Billy Wilder's 1951 masterpiece Ace in the Hole (coming to DVD Tuesday after years of unavailability) is so merciless in its depiction of a dollar-obsessed America that, if not for the occasional levity brought about by the film's (still acerbic) humor, it would be nearly unwatchable. Following the machinations of a down-and-out newspaper man who stumbles upon a goldmine of a story in rural New Mexico, the picture illustrates the two great truths about the newspaper game (truths all-too evident today in the content of not merely tabloids like the New York Post but in more respectable publications as well): "Bad news sells best, because good news is no news", and the "human interest story" which focuses on one unfortunate individual is much more palatable than a story dealing with the faceless masses.
The film's expose of the news machine is especially prescient in its disclosure of two trends that have become increasingly commonplace in the 21st-century media, the culpability of the journalist in creating (as opposed to merely reporting on) the story, and the turning of a hot scoop into a "media circus", an expression here literalized as the carnival comes to entertain the story's observers. Kirk Douglas, at his hard-boiled best, stars as Chuck Tatum, a once prominent journalist who has been kicked off of every major newspaper for a variety of indiscretions, ranging from drunkenness to having an affair with the editor's wife. Desperate for a job, he signs onto the small-time Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin hoping to stumble across a story that will put him back in the big time. After a year of frustration, he comes across a man, Leo Minosa, trapped in a cave on a ranch in rural Escudero and, calling on the local authorities, he turns a seemingly insignificant event into a media extravaganza while securing exclusive rights from the local sheriff to enter the cave and speak with the trapped man. Apart from merely profiting off the misery of Minosa, Tatum takes an active role in prolonging this misery. Against the chief engineer's recommendation that the cave be reinforced and the rescue effected from inside (a process that would take 18 hours), he insists that they drill through the cave from the top, deliberately prolonging the procedure and allowing for more days of valuable newspaper copy. Because of the deal Tatum has struck with the corrupt sheriff who controls the town, the engineer has no choice but to comply. As the days go on, the crowds of observers increase in number to the thousands and reporters from the major Eastern cities arrive. The shameless carnival atmosphere that Wilder creates, which finds its antipodal counterpoint in a series of claustrophobic shots of the increasingly desperate Leo Minosa, his face almost completely blackened by dirt, imparts a very bitter, but nonetheless palpable, sense of amusement to the film's audience.
The Albuquerque newspaper office is decorated by a quaint needle-point canvas stitched with the paper's motto "Tell the Truth", an assertion everywhere undermined by the reality of the media's operation when faced with a chance to break a big story. The Sun-Bulletin's owner, Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall), may be scrupulous in his morals, but his paper is content to cover stories of limited interest and will never achieve the kind of success of its big-city counterparts. The naivete of the needlepoint motto is everywhere mocked by Wilder as he exposes the relentless machinations that serve to replace honesty with financial success as the chief operating value of the country. As the crowds increase arond the hapless Minosa and create a kind of village, the spectacle expands into a illustrative microcosm of America, a nation here exposed as one built on greed and operating on the lure of pure spectacle. Ace in the Hole creates a nightmare world in which everyone is selling something. Apart from Tatum (who brokers a thousand dollar a day deal with a New York paper after the story breaks), Leo Minosa's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is glad to see her husband buried since it gives her the chance to earn significant amounts of money feeding the tourists from the restaurant she owns. The sheriff, with his eye on the next election, strikes a deal with Tatum in which the newspaper man will turn him into a hero in the papers, ensuring the continuation of his office. Even the tourists cannot resist a chance to promote themselves. When interviewed by a local radio station, an insurance salesman uses the on-air opportunity to further his business interests. A troubador performs a song about Leo Minosa and sells the sheet music to the crowd. Souvenir stands abound. Everywhere, something is for sale.
In Kirk Douglas, Wilder found his ideal Chuck Tatum. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated performance in Champion, Douglas continues his mastery of portraying the unscrupulous opportunist. As Manny Farber wrote about Douglas (in reference to another role), "[his] mad-dog style of acting is bound to make any character into a one-sided surface of loud-pedaled ugliness". This mad-dog style of acting is everywhere evident in Ace in the Hole. From his rants denouncing small-minded Albuquerque with which he treats his newspaper co-workers to his unflinching manipulations of the local sheriff, Douglas is never less than dynamic, his shrewd intelligence continually on display as he deftly outmaneuvers his rivals. Although his performance is mostly one-sided (only at the fim's end, when his plan unravels and his unshakable confidence gives way to a kind of frenzy, is his character complicated), it is exactly what is called for in the portrayal of a cynical, success-mad newspaper man who knows every inch of the game and has little difficulty manipulating the local rubes who stand in his way. Lorraine Minosa defines his character best: "I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you, you're twenty minutes". The supporting cast is more or less forgettable, but Ray Teal stands out as the oily sheriff, his phony bluster easily giving way to smarmy ingratiation when it suits his interests.
Wilder's visual scheme takes advantage of high contrast black and white and a deft manipulation of the ever-increasing crowds to create a vivid self-contained world. The camerawork is more or less typical of 1950s Hollywood, built on a series of long shots, close-ups and pans, but it suffices to clearly convey the interactions between the film's visual elements. The script, written by the director in conjunction with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, is full of Wilder's typically caustic wit, given an additional bite by the relentless cynicism (cynical even by Wilder's standards) of his vision. In the video afterward included on the DVD release, Spike Lee says of the film that it is "dark for 2007", let alone 1951. In its unrelenting depiction of the cynical operations of the media machine and its understanding of the relentless greed that forms the core of American society, Wilder's picture remains a landmark, one scarcely equaled in the fifty plus years since the film's first release.