The vision of fifties America as a sunny, prosperous world full of stable values and families has no truck with Billy Wilder. Having spent some time in the Weimar Berlin of his youth as a paid dancer for women, he got used to being used and rented out, if anyone can ever get used to it. He packed his cynicism with him when he came to America and easily fit into Hollywood. To Wilder, everyone has a price, and their most noble values and visions are up for grabs.
His 1950 film Sunset Boulevard shows how a vision splendid of Hollywood’s has-been actress Norma Desmond is in fact macabre and warped, a Venus who takes on Joe Gillis, a reluctant escort of sorts, and bends him to her life. If the goddess Venus was born in the sea, Joe Gillis ends up face down in Norma’s swimming pool, a slug in his torso for having ticked her off.
In 1951 Wilder went on to make Ace in the Hole, and instead of Norma and Joe we get Chuck Tatum, a rotten, amoral newspaperman who has been bounced from paper to paper for boozing, romancing, and getting under the skin of anyone he works for, usually on purpose.
Kirk Douglas plays Tatum to perfection in an excellent characterization of a postwar heel. He’s on the road, in search of a way to climb back into the New York elite he was expelled from, when his car breaks down in Albuquerque. Tatum struts into the town paper, urges Boot (Porter Hall), the laid-back but suspicious editor, to hire him. Why, asks Boot, would he want to work for him?
Because, Tatum grins, Boot wears a belt and suspenders, and such a man doesn’t trust everything. They have a bond. Tatum is hired.
It’s a small, dull paper with small, dull news. One of the office women has embroidered a motto hanging on the wall: Tell the Truth. Tatum treats it as a joke.
A year later, we see him pacing the newsroom wearing a belt and suspenders like a tiger in a cage, sweltering in New Mexico’s heat. He’s steamed at still being stuck in Albuquerque. He wants garlic pickles and chicken livers, just like in New York. All the Indian gofer can offer him is chicken tacos.
Boot sends a griping, tense Tatum to cover a rattlesnake round-up out in the desert. Tatum sneers, but goes. It isn’t that Tatum is bored by rattlesnakes; he just prefers the two-legged kind, and when he arrives in a dumpy, out-of-the-way gas station and curio shop, he winds up in a dream nest.
The station is empty, matching the vast topography that seems to swallow Tatum and Herbie (Robert Arthur), his assistant. Tatum finds a woman loudly praying before a family altar, and can’t get her attention.
When Tatum drives, in the wake of a police car’s siren, at speed to a mountain sticking out of the terrain like a giant breast, he finds another woman striding toward the mountain. This is Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), a platinum blonde, and of course in these films, platinum means trouble. It also means you offer her a lift.
She tells him that Leo (Richard Benedict), her husband, is trapped underground in a cave. He hunts Indian artifacts and went in too deep. She totes a blanket and sandwiches for him. Lorraine is a dutiful wife, but not much else.
Tatum’s radar senses discontent and all its possibilities, but for now there is a new story. He sasses back at the deputy trying to block off the entrance to the cave and crawls in to meet Leo, a simple guy rooting around for Indian artifacts when he got pinned in a collapse. Leo’s hopeful he’ll get out by week’s end to celebrate his wedding anniversary, and trusts Tatum to help him.
Tatum offers that Kirk Douglas grin. He’s found a gold mine, and milks Leo for what he’s worth.
Tatum is greatly aided by some two-legged rattlesnakes. Among them is Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal), a delightfully villainous small-time king who keeps a pet rattlesnake in a box, happily wondering why the rattler won’t eat the meat he keeps feeding him. Kretzer dislikes Tatum’s cockiness and arrogance, but at the same time Tatum offers him a chance to shine in expanding Leo’s rescue. Never let a crisis go to waste is Tatum’s motto, following Churchill’s sage if cynical advice. An engineer proposes that a crew drill from the side of the mountain to free Leo. Tatum argues it be done from the summit. It will take a week, and so build up the drama, ballyhoo, and Tatum’s power in negotiating a better price for his sensationalistic if slimy journalism.
When the engineer objects, Kretzer tells him to cool his jets. The engineer is concerned, but since he’s on the take, he only shrugs and calls in a drilling crew.
Another snake is Lorraine. It’s clear she’s had doubts about her marriage and being stuck in the desert in a way that is almost a shadow of the 1936 film Petrified Forest. Tatum is no Leslie Howard, however. This is the post-war era, and too much money and power made too many people jaded and greedy. Lorraine is excited by all the gawkers flooding into the gas station as a tent city is constructed beneath the mound, and she’s raking in the money as the world is drawn to Leo’s dilemma . . . courtesy of ringmaster Tatum.
Pulling her in between the rush of customers, Tatum tells Lorraine that in front of the cameras she needs to act pious and be a devoted, concerned wife. Lorraine shrugs that off.
“You need to be seen in church,” Tatum gently orders her.
Lorraine shrugs. “I don’t go to church. Kneeling sags my nylons.”
She cozies up to Tatum, but he’s cold to her and watches her fangs. When she tries to kiss him, he roughs her up.
“Go peddle your hamburgers,” he smirks.
An angry Lorraine gets back to work.
Naturally, the press gets their own tent where Tatum rules and dictates what his fellow journalists — who despise him, but go along with his rule — can say, and he lords it over them with his devil’s grin. There are food stands, a C&W band, and a carnival features rides. It’s macabre times ten. The public is pulling for Leo, but also wants a good time. The crowd is not contemptuous. Like an insurance salesman and his family, they’re praying for Leo, but with cotton candy in one hand, they’re glad to be part of the growing ant colony of gawkers.
Tatum dumps Boot as he soaks up a new contract from New York and gleefully demands more money and his own byline when he returns. New York, in the form of Nagel, a crabby editor, sourly agrees.
But Leo is becoming the canary in the coal mine. He’s dying of pneumonia, and won’t make it to the end of the week. A concerned Tatum demands the engineer abandon the drilling from the summit and go in from the side to rescue Leo.
No can do. The engineer says the mound is too weak from the drilling at the summit. Dig from the side, and it will all collapse. Kretzer doesn’t care. His only geologic sense is the landslide for him on election day.
Tatum experiences a flash of guilt . . . or is it an attempt to remaster the scenario? He tries to make Lorraine wear a cheap fur stole Leo bought her for their anniversary, but now that she can afford mink (a ton of hamburgers got peddled), she throws it away. A feral Tatum strangles her with it, and she plunges a pair of scissors in his gut.
He staggers, then drives to the nearest church and asks the priest to give Leo absolution. Lorraine, suitcase in hand and profits well-stashed, catches a bus going anywhere. Tatum stands on the summit, tells the crew to stop drilling, and broadcasts Leo’s death, a Moses killing his own promised land. A weakened Tatum is now taunted by the press corps, and his teletype machine that was installed in the gas station is carted out. In New York, Nagel gloats that Tatum’s demands are now meaningless, and when Tatum offers a final headline — that he killed Leo –, Nagel hangs up. Tatum then collapses and dies.
* * *
Ace in the Hole wasn’t well-received in 1951. Too cynical, harsh, and lacking a happy ending . . . unless you enjoy seeing Tatum die. But Wilder shrugged it off, and his opinion was Tatumesque: “Fuck them all. It’s the best picture I ever made.”
Critics have confirmed that. Ace in the Hole has remained a strong, enjoyable drama with an excellent performance by Kirk Douglas that doesn’t age, and the movie’s snide, oily view of the press manipulating people and events certainly isn’t dated. The black-and-white visuals enhance this desert world of emptiness remade by Tatum. The contrast of the blank, empty landscape around the mound as it becomes a carnival city is visually enthralling. It’s almost a crude caricature of Las Vegas or Hollywood itself, a fantasy world of public relations and hucksterism made by a baker’s dozen of Tatums.
I call Ace in the Hole a Covid movie because it recalls the effects that this plague has had on us. We see our civilization being molded and cajoled by people pushing, if not the sickness, conformity to their dictates and mores, which have assumed a life of their own and have become a grim carnival city people can’t say no to.
When the choice is made by Tatum to drill at the top of the mountain instead of through the side, I was in a sense reminded of how Anthony Fauci and his ilk pushed for a vaccine instead of treatments like Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin. Fauci, and those propping him up, seem more concerned about prolonging the crisis than they are in rescuing poor Leo.
A recent charge made by Dr. Robert Malone is that we are witnessing mass psychosis in the way this sickness has veiled itself over our reason and defenses. Covid, while a real sickness, has also been accused of being a convenient way for us to surrender our freedoms and sovereign governments to international bodies by not letting a crisis go to waste.
The media is all in with this. Are they, like Tatum, simply ruled by a snide and nihilistic egotism? Or is Tatum an outdated, jaded romantic from an earlier age of newsmaking that has now been replaced by media that is simply the propaganda arm of the state?
The media delights in feeding frenzies. The 1980 Iranian hostage crisis was flayed by the networks:America Held Hostage was a slogan and nightly TV show as ubiquitous as the Covid drumbeat is today. Someone of my age – 69 – also remembers the rabid obsession with Watergate, and readers can recall the almost hourly routine of destroying the Trump administration with the Russia hoax.
Tatum, Lorraine, and Kretzer are all very much with us today, as are the film’s victims and bystanders: Leo. The insurance salesman and his family gawking, but genuinely saddened by Leo’s death. Leo’s father, who never stops caring for his son and pleads for help, almost revering Tatum, whom he sees as a friend, reminds me of those who go along with every Covid mandate . . . for just two more weeks, of course. Until it levels out. Until the vaccine is available. Wilder isn’t cruel to these people; they’re little, decent, and manipulated, no doubt like far too many of us.
It has been argued that Wilder’s cold, cynical view is a Jewish one: the loner observing a world he can’t control and is contemptuous of. Is Tatum an extension of Wilder’s personality, molded by his Weimar days as a paid dancer/escort? Certainly Tatum has a raw, dark energy that is almost Mephistophelian. Does he corrupt? Not really. The rattlesnakes were waiting to be pushed, and Tatum gladly did that to further his own career and, we sense, to realize an undefined urge to get even with the press that blackballed him.
Porter Hall’s Boot, while a minor role, is a counter to Tatum. Boot lets Tatum run wild, but his eyes are sharp, as he understands what Tatum is. An interesting comparison can again be made to Petrified Forest, where Hall played Jason Maple in that film: a small-minded, American Legion patriot running a gas station in the Arizona desert. Here, Boot is less bombastic and warier. He seems unable to stop Tatum. His experience and wisdom can’t cap Tatum’s post-war energy and guile, but he seems to bide his time, waiting for Tatum to destroy himself. In an odd kind of way, Tell the Truth wins a backhanded victory as Tatum crumples.
Certainly America seems to have become the clay to be molded by a Tatum and his kind. Temptation? Manipulation? It’s a two-way street — much as how today there are those who almost feed on the Covid crisis. As someone said, the mask is the Left’s MAGA hat.
Ace in the Hole is a raw paper cut of a movie, but never dull or clichéd.
The energy it generates is tart, but it shows the media and society far more accurately than the homily Tell the Truth embalmed in Boot’s office. We and the superego of civilization pine for that homily, yearning for a good, clean place of virtue. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If it is wrong, do not do it; if it is false, do not say it.” Society wants that, it feels it needs it . . . as it stampedes to wherever the Tatums point.
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