27 April 2014

Blu-ray Review: Ace In The Hole (1951, Masters Of Cinema)

Drama, Film-Nior, Classic
Eureka! Entertainment
BD/DVD Release Date:
5th May 2014 (UK)
Billy Wilder
Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur
Buy:Ace In The Hole [Blu-ray + DVD] [1951]

In the opening scene of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole the camera pans across an Albuquerque towing truck to reveal the sand-covered and broken down convertible being dragged behind it. In the driver’s seat sits Kirk Douglas, defiantly reading the newspaper, the camera tracking alongside him. Ever the optimist, or rather opportunist, Douglas spots the local Sun-Bulletin newspaper offices and tells the tow-truck driver to pull over, insisting he wait, chauffer-like, while he goes inside. Arriving in the offices with a condescending carelessness, sneering at the embroidered “Tell the Truth” sign hanging on the wall, Douglas – revealing himself to be Charles Tatum, a down-on-his-luck reporter from New York – demands a job at the lowly newspaper. It is easy to see why Molly Haskell regards this extended opening sequence as “one of cinema’s great entrances.”

Cut to a year later. Tatum is still in Albuquerque. Stuck there because the big story that will change the course of his career has not materialised. It is not long before things begin to go Tatum’s way though, stumbling upon a man trapped inside a sacred Native American burial site when stopping for gas at a middle-of-nowhere trading post en route to a rather barbaric and tedious sounding rattlesnake hunt he has been assigned to cover, spinning the small human interest story into a nationwide sensation. And this is what is central to Wilder’s cynical satire, the way in which a small story can be blown so far out of proportion that a media frenzy is created around it. The “human interest” being of a self-motivated nature, with someone saying at one point, “why shouldn’t we get something out of it.” The fact that the story was inspired by a 1925 incident very similar to the one described above comes as no surprise.

The film is full to the brim of unsavoury, antipathetic characters, from the manipulative, adulterous, racist, and misogynist Tatum, through cops, politicians, tourists, and various members of the media, to Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), the unsympathetic wife of the trapped man, a femme fatal from the big city, herself trapped in middle-of-nowhere America, intent on leaving until the tourists rolled in with their cash. And therein lies the core of the film’s critique, the greed, corruption, and immorality of not just the media but society as a whole. The director’s sights may be fixed on journalism but his cynicism hits a larger target; the frenzy standing in for capitalist morals as a whole. Wilder’s vision in Ace in the Hole was so ahead of its time that a good twenty years before the phrase “media circus” entered the lexicon, he made the metaphor quite literal with the arrival of a carnival at the burial site. When we consider the sensationalism at the centre of today’s media, his vision can be seen as prophetic. The film feels more relevant now than ever.


Shane James

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