We’re going to be getting shockingly topical this week on Cinematic Century, folks. It’s time to talk about Fake News! And, more specifically, how easily humanity is tricked by sensationalism. Which is always a fun topic. When I sat down to create the list that eventually became this project there really was no other choice for me as my favorite film of 1951. It had to be Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, giving us a nice little double-feature of Wilder the last two weeks. But, that being said, I’m kind of in awe over how many great movies were released in 1951. None of them are able to defeat Ace in the Hole, but they certainly deserve some honorable mentions, because 1951 was a great year for cinema. The biggest threats to Ace in the Hole’s superiority were probably Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Elia Kazan’s a Streetcar Named Desire. Both of these films are fabulous, and ones that I enjoy quite a bit. Strangers on a Train is yet another example of Hitchcock playing with the idea of a normal person being dragged into the deranged world of crime, examining how they squirm in that situation, but Hitchcock certainly crafted stories that tackled this subject better before and after. Streetcar is a fascinating little film, full of some tremendous acting and a whole bunch of moral rot, and remains one of the most shockingly dark films of the 1950’s. We also got A Place in the Sun, which as we all know is a very good film. We could have gotten really trippy by checking out Alice in Wonderland, which is one of my favorite Disney films, even though it’s incredibly rambling. I suppose we could have talked about the African Queen, if it wasn’t interminably boring and robs both leading actors of their refined cinematic skills. But, none of those films can measure up to the bizarre, cynical glory that is Ace in the Hole.
It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around the fact that Billy Wilder gave us Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole in less than a year. Both films are similar thematically, but in sense of scale couldn’t be more different. Ace in the Hole is a massive film, full of gorgeous Southwestern vistas mixed with a set that ended up becoming the largest one ever constructed not meant to replicate an epic war. The film was inspired by actual events where people were trapped in mines and wells, and the strange phenomena that sprung up whenever events like this happened. People flock to them. The idea of random people you’ve never met being trapped underground is apparently a powerful image to human beings, because whenever something like this happens people can’t seem to help but become fascinated by it, which left a lot of room for journalists to exploit that fascination. These types of stories fascinated Wilder, and along with fellow screenwriters Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels a story revolving around a cynical newspaperman who milks everything he can out of a trapped man began to take form. The film ran into some issues with the old Hayes Code, since it portrayed a lot of immoral behavior, even among elected officials, which wasn’t exactly kosher. Although, unlike the folks who made Mildred Pierce, they didn’t just toss in a bunch of murder to fix that particular issue. They made sure that everyone got their just desserts by the end of the film, and were able to release their dark little tale of journalistic woe. And it wasn’t popular! But, as we’ve seen a few other times during this project, most of the bad reactions regarding this film revolved around the idea that people didn’t want to admit how truthful it was. But, we’ll talk about this more later.
Ace in the Hole revolves around a man named Chuck Tatum. Tatum is a journalist who has been hired and fired by every prestigious newspaper in the country, slowly making his way West as he continues to lose every opportunity given to him, until he ends up in Albuquerque. He debases himself and agrees to take a job at a small newspaper in town, in theory for a couple weeks until he can get a real job. A year then passes, and Tatum has lost all hope. He’s settled into a sullen life, pumping out the tripe that the people of Albuquerque require, wishing for a more lascivious story to appear and save him. And, to get him out of the office, his editor gives Tatum an assignment. He and a young photographer named Herbie are told to go to a nearby town to cover a rattlesnake hunt, which Tatum reluctantly agrees to. However, as they’re driving to the town they pull over at a small gas station/restaurant, and come across something interesting. The proprietor of the station, a man named Leo Minosa has been looking for American Indian artifacts in a nearby abandoned cliff dwelling, and is now trapped inside the mountain because of a cave in. Tatum hears this and realizes that he’s just stumbled upon a potentially fascinating story, so he and Herbie drive up to the cliff dwelling, meet Leo’s sullen wife Lorraine, and his sad parents, and Tatum even offers to go down into the mine himself to meet with Leo.
Tatum finds Leo inside the mountain, alive but pinned under some massive rocks, and he ends up befriending the man. Tatum manages to get some information from Leo, and decides that he should run this story, figuring that it could be sensational enough to garner him the attention he needs. He and Herbie write up a story, and it quickly catches the attention of the people of Albuquerque, becoming all anyone wants to talk about. There’s only one problem. It seems like getting Leo out is going to be a pretty quick scenario, just bracing the tunnel and getting him out. So, Tatum decides to throw some wrenches in things. He finds that Lorraine is deeply unhappy with Leo, and in exchange for some publicity she agrees to pretend to be his grief-stricken wife while charging everyone who shows up to gawk money. He also makes a deal with a corrupt local sheriff named Kretzer where Tatum will be the only one allowed to go into the mountain in exchange for making Kretzer seem like a hero, cinching his upcoming election. And Kretzer in turn blackmails a construction foreman into declaring that the simple method of getting Leo out won’t work, instead doing a far more time-consuming method where they’ll drill down the entire mountain to get to Leo. It means Leo will be trapped underground for a whole week, but that’s more than enough time for Tatum to turn his story into a nation-wide sensation.
The week starts to progress, and each day things get crazier and crazier. Tatum and Kretzer keep all the other journalists who show up to cover the incident away from the mountain, making Tatum the sole provider of information. But, people become fascinated with Leo, and start arriving at the mountain, creating a literal carnival around the mountain, all to the profit of Lorraine. People start camping out, riding shoddy carnival rides, and eating hot dogs while Leo Minosa slowly dies inside the mountain, Tatum stringing him along to keep the story going as long as possible. Unfortunately, as time goes on it becomes clear that Tatum hasn’t thought his whole scheme out well enough. He does con his way back into a job in New York, but he reaches a point where the doctors don’t think Leo will survive until the drill can get to him. Tatum knows that if the story ends on such a bummer it’ll all come crashing down for him, and attempt to fix things, which fails spectacularly. Lorraine decides she’s just going to skip out of town with all the money, damning Tatum, and when he tries to force her to stay she ends up stabbing him in the gut. He survives the initial wound, and as he slowly starts to bleed out he goes into the mountain to speak to Leo, telling him that the drill will reach him the next morning. But, he’s too late. Leo has died. So, still bleeding, Tatum leaves the mountain and announces to the eager crowd that they were too late, and Leo has died. The crowd instantly loses interest and start leaving the strange carnival they’ve created, leaving Tatum alone again. He makes his way back to the small newspaper he’s been trying to flee for a year, and finally succumbs to his wound, collapsing onto the ground and dying.
I love Billy Wilder. Every single one of his films that I’ve seen have been spectacular, and this one is no different. I will admit that when viewed in such close proximity to Sunset Boulevard, since I discussed it just last week, Ace in the Hole sort of suffers. But, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this film is an absolute treasure. It’s so wonderfully cynical, and I one hundred per cent understand why audiences at the time didn’t connect with it. It’s a film all about how terrible humanity is, a incredibly tight character piece that’s primarily carried by Kirk Douglas’ absolutely wonderful performance. I’ve always been a fan of Douglas’ films, especially from the 50’s, but this may be my all-time favorite role of his. He’s just so wonderfully sleazy, a fast-talking conman that you can’t help but fall for. Everyone else in the film put in delightful performances as well, but this is really and truly Kirk Douglas’ film, and he absolutely kills it. It’s a very tight film, and yet is full of amazing cinematography. It’s insane to me that Wilder directed this film so close to Sunset Boulevard. To go from a film that primarily takes place in one insane set to a film like this that lovingly photographs the beautiful isolation of the American Southwest is staggering. It’s a massive film, perfectly balancing the tight and claustrophobic scenes inside of the mountain with the enormous set of the carnival. Which ends up becoming the part of the film that fascinates me the most.
Like I said earlier in the article, this film was not popular when it came out. But, the more I think about it, the more I think that this film suffered a similar fate to Metropolis. It’s a movie about the darkest instincts of humanity, and people were not a fan of how frank and cynical it was when it first came out. They didn’t want to admit that there’s something strange and broken about humanity that would drive them to go stand in the middle of the desert, having a party while a man dies inside a mine. That oddity, that macabre fascination with death would of course drive people to actually do what they did in this movie, but they don’t want to admit it. And yet, we know it’s the truth. This film is loosely inspired by two actual events where people were trapped underground, and died while scores of people came to gawk. This is who we are. We’d like to think that we’re good people, but there’s some part of humanity that’s drawn to things like this. Tatum isn’t forcing anyone to read his stories. He just knows that this is what people want to read about. He knows that no one would have cared about a run of the mill rattlesnake hunt where nothing went wrong. They want a big, crazy story to read about and be proud that they aren’t trapped under ground. Yeah, Tatum is a bad guy, he actively makes Leo Minosa’s life fall apart in order to stretch his story out, but people are lapping it up. Another human’s misery is their entertainment. And that’s kind of the story of humanity. We watched people fight to the death in the Colosseum, and now we watch humanity slowly slide into destruction from the safety of our homes, gawking at violence and cruelty on massive scales. We don’t like to admit it, but that’s the truth.
Ace in the Hole was written by Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, and Billy Wilder, directed by Billy Wilder, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1951.
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