Ace in The Hole (Criterion) Review

The Film

I've met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time, but you, you're 20 minutes”

Chuck Tatum(Kirk Douglas), rolls into Albuquerque as a broken down newspaper man in a broken down car. No sooner does he see the local newspaper office than he is selling his talents to the publisher, Mr Boot, as a “$250 a week newspaper man” that he can have for $50. He tells Boot of the litany of dismissals in his career and Tatum is established as an unconventional rogue who wants to get back on top. He gets hired and he soon gets bored with the parochial stories and lack of action; Albuquerque simply has “too much outdoors”. A year later, Tatum is still in the small time and reluctant to cover a rattlesnake hunt but he is sent off with cub reporter, Herbie. En route, they hear of Leo Minosa who has got trapped underground by a cave in and Tatum seizes his chance to milk the story as the big break he has waited for. He poses as Leo's saviour and soon has the governor and Sheriff jumping at the chance of the publicity as public interest grows in the story. Tatum convinces the Sheriff to choose a method of rescue that will take seven days rather than the option of shoring the cave up and having Minosa free in hours. Soon, Minosa's wife is eyeing Tatum up and making a mint in selling tickets to watch her husband's rescue. A circus springs up around the story and as Minosa becomes more ill, Tatum starts to realise that the happy ending he needs may not happen.

The absence on DVD of this Billy Wilder classic has been mystifying. On its original release the film failed in the States but was successful in Europe and has come over the years to be seen as prophetic. Half a century on, the biting satire of the carnival of human tragedy seems all the more appropriate for the world of around the clock news. Now we live in a world where parents have to learn to manage the media to keep their missing daughter as news, the cynicism of Ace in the Hole seems unerringly accurate. “Bad news sells the best” is a motto that sums up the modern tendency to celebrate and personalise tragedy, and Tatum's management of events keeps his readers interested in the same way that modern news spins every last human interest angle out of the headlines.

It would be wrong to claim that Ace in the Hole is just about the media as what it reveals is the whole business of tragedy. What starts out as concern for another human being soon becomes a platform for business and politics. The kernel of empathy is soon lost in commerce with Mrs Minosa's roadside diner making big bucks and a whole sideshow of concern springing up with sympathetic songs written and sold at 25c a copy, passers by using the cautionary tale to sell insurance, and a fun fair to make the waiting for the rescue more tolerable. The local sheriff needs the tragedy to get re-elected, Chuck needs it to get his job back and Mrs Minosa needs the money to leave her husband. They are the investors in Leo's misery and as the film proves by its end, they become the ones likely to kill him because of their greed for power and status.

Wilder's gritty film is at least able to deal out some payback to its anti-hero and to suggest the moral bankruptcy of the lives of the people involved in this grotesquerie. It also allows Tatum to become a monster of success whilst his conscience nags at him – he has made a kind of Faustian pact with fame. Wilder relieves the tone with humour and wit in his dialogue but he never loses sight of humanity or his target. And at the film's conclusion Wilder hits the bullseye with a breathtaking final shot to show the fall of Tatum:

“I'm a $1000 a day newspaper man, but you can have me for nothing”

Ace in the Hole is a neglected masterpiece, every bit as good as Wilder's more serious films like Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend. Kirk Douglas is superb in a role which forsakes an actor's vanity to play an egotistical beast and few performances are served so well by such a great quote-worthy script. It is without equal as a condemnation of modern media and sadly it has become more true than it was ever intended to be.

The Discs

Criterion release Ace in The Hole in a two disc set. The discs are held in a figure of eight case, which like their Monsters and Madmen release will not help to avoid scratching when removing discs. The first disc contains the film, a commentary and a trailer with the second disc full of Wilder related goodies. The feature is presented at 1.33:1 and Criterion have window boxed it excessively in my view. Its not a huge problem if you have a scalable DVD player but it will prove irritating to those without one. The print is very good with very rare moments of wear and tear which make location long shots a little softer than the studio based shots. Contrast is superb and the image, outside of the moments mentioned above, could not be more detailed. Overall, a very good transfer. The monaural audio has been restored and the sound lacks any obvious imperfections whilst being clear and mastered well. English hard of hearing subtitles are available and optional.

The commentary by Neil Simyard is a well researched unshowy reading of the film which appreciates the story from beginning to end and is excellently delivered. Simyard seems to work from a script and is never short of anything to say that isn't directly about what is going on on-screen. He gives extra information on the change of the film's title by the studio and the irony of Wilder's film about ghoulish spectators actually finding its crowds boosted by members of the public who came to see what was going on! Simyard's timing is impeccable, finishing as the film does with “Corrupt cave-in reporter digs his own grave”.

The second disc contains interviews with Walter Newman, Kirk Douglas and Wilder himself but chief among the extras is Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man. This hour long 1980 documentary uses interviews with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau to bookend three interviews between Wilder and the clearly overwhelmed Michel Ciment. Wilder talks about his early life in Austria as a journalist, he met Freud and Schitzler, and his time in Germany in the 1920's where he started writing for cinema. He talks about working through the studio system in Hollywood and gaining control through becoming first a director and then a producer. Wilder begins to get a little irritated with Ciment by the end - “There are two things I don't like: not being taken seriously and being taken too seriously”.

The 1986 interview by George Stevens junior is a less irksome for Wilder who enjoys the presence of an audience and is less cutting about the past and enjoys being down to earth - “I don't do cinema, I make movies”. He is entertaining and outlines why he got so much control in the studio system because of his reputation for reliability and success. This interview is followed by Kirk Douglas talking in 1984 about the film. He describes Wilder as a “giant” and regrets turning down Stalag 17, but mostly considers his performance as Tatum and his preparation for the role. The final interview is an audio piece with Rui Nogueira talking to Wilder's co-writer Walter Newman who explains how Wilder chose him for the film and their disagreements over the film's opening.

In a video afterword, Spike Lee lauds the film and explains that he copied the final shot when shooting Malcom X and he claims that the film is actually about America as a whole. A stills gallery completes the extras on the disc. Instead of their usual booklet, Criterion have included a newspaper mock-up in the style of Tatum's paper with articles by Guy Maddin and Molly Haskell on the film. Haskell considers the film as an extension of film noir and points to what she calls Wilder's “misogyny” in the character of Mrs Minosa. Maddin celebrates Douglas' performance and denies that the film is overblown in its satire but “spot on” instead. The rest of the paper includes cast and credits, a chapter stop list and information about the transfer. The newspaper insert is an interesting departure but I am not sure that Haskell's and Maddin's articles are that revelatory or enlightening to justify buying this release just for them.


Overscan box apart, the treatment of the main feature is very good and the disc of extras is welcome. Ace in The Hole, a neglected classic, has finally made it to DVD and this is a fine presentation.

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