Ace in the Hole
The nation leeches onto tragedy like a vampire claiming its latest victim. You can forget about your uplifting human interest stories, your inspirational tales of success, and your classic rags to riches yarns. Easier to drink up are narratives riddled with horror not usually found in the everyday, narratives riddled with persons of interest either stripped of their glory or affected by outright misfortune themselves. Look toward the direction of the nationwide fascination with the O.J. Simpson trial, the JonBenet Ramsey case. We remember them with unmistakable clarity two decades later, their basic existences in pop culture defining moments of the 1990s. Most, though, would be hard pressed to think of a news event of the same time with optimism peeking in the background rather than adversity.
It’s not that we’re a country comprised of soulless mosquitos who feed on pessimism. It’s that we’re creatures simplistically compelled by hardship we wouldn’t normally stumble upon in our mundane lives. We like to talk, we like to speculate, and we like to lose ourselves in something consuming which is also separate from us. Tune into any late night news channel and you’ll find that most of the stories presented are really ten different degrees of tragedy. Such is the case of catering to a public so intrigued by bad news.
Billy Wilder’s (Double Indemnity, The Apartment) 1951 media satire Ace in the Hole doesn’t just analyze the popular phenomenon of clinging to that aforementioned bad news; it also damns behind-the-scenes personnel and the general public’s unsightly habits of taking advantage of another person’s tragedy, whether it be exploited for monetary benefit or for entertainment value which turns real life toils and troubles into a cheap thrill to be immediately discarded.
The film, so abiding cynical, was understandably a critical and commercial failure upon release. Critics and audiences alike were dumbfounded by the movie’s blackheartedness. But now that we live in an era which worships other similarly minded media parodies, from Network to Broadcast News, Ace in the Hole has become one of the defining forays into a genre whcih otherwise seems to be avoided for fear of self-reference that could result in biting the hand that feeds it.
Ace in the Hole is distinctly unhesitant in ripping apart the scoop happy hastiness of sensationalized journalism, and that’s what I like best about it. The protagonist is more an antagonist waiting to be overthrown by a hero who never comes to rescue the person that needs to be saved, the “love interest” a lurid woman of sleaze (Jan Sterling). The story searching public is effortlessly manipulated, and the opportunistic people of the press are more concerned with milking their source of conflict than actually helping that said source of conflict get out of their very literal pit of despair.
In Ace in the Hole, the magnificent Kirk Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a once respectable reporter at the bottom of the food chain after years of professional and personal idiocies. He’s been fired from eleven newspapers, is an alcoholic, and is prone to hitting women. But he’s also unfailingly aspirational, appallingly confident, and horrifically ruthless, and that makes him a great journalist.
As the film opens, he finds himself stuck in New Mexico after his car breaks down. Since he’s broke and has no place to go, he snags a job with the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, a typical regional newspaper that would prefer to publish positive goings-on in the community than focus on the calamities divulged in The New York Times and its more respectable counterparts.
But Chuck doesn’t like the idea of having to write people-pleasing filler following a decade of reaching for the higher up. So when Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a lightheaded local, is caught in a cave collapse after looking for Native American artifacts, Chuck sees the potential for widespread coverage and leads the way toward a yellow-dogged extravaganza, ensuring that the site of the accident turns into a quasi amusement park and ensuring that the saving of Leo is manipulated and severely slowed down in order to bolster his own flagging career. But going to such drastic measures in the name of self-interest is incapable of working without major consequences, and a film as misanthropic as Ace in the Hole is hardly going to have a happy ending.
Because this is a movie extremely aware of the corrupted details that come in-between the broad strokes of the perceived American Dream, and how there comes a point in which multiple disappointments in the searching for success can have a detrimental effect on the victimized party. Chuck undoubtedly wasn’t always so conniving, but because we live in a society that often is forced to cut corners when goings get rough, he’s had to adapt to the merciless dealings of his occupations and has, as a result, turned into the monster he perhaps wasn’t planning on being when he was still young and optimistic.
In Ace in the Hole, everyone wants to be somebody, but no one is willing to keep their moral compasses in line in the process. Chuck, of course, is dangerously zealous, acting with such ardor that it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if he’d tell us that he were on a mission to receive the next Pulitzer Prize. But more disturbing is Minosa’s wife Lorraine, who cares so much about potentially being a tabloid star that she doesn’t even set aside the time to shed a tear for the possibility that her husband could die. Even more discomfiting are the law enforcement officials who are somehow convinced to go along with Chuck’s insanity because they’re so sure that the melodramatic news stories to follow could bring them short-lived notoriety.
The film is distinctly dramatized — all media satire stereotypes are brought to near vaudevillian emphasis, with no subtleties attached to Wilder’s sardonic messages — but that’s precisely the point. Watching as the media manipulates the thoughts and feelings of even the most intelligent members of the public is as common as breathing, but seeing it on such a grand scale is tremendously thought-provoking and tremendously disheartening. And yet Wilder’s warnings and damnations are powerful to behold. This is one of his best, and most unfairly overlooked, features. A