Thursday, October 18, 2007


Ace in the Hole, Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Bob Arthur, and Porter Hall, Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Neuman, Directed by Billy Wilder, Paramount Pictures, 1951

Fourteen years ago, I saw maybe five minutes of this movie when I was on a lunch break. It instantly riveted me and I spent the last fourteen years trying to nab a copy of the film, even going so far as to bid on ebay for someone’s VHS dub.

The scene was Kirk Douglas in a room. Jan Sterling enters. Platinum blonde, she’s coy, a bit seductive, and begins talking about how much money she’s making. Maybe even a thousand dollars. Her first thousand. Douglas tells her she’s a grieving wife of the man trapped in the mine collapse and to get that smile off her face. She sidles up closer and says, “Make me.”

A bad thing to say to Kirk Douglas under any circumstances. He quickly backhands her across one cheek and open-handedly slaps her other. You’re a grief stricken wife, he reminds her. Don’t wipe those tears away. Get out there and show ‘em.

And out there? An enormous media circus whipped up by Douglas’ ruthlessly cynical character Chuck Tatum, down on his luck crack newspaper writer fired from his last eleven jobs and hoping to milk human tragedy for his ticket back to the big time. He manipulates the corrupt local sheriff into a week-long drawn out rescue procedure that promises to whip the story to greater and greater heights at possibly the cost of the trapped man’s life. Sterling plays Lorraine Minosa, disaffected wife of Albuquerque Indian artifact trader Leo Minosa, who has been partially buried in a mine cave-in behind his curio shop/diner/roadside motel.

Ace in the Hole is so bleak a portrait of human vanity and rubbernecking masquerading as charity that it flopped so badly on its release in 1951, Paramount quickly retitled it The Big Circus hoping to lure in some suckers. Billy Wilder considered it the best film he’d ever made, and it’s bookended by Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, two acknowledged classics, acknowledged at the time and ever since, so he knows of what he speaks.

Hard to find, only occasionally turning up on Turner Classic movies, Ace in the Hole has been rarely available over the last fifty years. It seems barely a month goes by when there’s not a reason to get down on one’s knees and praise the fine folks at The Criterion Collection who polish off these dusty gems, the best of the best. The two disc set presents a crystal clear print, plus a second disc featuring commentary, a few short documentaries, and a stills gallery.

But the best is all in disc one. A nastier film you’d be hard pressed to find, and for 1951 — there’s no competition even close.

The script is the epitome of lean and mean, every word chiseled, sharpened, and polished until it fairly cuts your ear on hearing. Tatum shows up at the Albuquerque newspaper looking for a job and informs the publisher, Jacob Q. Boot, “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” Hired after a lot of his bluster, publisher and writer engage in this snapped-out dialogue: Tatum: “Where’s my desk?” Boot: “The one by the door. You may be out of here by Saturday.”

Tatum: “Sooner the better.” When Tatum confronts Lorraine about going to church to play the part of sad wife, she replies tartly, “I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

Charles Lang’s glorious black and white cinematography is pitch perfect and darkly follows Tatum down the mine shaft to talk to Leo and frames the mountainside and undulating crowds below beautifully. The closing shot, indebted to Orson Welles’ innovations is a masterful shot of collapsed humanity.

And you couldn’t have picked a better leading man for the role than Kirk Douglas. It’s no surprise that he attacks the role with his customary ferocity, only here his snarl seems dialed up to eleven, every word from his mouth spurting acid. When the corrupt sheriff tries to tinker with Tatum’s elaborately constructed narrative, he simply socks him, beating him down to the ground. When Lorraine refuses to wear the fur Leo got her for their fifth anniversary, Tatum nearly strangles her with it. From almost the first scene to the last, Douglas doesn’t just chew up the scenery, he devours it with feral rage that threatens to melt the celluloid right off the screen.

And the town and all the country goes right along with it all. Publishers come crying out for Tatum from every city in the country. A real circus replete with Ferris Wheel shows up, tickets sold under the guise of the Leo Minosa rescue fund. Careful viewing will show the sign leading up to the old Indian grounds where Leo lays trapped has a different, higher price as the story progresses going from “Free” all the way up to a whole buck. A country and western band shows up to play their hit tune, “Hang on, Leo” and to hawk the sheet music for two bits.

What’s remarkable watching Ace in the Hole in 2007 is how prescient it feels, how hardly dated. Sure, there’s some gee gawsh elements to some of the yokels on the Albuquerque newspaper staff, but in every respect the film nails what a media circus is all about and how little it’s changed. A chastening, scabrous film when it came out in 1951, Wilder’s masterpiece hits you in the gut just as hard today. But you’ll take it — and you’ll like it.

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