Chuck Tatum is a big city reporter: whip-smart, but as contemptible and unscrupulous as they come. His tangled history of libel, adultery, alcoholism – among many other offences – means that the only paper that will take him on is a little publication in the far west. After one year at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin though, Chuck Tatum has still not written the “ace” story that will take him back to the top. Instead, reports of meagre consequence fill his days:
A soapbox derby. A tornado – that double-crossed us and went to Texas. An old goof who said he was the real Jesse James – until they found out he was a chicken thief from Gallup by the name of, uh, Schimmelmacher.
However, as they pass through the backwater town of Escudero, Tatum and his photographer protégé Herbie finally strike it big. Leo Minosa, a local man and the owner of the nearby trading post, has been trapped in a sudden cave collapse. Chuck knows a big story when he sees one (or, perhaps more accurately, knows a story that can be blown out of all proportion when he sees one). Tatum gleefully wrings out the story for all its got, taking over and even extending the rescue operation unnecessarily to buy himself a few more days on the front page. All the while, he whips up a media storm around the cave: people from every corner of the country travel to catch a glimpse of the tremendous rescue effort of the brave Leo Minosa. And with the visitors blow the winds of commercialism: soon enough, a riotous party springs up above the ground, with people cavorting gaily while a man lies dying deep below the earth. In this way, Billy Wilder creates perhaps the first, and certainly one of the most chilling, visual representations of a literal media circus.
Viewing the film today, it cannot be denied that Ace in the Hole has many a hallmark of a classic Billy Wilder film. Despite being set almost entirely in the sweltering desert, Ace in the Hole is as cool, dark and biting as the most revered of the Wilder noirs. For the dialogue is sharp and brutal, the cinematography by Charles Lang sulkily grotesque – especially in the scenes of the cave where Leo is engulfed in crumbling shadows. And of course, like Billy Wilder movies almost invariably are, Ace in the Hole is electrifyingly entertaining right up to the final frame. The funny thing though is this: Ace in the Hole was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release. For the best part of fifty years, it has laid unwatched and unacknowledged, only to be discovered by audiences again in the 21st century.
To be quite honest there are a whole raft of reasons why Ace in the Hole was so badly received in 1951. Most critics considered themselves to be newspapermen and were therefore duly offended by the presentation of the media. Those that didn’t mind being lumped with lying scoundrels took another tack and argued that Wilder’s film extended beyond the realm of plausibility. The reason why the film is so much more popular now is, simply, that we know better. One digital revolution and countless scandals of absolutely every variety later, we have become much more aware of what was evidently always there: corrupt politicians, deluded movie stars and, most importantly, the media who inflate their stories so spectacularly. We’ve also grown a little more self-aware and have realised why the media do so: because we, the consumer, lap up this sensationalist dreck and always ask for more.
Another, arguably more subtle, reason for the public’s distaste lies in the ending of the film. Leo Minosa is an innocent man who suffers unspeakable horrors, but if he were rescued in the nick of time, audiences would have been all right with the movie. But he wasn’t. Frankly, the ending is almost akin to showing a damsel in distress in a burning building, cutting to the strapping hero who sprints to save her, and then having the building collapse at the final moment (except Ace in the Hole is more drawn-out and thus even more galling. It was not until the 1970s, as can be seen with the likes of Chinatown and the more apropos Network, that such films were accepted as and appreciated for being true to life. Needless to say then, Ace in the Hole was oodles ahead of its time.
However, the thing I love most about Ace in the Hole is yet another Wilder element: the scathing sense of irony, perhaps more bitter and more distressing than any other of his films. After the announcement of Leo’s death, the visitors who had frolicked in the name of the “Leo Minosa Rescue Fund” leave even quicker than they had come. And it’s like an exodus: high from atop the caves using an extreme wide shot, Wilder shows us the enormous marquee tent being deflated; the swing ride and the ferris wheel being dismantled; and the cars and people speeding off in every possible direction. As for Tatum, he is wracked with guilt when he realises that his elaborate ruse has led directly to the death of a blameless man. He tries desperately to get the real story out – to tell the truth – but no one bothers to listen.
To end, I thought I’d leave you with a fun bit of trivia: after wrapping up, Paramount left the cliff dwelling set in tact and charged admission to these sets. The owner of the local trading post also joined in the merriment and used the replica dwellings to attract more customers. And those critics said Ace in the Hole was far-fetched.