Synopsis: One of the most scathing indictments of American culture ever produced by a Hollywood filmmaker, Academy Award-winner Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole is legendary for both its cutting social critique and its status as a hard-to-find cult classic. Kirk Douglas gives the fiercest performance of his career as Chuck Tatum, an amoral newspaper reporter caught in dead-end Albuquerque who happens upon the story of a lifetime-and will do anything to ensure he gets the scoop. Wilder’s follow-up to Sunset Boulevard is an even darker vision, a no-holds-barred expose that anticipated the rise of the American media circus.
Ace in the Hole 8.0
Well, here’s another title that I would have skipped if not for the fact that it’s a Billy Wilder film. Thing is, I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of Kirk Douglas; nothing about him pulls me, so I just wasn’t interested in this outing.
However, I’m starting to respect the man’s choices, in light of such powder kegs as this, ‘Paths of Glory’ and ‘Spartacus’ – all films that were making socio-political statements of one form or another at a very tumultuous time in American politics. The guy had brass ones, it looks like.
‘Ace in the Hole’ is less political than the other two, but it makes up for it by being a visionary film, one that pretty much predicts the media circuses that are let loose daily in this day and age. While it may have looked absurd at the time, the feral way that some of the media functions now proves the film’s detractors wrong (for good or bad )
In that respect, it matches the importance of ‘Network’ in discussing journalistic integrity and personal responsibility. Both films take extreme positions and hammer home their point about the risk of crossing the line for the sake of ratings or sales figures.
While ‘Network’ is considered satirical, I can’t help but wonder if the events taking place in ‘Ace in the Hole’ were also meant to be viewed that way at the time – except that it’s lost on us now that it’s become commonplace. Either way, they both offer a truly dark view of humanity and warn their audiences against excessive ambition.
In ‘Ace in the Hole’, Kirk Douglas plays an incredibly opportunistic newspaper reporter with no apparent moral compass who’s been down on his luck for far too long, and who will do anything to get out of the hole he dug for himself through years of dubious practices.
After waiting for his big break for approximately a year, it comes along in the form a of a cave-in at a nearby mine. By manipulating the situation, tricking the locals, controlling politicians and playing hardball with his peers, he transforms this small accident into a national tragedy – one that balloons out of control.
Douglas is fierce in this film. He growls like a man possessed, like a trapped animal trying to escape its cage. Even some 60 years later, his performance still has an aura about it that rings true; it doesn’t feel as stagey as it could have been given the era. Douglas appears to believe the character, to inhabit it with intent and purpose, and this is what sustains the film.
Because ‘Ace in the Hole’ could have turned into a farce if it had been played up by a more theatrical lead actor. By rooting it as powerfully as Douglas did, he provided the film with a foundation on which even the most extreme twists could appear credible (at least back then – now it’s all pretty much matter-of-fact). So, as the situation gradually deteriorates we are convinced that it could actually happen.
The rest of the cast is also relatively good, but no one stands out quite like Douglas does. Unsurprisingly. But it’s a good thing that they could all hold their own next to him because weaker actors would have shattered the film’s believability. Granted, they’re all from another school of acting, one that’s not as realistic as we’re used to today, but there’s nothing too unsightly to behold.
The thing with this film for me is that, as notable and as bold as it is, I found it slightly predictable. I don’t remember seeing another film like it, but I could still predict how it would turn out to a certain extent (perhaps the synopsis gave too much away?). So not only did it not grab hold of me as it probably should have, but this overall sense of familiarity pretty much kills its replay value; I can’t imagine re-watching it more once, perhaps to show it to a friend.
Still, it left me quite impressed with both Kirk Douglas and Billy Wilder. For me, this cements an impression of Douglas that was only hinted at with his Stanley Kubrick pictures. Was he that era’s George Clooney or Robert Redford? I mean to find out. As for Wilder, it’s helping to shape an appreciation for the work he did before his more oft-cited romantic comedy oeuvre. I didn’t know he had it in, and my respect for him has doubled.
Would I recommend “Ace in the Hole’? Absolutely. Aside for people who have a black and white attitude about black and white cinema, I can’t imagine anyone not getting something out of this. And, while it may be too thought-provoking for the Adam Sandler and/or Arnold Schwarzenegger crowd, I figure that they could do worse than to stretch a little. ‘Ace in the Hole’ is an excellent film well worth seeing.