By John H. Foote
Great films that have failed to find an audience have been around since the silent era, so it is no surprise, that in the fifties, the same event took place many times, including this powerful however cynical noir which failed at the box office despite powerhouse performances and a dark troubling story. That is was directed by the great Billy Wilder and failed, was even more of a surprise, him coming off the masterpiece that was Sunset Boulevard (1950) just the year before, arguably the greatest film of his career. Ace in the Hole (1951) became a staple of afternoon television through the sixties, often called The Big Carnival, its aka, and through the nineties and 2000’s enjoyed a second life, a renewed reputation, appreciated for what it is, a superb noir, with nasty characters at its core, their actions worse, showing rotted moral souls within. In the canon of his films, Ace in the Hole (1951) is not widely praised, yet I believe it to be among the finest films he ever made. A caustic, dark film dripping with acid for content, its characters repellant human beings.
Its release on Criterion DVD and Blu Ray gave the film a new lease on life and brought the picture to an entirely new generation of film audiences. Many seeing it for the first time were alarmed at the twisted storyline, that the subject matter was so intensely dark for the time. Most of those who see it cannot believe it was considered a failure when released, that critics attacked it as immoral, and audiences just stayed away.
They watch it now.
Ace in the Hole (1951) tells the story of a disgraced reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) who talks a small town newspaper in New Mexico into giving him a job when he realizes none of the big papers he used to work for will hire him, even talk to him. A drunk, a womanizer, an adulterer, Tatum is everything no one needs to be around, and the most narcissistic man they will encounter in their lifetime. Sent out to cover a rattlesnake hunt, furious at the silly assignment he happens on a young man trapped in a cave after the upper half collapses trapping him. Leo (Richard Benedict) the young man in the cave owns a going broke fast tourist spot near the caves, run by him and his beautiful, scheming wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) who wants out and has plans to leave him.
No need to cover the rattlesnake hunt, Tatum is one himself and has found the perfect partner for himself, an equally dangerous snake, Lorraine.
The story of the man in the cave becomes national news and Tatum finds a way to drag it out, to ensure the major papers know he is covering the story, that he is the point man. He encourages the men operating the life-saving drill to go from the top of the cave down, taking longer, dragging out the rescue. The spot becomes a major tourist attraction, and the small store Lorraine operates booms with business, making her more money in a few days than she has made in years previous. The entire time Tatum is speaking daily with Leo, keeping his spirits up, talking as though they were best friends and Tatum was doing everything he could to get the doomed young man out soon and sleeping with his wife. That Lorraine goes along with it is both a testament to what she is as a person and how convincing Tatum can be. They are made for one another, each out for themselves, each unspeakably selfish. Only when she is leaving does she realize what Tatum is and what he has done. Each in their own way contributes to the death of Leo, and neither one cares for anything other than themselves. It displays the character of each that Tatum is speaking to Leo as a friend, keeping his spirits buoyed while sleeping with his wife at night, neither Tatum nor Lorraine possess any shred of a conscience.
Kirk Douglas was often criticized as an actor in the fifties and sixties, but I believe he was an exceptional film actor, and unafraid to play a first-class bastard. Douglas acted with his entire being, throwing his body into the role with abandon and allowing his emotions to rule. Some accused him of overacting and to be sure he could be caught doing that, but in the right role, he was a forceful, intense actor, almost too intense sometimes as he nearly exploded off the screen. As Tatum, he portrays a born schemer, out for himself and no one else, even when a mans life is at risk. Ferociously intense, obscenely selfish and self-absorbed, he is a snake in every way. He knows full well Leo will die if not rescued yet delays the rescue effort to make sure he is going to be famous and land a job at a major city paper. The quality of human life means nothing to him, only he matters. In a year filled with outstanding performances, this was among the finest and deserving of a Best Actor nomination.
It is a huge risk to portray such a character because while they are actors, they want their audience to like them too. Portraying such a full-fledged bastard could impact that feeling, as Douglas gave himself over to the role and owned it. For me, it is the finest performance of his career and one of the most courageous acting jobs I have ever experienced.
Equally fine was Jan Sterling as the cold, selfish wife who cares nothing for her husband and like Tatum wants far away from the desert and vast nothingness in her life. They are made for one another. The selfishness each has in their soul bonds them together, as they are cynical, nasty people who believe the world owes them a living and will do anything to anyone to get ahead. That Tatum was sent on a rattlesnake hunt and finds Lorraine is not lost on anyone.
Wilder gives the film a realistic feeling, shooting much of it on location, giving audiences an idea of the isolation of the store, and the cave. One can all but taste the dust of the desert, feel the heat of the sun, and the dryness of the parched land. Like John Ford, Wilder plunges his audience into the environment. The sequences in the cave have the perfect sense of claustrophobia, bringing a greater urgency to getting Leo out.
One of the darkest films of the fifties, it is also among the best, a near-forgotten masterpiece and to be considered among the finest films Wilder ever directed.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.