Billy Wilder is responsible for some of the most entertaining and gracious films ever produced; ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘The Apartment’, and ‘Sabrina’, to name a few. But his storytelling range also incorporated some of the bleakest and darkest criticism ever filmed about human nature in general, and Americans in particular – ‘Double Indemnity’, ‘The Lost Weekend’, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and, today’s film, ‘Ace In The Hole.’ Wilder’s own history, like many of his artistic emigre peers, informs the work – originally raised in Poland (then Austrio-Hungary), he settled in as a young screenwriter in Berlin just as Hitler was coming to power. He managed to escape Berlin and emigrate to Paris, then the United States, but most of his closest family perished at Auschwitz.
“Wilder, born in Austria, a refugee from Hitler, certainly became one of America’s greatest directors,” writes Roger Ebert. “But he never bought into the American dream. What he saw in Europe warned him off dreams.”(His review is here)
Kirk Douglas pays Chuck Tatum, a wily and opportunistic newsman who, after experiencing a number of personally-induced downsizings, finds himself in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Shmoozing his way into a reporting job on a sleepy but earnest local paper, Chuck stumbles on an intriguing small tragedy while on his way to cover a local rattlesnake hunt. Leo Minosa owns a roadside trading post that he supplies with Indian artifacts from a local abandoned silver mine, and Chuck discovers that Leo has become trapped in a cave-in at the mine. Inspired by the Floyd Collins case in the twenties, Chuck sees the opportunity to turn this into a national cause célèbre, redeeming his own reputation as a journalist.
Things darken very quickly – Chuck’s initial reporting starts bringing gawkers in from the area, and he persuades Leo’s tawdry wife, Lorraine, to keep up the trading post as the onlookers and other media start arriving and spending money. And, with the help of the corrupt local sheriff and a weak-willed mining contractor, he gets the rescue operation prolonged by days in order to take maximum advantage of the crisis.
It’s easy to overlook Kirk Douglas as one of the great Hollywood leading men, but it’s refreshing to be reminded from time to time of just how good he was. He had, at times, Lancaster’s ferocious charisma, and Cagney’s boundless energy, but he was still human-scale, easy to identify with even as a bad guy. I think of ‘Champion’, ‘Out Of The Past’, ‘Lust For Life’, ‘Paths Of Glory’, ‘Town Without Pity’, ‘Lonely Are The Brave’ – it’s an impressive list. He’s unbelievably good here – you can’t take your eyes off of him, even at his most irresponsibly malevolent moments.
Things, of course, continue to escalate – thousands of people arrive to be witnesses to salvation or tragedy. Media come from around the country. A carnival rises, literally, in the throng. Leo gets his own hit song, which becomes incessant background noise, along with the endless pounding of the drill trying to reach him. Our human penchant for happily indulging those who would take advantage of us was as clear and identifiable to Wilder in 1951 as it is to Naomi Klein in 2008.
The film, initially, didn’t do well. It wasn’t liked in Hollywood – it was too bleak, too critical, and no one thought the Chuck Tatum character would be compelling to average American audiences. It was weakly promoted, and some wags dubbed it “Ass In The Wringer“.
Recently re-released by the good folks at Criterion, it’s brilliant. Add this to the unmatched legacy of Billy Wilder’s other work, and add it to your own list of films about Who We Are, as humans, as Americans, and how the culture affects and defines us.