Saturday, 22 June 2019

Movie Review: Ace In The Hole (1951)


A drama about personal ambition trumping journalistic integrity, Ace In The Hole is a masterful indictment of society's addiction to bad news and the reporters who provide it.

Big city reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been fired from every major respectable newspaper for either pushing the truth or acting irresponsibly. He washes up in Albuquerque, and the straitlaced editor of the Sun-Bulletin Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) offers him an opportunity to rebuild his reputation. A year later Chuck is still stuck in the doldrums, unable to find a big story.

Chuck, seeking a job with Jacob: I've done a lot of lying in my time. I've lied to men who wear belts. I've lied to men who wear suspenders. But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders.

All that changes when he stumbles upon ancient Indian caves in the remote community of Escudero, where local trading post owner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has just been trapped in a cave-in deep inside the unstable mountain. Leo's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) appears surprisingly composed. Chuck senses an opportunity to place his name back in the spotlight by creating a sensational national story around the rescue attempt. He secures the help of corruptible Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal), and proceeds to orchestrate a high publicity circus, unconcerned with the human costs and consequences.

Chuck: It's a good story today. Tomorrow, it'll be yesterday's news and they'll wrap a fish in it.

An uncompromising statement on a journalistic subculture quick to exploit personal tragedies to sell news and trinkets, Ace In The Hole is a bleak perspective on the human condition. Inspired by the real-life event of W. Floyd Collins (mentioned in the film), writer, director and producer Billy Wilder gives free rein to his dark tendencies, eschewing any hints of humour as he draws a picture of naked ambition. Ace In The Hole starts with Chuck's grim determination to climb back up the journalistic ladder by any means, and traces his journey of cold-blooded career reclamation by event manipulation.

Chuck: I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog.

Kirk Douglas is at his best leading with his considerable chin as the ultimate puppet master, and Wilder surrounds him with other unsavory characters either looking after their self-interest or easily led down the wrong path. With her husband trapped under rubble, Lorraine spots an opportunity to escape the nothingness of Escudero; she is quick to change her mind when the tourist money starts rolling in. The loyalty of Sheriff Kretzer is easy to buy, as all he cares about is reelection and Chuck offers him unprecedented free publicity.

Lorraine, to Chuck: I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you--you're twenty minutes.

The supposed rescue team leader proves to be a hapless follower, his path to a quick rescue derailed by a mountain drilling plan concocted by Chuck to prolong the incident from hours to days. Jacob Q. Boot is the one principled character, and he is confined to the Albuquerque backwater, reduced to stepping stone status and ultimately completely sidelined.

But most depressing is the predictable Pavlovian public reaction to the "human interest" story. Tatum's plan works because he fully understands the public's appetite to exploit a tragic but ultimately irrelevant sob story. Entertainers, buskers, peddlers, families on vacation and national reporters descend on the site in their thousands to be part of an event they have no vested interest in, and where there are crowds there is money to made and celebrity to be pumped.

Chuck: Human interest. You pick up the paper, you read about 84 men or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn't stay with you. One man's different, you want to know all about him. That's human interest.

The mammoth purpose-built set is an awe-inspiring location, and Wilder builds up the crowds with measured expertise as the desolate desert outpost mushrooms into a chaotic town overwhelmed with parked cars and the cheesiest of carnival scenes.

As Ace In The Hole pushes further towards the tawdriest of human tendencies, events spiral even beyond Chuck's control. But then maybe he was never in control, just the catalyst unleashing the worst tendencies of a society suffering the malaise of misplaced priorities.






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