Ace in the Hole greets the new movie year like a punch in the gut, a kick in the nuts, a bucket of bile flung in the face. Hello, nasty! And welcome to the Army of Shadows club, reserved for tough old bastards who survived the shaft to bask in acclaim. Melville’s masterpiece clicked with audiences by striking the perfect note (dour, fatalistic) at the perfect moment (Bush II twilight) with a chic fantasy of stoic resistance. It helped, of course, to be perfectly made. The same can’t be said for Billy Wilder’s undeserved 1951 flop, returned to Film Forum in a fresh 35mm print, but hot goddamn! Here is, half a century out of the past, a movie so acidly au courant it stings: a lurid pulp indictment of exploitation, opportunism, doctored intelligence, torture for profit, insatiable greed, and shady journalism.
Kirk Douglas stars, sneering, as one of the meanest motherfuckers in the movies. Charles Tatum, failed reporter and alcoholic snot, finds himself at the end of his line in Albuquerque. Strutting into the offices of the local paper, greeting a Native American employee with a sarcastic hand and racist “How!,” he bullies up to editor Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall), offering the services of a “250-dollar-a-week reporter for 50 bucks. Make it 45.” Stitched in needlepoint and framed above a desk, the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin motto admonishes, “Tell the Truth.” “Wish I could coin ’em like that,” Tatum quips to the secretary. “If I ever do, will you embroider it for me?”
Skip ahead a year (with a cut as terse as anything in Army) and the Big Story is nowhere to be found, certainly not at the podunk rattlesnake hunt to which Tatum finds himself assigned. En route to the pseudo-story with newbie photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) in tow, Tatum pulls up to a tumbleweed trading post run by Mr. and Mrs. Minosa. There’s a hubbub up the hill at the ancient Indian burial cliffs. Seems the walls fell in on Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) as he was looting around for artifacts. Seems Tatum finally found his ticket back to the big leagues.
If act one of Ace makes for a respectable (if unusually sour) setup for the hard-boiled story of a hard-luck scribe, it now tunnels into darker territory. Tatum colludes with the corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal), a spineless engineer (Lewis Martin), and the supremely jaded Mrs. Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) to keep Leo buried for the benefit of his copy. “I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life,” Lorraine sizes up Tatum, “but you? You’re 20 minutes.”
The zippy script comes courtesy of Walter Newman, then a 20-year-old radio writer who wrote an initial treatment called “The Human Interest Story”; Lesser Samuels, a former playwright brought in for polish; and Wilder himself as the executive wordsmith. He had just fallen out with longtime writing partner Charles Brackett, and was fresh off the success of a little number called Sunset Boulevard. For his next picture, Wilder would not only direct and write but produce, giving him greater control over his material. He took the opportunity to lash out with a vengeance.
Twenty years before the phrase “media circus” entered the lexicon, Wilder imaged a literal one sprung up around the invisible spectacle of a man trapped in a mountain. Fueled by Tatum’s tabloid reports (“Ancient Curse Entombs Man!”), a slew of gawkers, hucksters, and rival journalists descend on the scene in a frenzy of crass curiosity. A literal carnival soon joins the fray, the appropriately named “Great S&M Amusement Corp.” Its Ferris wheel soon lights the midnight drill that’s slowly driving Leo insane—and getting to him at a far slower pace than more sensible, less profitable rescue strategies.
Meanwhile, Tatum and Lorraine are going at their own s/m routine that begins with slaps, hair pulling, and mutual disdain, and ends with strangulation by cheap mink stole and partial disembowelment. Less sympathetic heroes are inconceivable, to say nothing of the film’s depiction of the crowd as thrill-seeking opportunists. Bitter to the end, Ace in the Hole nearly suffocates on cynicism. Small wonder it died on release. “Fuck them all,” said Wilder. “It is the best picture I ever made.”