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Ace in the Hole: The Criterion Collection

For reasons lost to history, Billy Wilder broke with his writing partner Charles Brackett after their collaboration on Sunset Boulevard (1950). Wilder never publicly explained his reasons for breaking off the partnership, and many years later Brackett told an interviewer that he didn't know why Wilder, who'd worked with him on 13 films including Ninotchka (1939), Ball of Fire (1941) and The Lost Weekend (1945), dissolved their team. Some film historians theorize that Wilder was tired of fighting with Brackett over the tone of their screenplays — of the two, Brackett was the kinder, gentler writer, and many of their legendary creative clashes were over Wilder's almost morbid fascination with darker subjects. There may be some truth to that, given that Wilder's first post-Sunset picture was his acidic look at media and American culture, Ace in the Hole (1951). A critical and box-office failure in the U.S. (although it was widely praised in Europe), Wilder's film presaged the term "media circus" by several decades, and took a clawed swipe at the ways in which news reportage manipulates stories to capitalize on the public's grotesque fascination with tragedy. On its release, Ace in the Hole (its title was changed by the studio to The Big Carnival against Wilder's wishes, then changed back again years later) was labeled "cynical" by critics who, it should be noted, may have found that Wilder's bitter take on journalism hit a bit too close to home. The reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film was "a distorted study of corruption and mob psychology that, in this reviewer's opinion, is nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions — democratic government and the free press." The negative reception hit Wilder hard, and his next three pictures, Stalag 17 (1953) Sabrina (1954) and The Seven-Year Itch (1955), would be adaptations of successful stage plays. Ace in the Hole finally found a small American audience in the 1980s, thanks to cable television (this 2007 DVD marks its home video debut), allowing movie lovers to finally embrace what Wilder declared, decades after production, to be his favorite of all his films.

Ace in the Hole is a companion piece of sorts to Double Indemnity's study of dark desires and deceit, and to the grotesque noir despair of Sunset Boulevard. It's also a spiritual brother of Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (1957), with its self-promoting anti-hero and savage look at media manipulation. It also features one of the finest performances of star Kirk Douglas's career as an ambitious, self-destructive, and self-loathing newspaperman willing to do whatever it takes to get his Big Story. Wilder's genius in Ace is in both the deliciously funny-acerbic dialogue of his screenplay (written with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels) and his use of brilliant visuals to communicate character quirks and subtext. We first see Chuck Tatum (Douglas) behind the wheel of a convertible that's being hauled into town by a tow truck. Hat pushed back, reading a newspaper, before a word of dialogue is uttered an important element of Tatum's character is revealed — he's a man who will do whatever it takes to get where he wants to go, and he has a gift for turning misfortune to his advantage. Tatum talks his way into a job at an Albuquerque newspaper, despite his bombastic inability to shut up about his own shortcomings. He tells the paper's publisher (Porter Hall) "I've been fired from eleven papers with a total circulation of seven million, for reasons which I won't bore you." Asked if he drinks a lot, Tatum replies, "Not a lot. Just frequently." He's hired anyway, and Wilder quickly takes us to a year later, with Tatum pacing the newsroom like a caged tiger, and complaining of the town's lack of New York basics like chopped chicken liver and garlic pickles. On a trip to cover a rattlesnake roundup (even this small detail offers clever foreshadowing), Tatum stumbles onto what he thinks might be a better story — the owner of a roadside trading post has been trapped in a cave-in while scrounging for Indian artifacts. The newspaperman immediately seizes the opportunity, recalling a similar event that had occurred 20 years earlier in Kentucky (a true-life event on which this story was partially based) and telling his young co-worker, Herbie (Robert Arthur) that "a reporter from the Louisville paper crawled in for the story and came out with a Pulitzer Prize." When his next step results in a shower of rubble, Tatum fails to see it as a portent. What follows is an escalating examination of greed and deception, as Tatum colludes with the local sheriff to delay the trapped man's rescue while he files his exclusive from-the-cave stories. He also coaches the man's floozy wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling) to stick around, go to church, and pretend to be grief-stricken — advice she appreciates when the trading post starts doing phenomenal business selling lunches to the hundreds of onlookers who camp out at the site to gawk at the proceedings (when profits exceed $1,000, Lorraine purrs to Tatum, "That's the first grand I've ever had. Thanks. Thanks a lot.) Eventually, the area surrounding the cave becomes a literal circus, with a carnival company rolling in, the sides of the trucks emblazoned with "Great S&M Amusement Corp." and a Ferris wheel is erected, while hucksters hawk souvenirs and hastily produced novelty records about the cave-in.

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Most of the characters in Ace in the Hole are loathsome, but Douglas' protagonist is so maniacally full of enthusiasm and simmering self-hate that one doesn't have to like him to be fascinated by him. Tatum isn't unaware of his lack of ethics — he has, if anything, too great of an understanding of himself, but he long ago accepted that he's a snake by nature and embraces that nature enthusiastically. Once the events he's set in motion snowball to unmanageable size, Tatum is also trapped, unable to do anything other than propel himself even faster and more desperately, and Douglas' skill at playing sweaty desperation is showcased beautifully here. In an essay written for this Criterion Collection release, director Guy Maddin describes Douglas as a man "whose body has always seemed made up of triangles, whose face is a sizzling griddle cake of unconcealed emotion, and whose voice is a staccato spiral of agony." In this role, which he battled the studio until he was allowed to play, Douglas uses all of his gifts, selling Tatum as a combination of charm, sleaze and purpose, but one who occasionally has a twinge of remorse over what he's created. When the success of his big story garners the results of which he's dreamed — an offer of a job in New York — he and Herbie dance about with unabashed glee. But then the trapped man's mother enters the room, kneels and begins to pray, causing Tatum to abruptly stop his celebration, a flicker of self-consciousness and guilt in his eyes. Over the course of his career, Wilder often returned to the theme of men who take the dark path in order to achieve their goals, but he also had a strong interest in redemption. In Ace in the Hole, as in Sunset Boulevard, the attempt to make things right comes too late, with the hero paying for his amorality. But the public who hunger for stories about human suffering, and the media who both feeds and encourages that hunger, simply move on to the next story, packing up their tents, closing down their concession stands, and leaving behind a littered patch of desert dirt. Ace in the Hole may be cynical and misanthropic, but it's also a uniquely American film, and a brutally personal picture from a great director.

The Criterion Collection offers another exemplary package with their two-disc release of Ace in the Hole, starting with a beautifully restored, high-definition digital transfer. The full-frame (1.33:1) aspect ratio has been slightly windowboxed for optimum presentation on all monitors, and the transfer (created from a fine-grain 35mm positive and a duplicate negative) is simply stunning. The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack has also been beautifully remastered, and it's remarkably clean. Disc One offers the film with an optional commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard (it's scene specific and informative, if a little dry) and the theatrical trailer. Disc Two is packed with a lightweight, career-overview documentary from 1980, Portrait of a 60% Man: Billy Wilder (60 min.), an excerpt from a 1986 appearance by Wilder at the American Film Institute (23 min.), a 1984 interview with Kirk Douglas (14 min.), a 1970 audio interview with Walter Newman (10 min.), an oddly pointless "afterword" with Spike Lee, who loves the film but has nothing new to say on the subject (5 min.) and a stills gallery. The package also includes a tabloid-style enclosure with essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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