There are a few movies I've watched for this project that just felt like they came out of nowhere and blew me over. Ace in the Hole, directed by Billy Wilder in 1951, is one of those movies. I would never have rented this movie on my own, or even considered it. I never heard anything about it before, either. But it was simply great. The acting was amazing, the plot was fantastic, and it was just a joy to watch. I actually kept gasping and laughing and commenting out loud the whole time I watched the movie, because I couldn't get over how unexpectedly great that it was!
The movie is about Chuck Tatum, a sleazy but intelligent newspaper reporter. He is stuck working for some stupid Albuquerque newspaper, and waiting for a big break. He exploits a story about a man, Leo, who gets trapped in a cave. He sets it up so it takes longer for Leo to get out so that he can write more stories, send in more pictures, and Leo's attractive wife can profit off of it. The situation literally becomes a circus, as people flock from all over to see Leo and his prison.
The plot was so great because it was so beyond it's time - so many noir films age really badly, but this one feels so current. Who can't relate to the fact that the media is corrupt and awful? We all see this in our lives, and it was not dated at all to see a movie that brings up that point. I can't think of any tragic story recently that hasn't been horribly exploited by the media. I saw on Wikipedia that a lot of critics didn't like the movie when it first came out, because they felt it was so negative and full of too much corruption. Now, it seems tame, almost, you know? It made the move so surprising because I wasn't expecting it to feel like current social commentary, but it still is! It's great, seriously.
I laughed but was disturbed at the growing circus that surrounded Leo.It was so...true. It starts out with just Chuck's idea to milk the story for as long as possible. Watching it progress was something else. First, admission charges to look at the mountain start. Over a few shots (just images, no explanation), we notice that the prices for admission are being hiked up - from $.025 to $1.00. The restaurant the Leo's wife runs becomes overcrowded, and soon, hot dog vendors move in. Later, she allows an entire carnival to take up shop on the land, because they're paying well enough. There is one family we see over and over again, too. We first notice them early in the film, as they are the first family to arrive to "just look" at Leo's mountain. Moments later, they are setting up their RV, canopy and tables and chairs out, to settle in. We see them later, showing up at interviews, riding carnival rides, the kids wearing Indian headdresses because of the rumor Chuck started about an Indian curse. It's not anything big, but it's all perfect.
The character of Chuck is so complicated and awesome, as well. I love that I both loved and hated him during the whole movie. Kirk Douglas does such an amazing job of showing how intelligent but despicable the character is. He's handsome and cunning, smart and quick - but he uses all of his skills for the wrong reasons. He chooses to cheaply exploit someone instead of using all of his awesome powers for good. No one can resist him, though - he is able to charm everyone he comes across....including me. It was hard for me to not sort of love him during the film. He's doing something so terrible but it's sort of admirable because he is so damn good at it. I just fall for characters like that, I don't know why. They're so corrupt and seedy but they're just amazing at it, and I sort of can't help but respect them for that.
I almost find it harder to write about a movie that I like as much as this one. I feel like I can't find words other than "awesome" and "amazing". How many times can I say that it was clearly way ahead of it's time, and it's still such a powerful film with an important message? How can I keep talking about the press circus, or the character of Chuck Tatum? It's hard to keep explaining. I just loved this movie. Billy Wilder is incredible, and he has made some of my absolutely favorite movies. I can't get over how unexpected this movie was, too. I never would have picked this up myself, but I'm so glad I saw it. It's something I would buy, because I could see watching it again. I thought it might be a fun little noir, but I had no idea it would be so amazing! I really hope you check this film out, it's so worth it.
Have any thoughts about Ace in the Hole? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Ace in the Hole
Buy it on Amazon