Ace in the Hole was directed by Billy Wilder and released in 1951. It was originally released on DVD by Criterion as spine #396 on July 17, 2007, and was re-released in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack on May 6, 2014. It is the only film directed by Billy Wilder in the collection, although he wrote People on Sunday (spine #569).
Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an out-of-work newspaper reporter who takes a job at a small-town paper. While on assignment in Albuquerque, he stumbles upon a treasure-hunter (Richard Benedict) who is trapped in a cave. Seeing the opportunity at hand, Tatum begins reporting on the rescue operation, and the story becomes a sensation. As the media circus outside the cave escalates, Tatum exercises more and more control over the story, leveraging the man’s life for power and money.
Ace in the Hole is over sixty years old, but its acidic rebuke of the American media has never been more relevant. In the 50’s, the literal circus — complete with a Ferris wheel and carousel — that builds itself outside the cave may have been absurd enough to make the film a satire. Today, however, it’s frighteningly plausible. Chuck Tatum understood that news wasn’t really news, it was entertainment, and one need only look at any contemporary news source to see that lesson taken to heart. Tatum doesn’t just report the news, he writes it, and that’s now common practice. Every news story is molded into a familiar narrative to make it more digestible. Even more disturbing is just how easy it is for Tatum. The allure of having your name in the paper is referenced time and time again, as if it’s the one thing that all Americans aspire to. As the stakes ramp up near the film’s end, Tatum shouts at the police chief that they need to speed up rescue operations, saying, “The guy in there’s dying. That’s no good for my story.” That sociopathic disconnect from reality seems disgusting, but the film never lets us forget that it’s the same attitude we all have when reading the news. We can be indignant about Tatum’s actions all we want, but our brains process an honest news story the same way they process a dishonest one. At one point, a newspaper editor balks at Tatum’s price for the cave story, and says, “Don’t you know there’s a war on? Somewhere?” We give things arbitrary importance when they’re outside our field of understanding, but that doesn’t mean we actually care about them. It’s a sad truth of human nature, and Tatum spends the film taking advantage of it.
Douglas holds the entire film on his shoulders, and it’s a hell of a performance. He’s endlessly charismatic, which makes it all the more shocking when he does something unfathomably immoral. A song written in support for the trapped treasure-hunter says he is “in the devil’s prison,” and while it’s true, no one is aware of who that devil really is. Douglas’ face is a marvel, softening and hardening to best suit the situation at hand. It’s difficult to make such a multifaceted character seem consistent, but Douglas has more than enough talent to make it work.
The Blu-ray transfer for Ace in the Hole makes the film look about as good as it’s ever going to look. Some scenes are clearer than others, and certain outdoor shots are a little fuzzy. Overall, though, the film looks great. Most of the images are crystal-clear without sacrificing grain, so the film looks as authentic as it does beautiful. The sound is a bit rocky in places, particularly some scratchy bits of dialogue, but that’s a minor problem. Like most Criterion releases, the film looks as one imagines it must have in theaters.
Ace in the Hole comes with a healthy dose of special features, including a commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard. Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man”: Billy Wilder, a documentary about the filmmaker, and some assorted clips of Wilder speaking at the American Film Institute in 1986 are also present. These three feel like standard extra-features stuff, but the rest of the disc is much more interesting. An illuminating interview with Kirk Douglas from 1984 shows Douglas reflecting on his role and the process of working with Wilder, and it is enlightening on both counts. An audio interview with Walter Newman, the film’s co-writer, is dry but detailed, and worth listening to if you’re really fascinated by the film. The best feature by far, though, is the “afterword” by director Spike Lee. Lee is apparently a huge fan of Ace in the Hole, and in this video he discusses elements of the film’s craft that inspired him and the film’s influences on his work. It’s fun to see such an accomplished filmmaker as Lee be so nakedly gleeful when discussing his favorite film. Criterion’s trademark booklet of essays is also included, but with a neat twist: It’s printed to look like a newspaper.
Though it’s not the most obvious film from Billy Wilder’s impressive canon to include in the collection, Ace in the Hole is a fantastic release. The film itself is a gem, most of the extras are top-notch, and the packaging (especially the booklet) is a standout among Criterion’s massive library. I’d suggest that Wilder newbies seek out films like The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard to start with, but it’s hard not to recommend this release.
Criterion Grade: A-
Film Grade: A-