“Ace in the Hole”

 “Ace in the Hole”

By Lucas Battista

(1951) Streaming on Criterion, Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Bob Arthur and Porter Hall.

“A HUMAN INTEREST STORY!” Kirk Douglas chants banging his chest like an ape, really sums up Chuck Tatum as a character — an acerbic drunkard journalist about to take a swing at his one, sweet opportunity in sailing back to greatness. “Ace in the Hole” is a dirty diamond from Billy Wilder, who’s given us a good set of movies you might be more familiar with (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Double Indemnity,” “Some Like it Hot”) and is definitely one of those films that got gutted by critics (it may have hit too close to home) and cast away before being picked up many decades later.

Almost every film noir offers extremely jaded, cynical characters and a gritty world populated by avarice and lots of self-interest. “Ace in the Hole” is funny in that regard, as it picks a hard-boiled Chuck Tatum out of the typical noir setting and throws him into a quiet, friendly town — Albuquerque to be particular. Despite expectations of naive and friendly townies, we soon find it has plenty of crooked cops, femme fatales, and shallow denizens all the same skittering beneath an idyllic surface.

Tatum, upon arriving and on the down and out, after having been prior fired from eleven newspapers for drinking and a rotten temper, now searches for the ladder back to his heaven. To keep things short, a local mining accident and a man trapped inside a mountain would find a crazy transformation into a nationwide media circus that Tatum actively exploits and manipulates, with all the lovely benignity one might expect of any good film noir antihero. I refuse to divulge any of the plot past that as the plot is this film’s Ace-in-the-Hole, and it’s such an ingenious take on the genre; it’s very “anti-noir.”

Fascinatingly, the story itself is actually taken from a real-life incident, almost line by line. During 1925, amateur spelunker W. Floyd Collins would find himself buried within Sand Cave, Kentucky, with the incident quickly developing into a media sensation. The incident is even referenced by Tatum.

Billy Wilder doesn’t fail to give us interesting camera work, plenty of typical dutch-angles, but also really interesting shots casting characters against the wide and open desert of New Mexico. It’s maddening just how big this movie gets as well in literal physical breadth; it’s entirely unexpected and enhances the narrative tenfold. I hate how “Ace in the Hole” never even really faded from the public consciousness’ memory, primarily because it never got a chance to enter it — it’s entitled to so much more as a daring, experimental picture.


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