19 March 2008

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Full credits from IMDb

Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels & Billy Wilder

Grade: A-

It would be easy to say that the trenchant and blistering Ace in the Hole was “ahead of its time,” but it might be more accurate to simply admit that things have just always been bad. It’s troubling to think so, but Billy Wilder’s dramatic treatise on how and when journalists cross the line—and how the audience eats it up—feels incredibly timely, as it must have upon its release, too. A ripping and bitter yarn, Ace in the Hole never mutes its caustic view of the world, nor does it let the audience off the hook for one second. Accordingly, it flopped upon its release, probably because America wasn’t willing to look into such a sallow mirror.

Kirk Douglas, acting a bit too hammy, stars as a hard-drinking, troublemaking east-coast reporter stationed out west, in exile after being fired several times over from all the big city papers. Stuck in what he calls a “sun-baked Siberia,” he bemoans, as though out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the lack of garlic pickles and chopped chicken liver. “Even for Albuquerque,” Douglas says, “this is pretty Albuquerque.”

Douglas is doing time, waiting for a big story that’ll get him another job back east—that is, wishing for disaster for the sake of a juicy story. “Bad news sells best and good news is no news,” Douglas says. “If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” But before he can, he stumbles upon a cave-in at a mine with a fella, Richard Benedict, trapped in the rubble. Good news for the dog, bad news for the fella.

Colluding with the sheriff to keep Benedict trapped as long as possible, Douglas dictates how the news story progresses, seemingly ignoring that a man’s life is at stake. He does what he has to, even slaps a dame around, in order to get the story shaped just right, transforming the lonesome desert valley site into a full-blown media circus of the absurd in the process, complete with rides and ice cream—the film was re-titled, in an effort to give it a more box-office friendly title, The Big Carnival—all centered on Douglas’ ace, literally in a hole.

Early on, Douglas says of himself, defensively, “I don’t make things happen, all I do is write about them.” But that’s entirely untrue, we quickly learn—Douglas, to scoop the national story that could get him back to New York, crosses the line from impartial observer to active participant. (A conundrum revisited decades later in Capote.)

Wilder highlights, through Douglas’ cruel extension of the miner’s confinement, how journalism, at its most unctuous, compounds tragedy for the sake of a story. It’s what Douglas’ old publisher calls “phony, below-the-belt journalism.” (Douglas replies, “not below the belt, right in the gut!”)

At first, it seems like everyone’s making out from the tragedy—the trapped miner and his wife are making some serious scratch, Douglas is working towards getting his old New York gig back, his photographer-slash-apprentice is furthering his career, the sheriff is getting votes, and the public is being entertained—so why does it feel so downright filthy?

Probably because it’s obviously journalism at its worst—tearing democracy down rather than building it up. Douglas shores up support for the crooked sheriff to enhance his puff piece, while he ought to working his ass off to, say, expose a corrupt official. Not to mention that, in reality, more than a byline is at stake. Wilder skillfully undercuts the slick media perfidy, Douglas’ constructed “human interest” story, by interrupting scenes with genuine human interest: the grieving mother passes through a scene, on her way to light a votive candle to the saints, in prayer for her son’s life.

And that tragedy is just as much our fault as anyone else’s. Slowly, Wilder implicates the audience in the film’s treachery, accusing us of being complicit in such dirty dealings because we’re the ones who go out and buy the newspapers. In the end, of course, things don’t work out and the situation that seemed best for everybody turns out to the best for nobody, even the media consumers. The tragedy stings most pointedly when Douglas says in the middle of the film, “tomorrow this’ll be yesterday’s paper and they’ll wrap a fish in it.” So what’s the point?

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