This essay was originally published at Edward Copeland’s Tangents.
Cinephiles and classic movie fans alike marked off July 17, 2007 as the date when one of their Holy Grails was finally released to DVD: Ace in the Hole (1951), director Billy Wilder’s pungent portrayal of both the fourth estate and the public’s insatiable appetite for the sensationalism they publish and/or broadcast, had never previously been available on home video…and though I had seen the movie years ago on American Movie Classics (it still had its The Big Carnival credits, the title it went by when Paramount tried to recoup the dismal box office generated on its first release) I was amazed by how many online movie critics and bloggers admitted to not having seen the film.
It was the first major financial flop for Wilder (one studio wag dubbed the movie “Ass in the Wringer”) after a string of solid successes that began in 1942 and because of its epic fail Billy himself wasn’t particularly fond of discussing Hole in later years—he not only ended up being sued by a screenwriter who claimed he gave the idea for the movie’s plot to Wilder’s secretary (Wilder and his lawyers eventually settled out of court), Paramount withheld from him some of the profits from his next feature, Stalag 17 (1953), claiming it was retribution for the financial “hole” Hole left them in. Sixty years ago on this date, the film I consider to be one of his finest works was released to theaters…a movie whose message is pithily summed up on an embroidered sign hanging on a newspaper office wall: “Tell the truth.”
Reporter Chuck Tatum finds himself busted flat in Albuquerque, N.M.—his car is en route to a garage via tow truck, and he’s looking for work after a checkered employment history with eleven major newspapers have shown him in the door for various infractions (adultery, slander, etc.). Introducing himself to editor Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) of the city’s Sun-Bulletin, the quick-thinking, silver-tongued Tatum manages to talk himself into a $60-a-week job as a reporter even though he’s pining for the much faster pace of cities like Chicago and New York. His fellow employees—among them cub photographer Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur)—don’t quite know what to make of Tatum, but they find his demeanor and personality fascinating; Tatum, in the meantime, has cleaned up his act and managed to stay sober for a year though the tedious ennui of small-town life is threatening to kill him.
Assigned to cover a “rattlesnake roundup” story in a nearby county, Chuck and Herbie stop off to gas up and learn from a woman named Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) that her husband Leo (Richard Benedict) has become trapped in an underground cave attraction near their souvenir stand looking for Indian artifacts. In investigating Leo’s predicament Tatum realizes he’s staring into the abyss of a potentially hot news story—very similar to the famous account of Kentuckian Floyd Collins, who was ensnared in a similar cave in 1925. With Herbie by his side, Chuck begins to milk the story for maximum impact; in cahoots with local sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal), Tatum not only strong-arms engineer Sam Smollett (Frank Jaquet) into using a prolonged method to reach Leo (which will allow for extra days of front-page treatment of the tragedy) but effectively eliminates the competition from other reporters covering the story, who are banished to a “press tent” by the corrupt Kretzer. (When his fellow scribes try appealing to Tatum’s “fair play” by observing that “we’re all in the same boat” he responds: “I’m in the boat…you’re in the water…now let’s see how you can swim.”) The news of Leo’s predicament quickly garners national attention and thousands of spectators and onlookers flock to the site where Lorraine greedily anticipates a financial windfall from the sales of food, drink, souvenirs and concessions from a carnival set up nearby.
Emboldened by the attention bestowed upon him as the reporter with an exclusive scoop (his services are now in demand by the very paper who gave him a pink slip), Tatum tells editor Boot to take a hike when he comes by in a futile attempt to rein him in…and Herbie, who’s also undergone a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation from idealistic young man to craven opportunist, elects to stay with Chuck when the prospect of selling his photos to magazines such as Look and Life becomes all-too-tantalizing. As for Leo, one of the few decent people characterized in the film (along with his parents, his physician and a priest), his time is running out—and Tatum’s reporter instincts tells him he needs to get Leo out of there fast because an unhappy ending is the kiss of death for his brand of tabloid journalism. But Chuck is too late: Smollett informs him that going back to the original rescue plan will surely endanger Leo in a slate fall. Chuck breaks the news to Lorraine when Leo succumbs to suffocation, and is so disgusted with both her and himself that he attempts to strangle her. Lorraine manages to fend him off by stabbing him with a pair of scissors, and with Herbie’s help Tatum returns to town and the Sun-Bulletin offices in a severely weakened condition. “How’d you like to make yourself a thousand dollars a day, Mr. Boot?” he asks the editor, who stares at him with pity. “I’m a thousand-dollar-a-day newspaperman…you can have me for nothing.” He then collapses and dies on the spot.
At the time of Ace in the Hole’s release, Wilder was critically lambasted by both movie reviewers and real-life journalists, who strongly objected to the categorization of the news-gathering fraternity in the film as unscrupulous and self-serving. The passage of time has demonstrated that while the tone of Hole remains satirical the content remains disturbingly realistic. Tales of reporters who have tossed ethics and credibility off to the side and accounts of journalists whose integrity has been compromised by cozying up to subjects they are supposed to objectively cover are too numerous to cite here but filmmaker Guy Maddin, in an essay entitled “Chin Up for Mother,” gets to the crux of why the cynicism of Hole isn’t manufactured but reflective of its time:
Of course, the main theme is the rapacious hunger of tabloid news organizations for their scoops, and of a public for blood (an appetite in this case as sexy and naked as it was in Caesarean times). But these things are nothing more than accurately represented in the movie. The earnest young shutterbug who starts the picture as Tatum’s nemesis is utterly corrupted by him within seconds; the lad’s whiplash transformation from annoying goody-goody to sycophantic ponyboy puts the Oscar-winning mutative wizardry of Rick Baker to shame. Others within Tatum’s orbit—the sheriff and the contractor, particularly—undergo Fredric March-like personality shifts as well, though the cave rat’s wife, the perfectly cast Jan Sterling, appears to have come pre-Hoovered of all scruples. By the time the Great S&M Amusement Corp. rolls in, poor, mad [Leo] Minosa is clearly doomed to die like a dog in his cave.
The jaundiced portrayal of these characters may have turned off moviegoers here in the U.S. of A. but Ace in the Hole did very well overseas, where critics and audiences are able to look at America through a far less jingoistic fog. (The “big carnival” atmosphere surrounding the fictional tragedy in Hole is still around today; if you can turn on your TV set right now and avoid the spectacle that is the Casey Anthony trial I admire and respect your channel surfing skills.) For me, the fascinating moment of truth in the movie is when Tatum and Smollett the engineer are being interviewed by a radio reporter and a casual spectator has the stones to interrupt and point out that there’s something seriously wrong with their “Operation Rescue” setup. There always seems to be a lone voice decrying what is obviously madness in these kinds of situations (Iraq-Afghanistan war, anyone?) but is seldom able to be heard above the sensationalistic din.
Over at my stomping grounds at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, actor Kirk Douglas is revered as “the king of the rat bastards” — a title that he frequently trades off with other screen legends such as Richard Widmark and Robert Ryan, depending on which actor and his respective movie I’ve watched of late. But what gives Douglas an edge in the race is that he played his characters with an intense ferocity—Chuck Tatum is one of the actor’s best roles, a not-so-distant cousin to the unscrupulous boxer Midge Kelly in Douglas’ 1949 movie Champion. Both men are unrepentant scoundrels (Midge may actually be worse in that he rapes his ex-wife and punches out his crippled brother) but it is interesting to note that they are also motivated by “the American dream”—each individual is determined to rise to the top of his profession and enjoy the fruits of success.
What makes Tatum a fascinating personage is, yeah, he’s a ruthless essobee but he’s also damn good at his job—the papers that dispensed with his services did not do so because he’s a lousy reporter. Despite all the grief Chuck hands him, Boot recognizes how invaluable his work has come to be (he admits that the newspaper’s circulation is up) and earnestly attempts to dissuade him from continuing the Minosa charade because he doesn’t like the stench of the corruption involved (Boot: “Phony, below-the-belt journalism….that’s what it is.” Tatum: “Not below-the-belt…right from the gut!”). In his essay, Maddin contrasts the Tatum character with another legendary cinematic heel, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), who shares the same ambition to make good as Tatum but who comes across as a guy who really sucks at being a publicist. Chuck Tatum is also a man who, despite his shortcomings, has a reservoir of charm and a snappy rejoinder in his holster when necessary. During his “interview” he is asked by Boot “Do you drink a lot?” Tatum’s response: “Not a lot…just frequently…” Watching Douglas-as-Tatum is akin to being hypnotized by a cobra, and though he’s unlikable there is also no denying that he’s a tragic character in that his attempts to rein in a situation that has spun out of his control are doomed to despair.
Jan Sterling is magnificent in the role of unfaithful Lorraine Minosa, and she gets one of the classic lines in Ace in the Hole when she tells reporter Tatum: “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you…you’re twenty minutes.” (I think it’s interesting that this bit of dialogue is contradicted by her other famous declaration, “I don’t go to church…kneeling bags my nylons”—suggesting that she’s spent a little extra time in a boiling saucepan herself.) Shamelessly flirting with both Tatum and pretty much anything that’s walked into the souvenir stand wearing work pants, the final shot of Lorraine furiously trying to catch up to the Trailways coach speeding away from the establishment (a great visual pun in that she’s “missed the bus” on everything in her life) has a special poignancy that’s remained with me all these years.
Billy Wilder’s often corrosive take on American customs and mores in his movies were tempered through his collaborations with writer Charles Brackett; Ace in the Hole would be the first film Wilder would do without Brackett’s influence (the script was written in tandem with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels) and it would also be his first offering as producer. His dissatisfaction with Paramount’s decision to salvage what they could from Hole’s dismal b.o. take, however, did produce a positive result in that he was able to renegotiate his contract to allow him greater creative control. With the wider accessibility of Hole, a fresh generation of moviegoers are now able to see why Wilder remains one of the most American of filmmakers (despite his Austrian pedigree) and that Hole (along with Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd) was a film far ahead of its time, daring to lampoon and criticize the media for its weaknesses and excesses. In Ace in the Hole, Wilder tells the truth.