Billy Wilder was the Hollywood cynic. We all know this. It wasn’t necessarily always the case (Some Like it Hot is one of the most delightfully buoyant screen comedies ever made, despite a dark edge). But he had it in him from the very beginning, and he kept it in him until the very end. If you want scabs though, and I mean pus-filled, oozing, inventing-colors-so-they-don’t-have-to-be-just-black-and-blue scabs, you have to stick with mid-period Wilder, who, with Sunset Boulevard, turned Hollywood against itself like a rabid dog unsure of its target and found that even this wasn’t enough. One year later, unfulfilled and still in need of making the nastiest Hollywood film yet made, he unleashed Ace in the Hole upon the world, and his vengeful edge, his sickly grotesque demeanor and love of exposing the least well-lit regions of human activity, absconded down the churlish rabbit hole.
Perhaps Wilder needed the bitters as a salve for his break-up with long-time co-writer Charles Brackett (Ace in the Hole was his first film as a sole writer), but the acid is both molasses-thick and as refreshing as water for Wilder. His heart seems as vibrant as ever here, ready to go for several more bouts with human decency on the other end of his fist. More than in any of his films, excepting perhaps his masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole finds Wilder adopting the persona of a vulture circling around the prey, hoping for the worst. Just like reporter Chuck Tatum, in fact, bearing Kirk Douglas’ chiseled, angular features as an external manifestation of his jagged, unbecoming internal drive for success at any cost. Fired from papers across the country, he skulks his way to Albuquerque working for a small-time paper with a finger on the pulse of the news of sleepy, cobweb-encrusted New Mexico, where headline-grabbing news takes the form of small-town community activities such as a soap-box derby and a tornado that “double-crossed” them and went to Texas instead.
Until he skulks his way into an excavating accident where a man, Leo, has wound up victim to the unforgiving mountains of the austere, sun-drenched South West. To Chuck, Leo is also a victim to the unforgiving myths and spirits of the people who long ago inhabited the mountains. For Chuck, the myths are a ruse, an angle, rather than a specter to be taken with gravity, and the same is true of Leo’s premature imprisonment. Chuck meets Leo early on in a spellbinding slice of suspense where Wilder does everything imaginable to cut into the frame with the crags of the mountains, essaying the cramped cavern that may be Leo’s tomb as a hell of Cubist angles strangling not only Leo but the camera itself. Here, Chuck is an ace in the hole, dragging his newspaperman’s mask of geniality and charismatic concern all the way down the crevice to welcome Leo with his chipper desire for the truth, but it’s all a ruse for Chuck’s sneering, self-serving bid for a story. He turns Leo into his ace in the hole to attract publicity to the town, manipulating everyone around him to extend Leo’s struggle longer than it need be just so that Chuck can continue covering it all the way back to the world of omnivorous, unsuspecting national headlines.
Douglas, in arguably his prime role, is a catty, inhumane monster under the veneer of a pompously abrasive but endlessly charismatic force of nature. Douglas sells the individualistic anti-empathy of the man, but his endless movie-star charisma evokes the more difficult sell: that, despite the rampant, viscous brutality at the core of his identity, we would all believe him anyway, because he’s Kirk Douglas, and he’s Chuck Tatum. It is a sublimely egoless performance, a work of smut-making, smut-taking, corrosiveness that doubles back and critique its own ego, a work of movie star passion and volcanic charisma that depicts populist charisma and public performance, and implicitly movie star charisma altogether, as the most slithering, oiliest snake oil in the business. It is a remarkably self-vilifying performance, positioned, as Tatum might say, half-way between “below the belt” and “right in the gut”.
Wilder directs with a journalist’s eye for sensation and tactile efficiency, having studied the noir peddlers of the world and embedded himself in enough sludge to film a tale about sensationalism in a sensationalist style, which is the film’s most provocative achievement. It is directed in the way Tatum might have written the story, with canted angles and a marked addiction to lurid, queasy depth-of-field as well as shots of pummeling masses that mark them out as the ants Tatum views them as. There’s an absolutely searing shot where Tatum and co-star Jan Sterling (playing Leo’s disinterested wife Lorraine) kiss and Wilder frames it from the back of Sterling’s head with Tatum’s claw of a hand grasping her hair as if he is about to violently molest her. For Tatum, romance isn’t a romantic activity, but a perfunctory, angry one rooted in power and marinated in superiority. It’s a grueling, disgusting image for a grueling, disgusting man, matched only by the angelic, death-marked light surrounding the dying Leo in his final moments and shepherding him into the darkness that Tatum has lived his entire life in.
Ace in the Hole vibrates with tempestuous disgust, reportorial disarray, and malevolent masculine rage. Strengths abound, such as a pas de deux between Tatum and Lorraine that turns into a blame-game, which in turn curdles into a self-hating struggle for strangulation. The music by Hugo Friedhofer is a consistently scandalous affair that alternates between sinister Bernard Herrmann anxiety attacks and a jaunty, welterweight theme that ironically and sinisterly mocks the carnival that Leo’s entombment becomes when thousands venture to his eventual resting place. Charles Lang on cinematography (one of the all-time black-and-white photographers) bemoans the lack of Tatum’s innocence and shoots the material with both journalistic clarity and a noirish harsh-contrast that illuminates the craggy features of Douglas’ tired, world-spanning face. This is all not a patch on Sunset Boulevard, Wilder’s film from just one year before, but for watching Billy Wilder lashing out to his heart’s content at his purest and most corrosive, Ace in the Hole is an apotheosis. Especially, in the end, when we learn that a staggering Tatum can try to save his own soul, but no one, not any one at the carnival, not any of his newspapers, cares at all.