The protagonist of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) somehow finds himself in Albuquerque, NM after getting fired from 11 different newspapers in as many cities. Hoping to sniff out some sensational scoop in this backwater he so clearly has nothing but contempt for, reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) talks the Sun-Bulletin‘s editor into hiring him, but a year goes by before Tatum finally finds what he’s longed for. Some three hours away, deep inside the Mountain of the Seven Vultures, a local trading-post proprietor Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped inside a collapsed cave while hunting for ancient Indian artefacts. Tatum crawls inside, makes pals with Leo, and immediately sets about transforming Leo’s predicament into what he hopes will be a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. Tatum convinces the sheriff to give him exclusive access to Leo; he convinces the foreman in charge of Leo’s rescue to take the longest possible route to securing a safe passageway; he convinces Lorraine (Jan Sterling), Leo’s bored and unhappy spouse, to play the role of the loving and loyal wife. The sleepy no-place surrounding Seven Vultures is transformed into a carnival—literally. Besides the media sharks who set up camp outside the mountain, amusement-park rides and burger joints are erected for the tourists who turn up to await Leo’s resurfacing. As the hubbub escalates Tatum is determined to commandeer the entire situation, dictating the narrative, the tone and the characters in his reportage—he might as well be a film director. You can watch his story unfold on Criterion’s new DVD/BluRay dual format re-release of Ace in Hole.
It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood movie more cynical than Sunset Blvd (1950), but Wilder’s follow-up to that sublimely tawdry study in Tinseltown corruption nearly outdoes it. Without ever conveying anything so obvious as pure malice, Tatum’s single-minded self-promotion proves to be something far spookier: the guy behaves like a sociopath—at least until he begins to understand that forces beyond his control might ruin the happy ending he’s planned for his human-interest extravaganza. And Douglas, in a masterfully grandiose performance, with much jutting chin and chilly charm, doesn’t betray Tatum’s heartless ambition in the slightest. Nor does Sterling do anything to try to convince us that Lorraine is anything less than ruthless, as blatantly phony as her platinum curls and kabuki eyebrows. They’re just as scheming and cold-blooded as Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1945), the only real difference being that the earlier pair resigned themselves to murder from the get-go, whereas Tatum and Lorraine merely accept an innocent man’s death as a remote and unfortunate possibility.
As token tumbleweeds roll by, Wilder shows little interest in the awesome landscapes of the American Southwest, but as the story progresses he offers spectacular, sprawling images of parked cars glinting on the desert plain, of clamouring crowds, of heavy machinery, the great turning of the Ferris wheel and the wheels that keep the great drill pounding down toward poor Leo in his hole. As though it were all along operating in quiet sympathy with Leo, stuck on his back, legs pinned, sand spilling over him, the camera often observes the action from an unusually low angle, which only gets lower, until the film’s final, unforgettable shot, taken right from the floor. That’s about as low as you can get, and that’s just where Wilder liked to look for his stories. Thing is, in this case and many others, those stories ring all too true. V