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Criterion: Ace In The Hole

Watching Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole, which has been beautifully re-mastered by Criterion in a 2-disc package ($39.95) available this week, two things come to mind: 1) How forward thinking Wilder was and 2) how the movie ever got released.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a despicable newspaper reporter who stumbles upon a man trapped inside an old Indian burial cavern in Albuquerque, N.M. and creates a sideshow out of it. Though Tatum has a nose for scoops, his ego and determination to escape the desert and get back to the big city causes him to destroy everything in his path and inevitably himself.

In fact, from the first frame you instantly hate Tatum. Getting towed into town in the opening scene, which is up there as one of the most pride swallowing entrances in film, Tatum has the look of a man on the raise as he pulls right up to the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin as if he were being chauffeured. Shouting to the tow truck driver to stay put, he waltzes through the hallway with a condescending “How” to a Native American as he passes by. Tatum is hardly the kind of character we remember Kirk Douglas playing (though before Ace In The Hole, he wasn’t quite nice as Midge Kelly in Champion, either), but Tatum is a treat to watch. With the Oscar nominated script by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman combined with Douglas’s over-the-top performance, you get a film that’s part noir, part commentary on the soon-to-be American media circus.

That’s the forward thinking of Wilder. Though Ace In The Hole wasn’t appreciated at the time of its 1951 release, Wilder’s look at the Tabloid hungry public holds true today as 24-hour news channels make three-ring circuses (Ace In The Hole was once titled The Big Carnival) out of kidnappings, mine disasters or a certain heiress going to jail. One of my favorite shots in the film is after Tatum convinces the rescue team to ditch the practical (and quicker) option of re-securing the cave walls with beams to rescue Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) for the riskier (and longer) choice of drilling through the cave, the camera pans from the drilling to the once barren land around the cave which is now full of people and rows upon rows of cars who’ve come to be part of the “festivities.”

And it’s hard to believe the stuff Wilder got away with in 1951. Armed with the motto, “bad news sells best because good news is no news,” Tatum never thinks twice as he connives his way into the heart of Leo, the poor sap suffocating in the cave. While at the same time using his callous wife (Jan Sterling) to keep playing the victim, though all she wants is to finally get away from her husband (Tatum keeps her there by slapping her, and in another scene chocking her, which begins our anti-hero’s downfall). And then there’s the sheriff (Ray Teal), who Tatum uses to ward off the rival reporters with promises of re-election. There are no do-gooders here. Even the family who drives in to see what they’ve been reading in the papers has to brag that they were the first to show up after the news hit.

The supplements include an audio commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard, a documentary by film critic Michel Ciment on the life of Billy Wilder, which if you don’t know much about the director is somewhat informative, a 1984 interview with Kirk Douglas that doesn’t reveal much and an entertaining afterword by Spike Lee. Who reveals that he used the final shot from Ace In The Hole in Malcolm X.

But supplements shouldn’t be the draw for this. The biggest treat is seeing arguably Billy Wilder’s most controversial work that’s been hidden for the most part since its release.

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