turns director Billy Wilder on, and he has the propulsive talent to ensure that it turns you on too, though he’s too much of an artist to deny the human cost that fuels the various sensations he offers. The film, in Tatum, synonymizes interpersonal nastiness with an American’s ultimate right to do whatever the hell he or she wants, because whatever most anyone wants will almost certainly be bad for themselves and everyone else. That’s the great American riddle of freedom that Wilder’s unpacking. If anything, this picture has grown even more caustic over the years since its release in 1951, as films more prevailingly favor pat moralizing that crosses every platitudinous T.
Wilder thrusts you headfirst into a frenzy of parasitic activity. You wait for a respite from the debauchery, for a character who testifies just a little to life’s potential for decency or at least mercy, and Wilder, aware that you’re awaiting such reassurance, toys with you again and again. Even the film’s sacrificial lamb, Leo Mimosa (Richard Benedict), is morally tainted, as he’s stuck in a mine cave-in because he was looting Native American artifacts. That’s not illegal, it’s Richard’s family’s land, but this action only reaffirms Wilder’s worldview of society as a series of negotiations pertaining to gradations of violation, whether personal or business. Everyone’s after a cut; and Tatum’s the presiding ringleader because, like Wilder, he doesn’t fuss with pretenses of civility. The Mimosa ranch is initially populated by just a few bored elderly families, who read Tatum’s first story of Mimosa’s plight, but it quickly grows into a literal carnival that’s serving cotton candy and hot dogs to an eager public that’s indifferent to a man dying below their feet.
Wilder’s real daring, though, is to equate the gathering of the mob of Tatum’s eager fans to the formation of America itself; the director uses the carnival in a symbolic fashion similar to Sam Fuller’s later use of an insane asylum in Shock Corridor. In several gorgeous and despairing master shots taken from Tatum’s point of view as he surveys his kingdom from atop a mountain perch, the carnival, with its corrupt law officials, firemen, lonely wives, school children, and even a restaurant, suggests a boom town at the dawn of the gold rush. In this extremis, the country’s political and social machinations are peeled of elaborations and subtleties to reveal one gloriously intricate long con that started with our fleecing of the Native Americans’ land (a recurring subtext) and pushes on with our fooling ourselves with a media system that we use primarily to sate our greed and ghoulish curiosities.
Wilder never worked with a performer who expressed his bitterly ironic proclivities as ideally as Kirk Douglas. A big, poetically blunt actor unafraid of grand gestures, he renders Tatum a whirlwind of vice and invention—an expression of everything that’s wrong and right about America. Douglas also understood that this wasn’t a role to soft-peddle or to editorialize, and so he fires out Wilder’s astonishing fire-and-brimstone screeds with almost visible spittle. (For an illustration of how precariously this kind of performance is achieved, see James Cagney’s uncharacteristically monotonous turn in Wilder’s sour, wearying One, Two, Three.) You like Tatum, against your better instincts, for his commitment, his life force, and for the weird idealism that quietly lurks underneath his monstrousness. Tatum perverts the power of the news for his own wont, but there’s a crusader’s fervor in his desire to reach the big league New York publications again. He’s as gloriously enslaved to his own bullshit as his victims, which is why he’s an ideal salesman, and therefore a perfect American.
This edition significantly improves the film’s blacks, which are notably richer than they were in the prior Criterion DVD, particularly in the cave sequences. Depth of field is also upgraded, which intensifies the effect of the master shots of the metaphorical carnival that springs up around the antihero’s fabulist news item. Clarity and contrast are excellent throughout. The English LPCM Mono is clean, though appropriately somewhat flat, given the age of the film. The dialogue is the sonic star of this film’s mix, though, and it comes through forcefully.
The supplements from the Criterion DVD have been ported over to the Blu-ray. The "get" is "Portrait of a ’60% Perfect Man’: Billy Wilder," a series of long interviews with the filmmaker, in more or less casual repose, that allow you to see the caustic, pragmatic wit that informed his films. The audio commentary featuring film scholar Neil Sinyard is a mite dry, but it refreshingly emphasizes Wilder’s formal gifts, which are often given short shrift for his verbal dexterity. Sinyard discusses subtle visual symbols, such as the blocking of actors within a frame to show evolving power dynamics, or the way a notion of objective fabrication is encapsulated by a throwaway gag with a framed office decoration. The interviews with Kirk Douglas, Walter Newman, and Spike Lee are inessential, but they provide diverting proof of a key American film’s ongoing influence. Also included are essays by critic Molly Haskell and director Guy Maddin in a booklet that’s amusingly designed to resemble a newspaper. The trailer and a stills gallery round out the package.
As relevant and daring as ever, Ace in the Hole is Billy Wilder’s definitive expression of his master theme of vice as the most reliable and trustworthy gauge of reality.