PopGap #02: Ace in the Hole (1951)
Written by dorrk
Oscar Nominees: #15 of 20
The final Billy Wilder movie on this month's list is a movie that I knew virtually nothing about before watching it for PopGap. It was actually recommended to me 20 years ago by a prominent local movie critic when I used to attend press screenings for my college newspaper. He was trying to come up with a movie I had never heard of, and this one stumped me. I don't think I ever looked it up. I thought the guy was kind of a tool.
Ace in the Hole has grown in reputation since then as one of Wilder's neglected masterpieces. It's ranked by Flickchart users as the fourth best movie in Wilder's filmography, ahead of celebrated classics Some Like It Hot and Stalag 17. I didn't dislike it, and it's certainly a bold film, but, to me, it's nowhere near Wilder's best.
Kirk Douglas stars as Tatum, an extremely loathsome big time newspaper reporter whose career is in tatters as a result of his blustery self-destructive behavior. He preposterously convinces an Albuquerque paper to hire him despite hurling insults at the publisher, and impatiently counts the days until he can latch on to a big story that will reignite his career. After a year, he accidentally stumbles upon just such an opportunity: in a remote New Mexico location a man has been trapped in a collapsed Indian cave, and Tatum seizes control of the rescue operation, engineering every detail for his own benefit.
Blisteringly cynical, Ace in the Hole is a valuable predecessor to superior media-critiques like Network and Nightcrawler. Unfortunately, however, like other social commentary-pictures of its era, the message is simplistic and heavy handed, and Douglas feverishly beats it into the ground with his too-vigorous performance of a one-note character. In fact, Tatum is such a boorish, charmless bully, it begs crediblity that he is so effective at bending others to his will, undermining the plot at nearly every turn.
Ace in the Hole looks terrific throughout, but only really works during the few moments when it pulls away from Tatum's overbearing zeal and reveals the humanity smothered by his massive, manic ego. Otherwise, it's mostly a curiosity: a daring but clumsy & lopsided minor effort by one of Hollywood's greats.