The America of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole

 

A couple of days ago I attended a screening of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951) at the Patio Theater, presented by the Northwest Chicago Film Society. The film was not lost so much as banished from distribution by its studio, Paramount. Only recently has it been available for home viewing in a set from the Criterion Collection. It's a wonder the film ever made it to the theaters in 1951. It's probably the most cynical film ever made during the studio era.

Wilder made the film fresh off his success with Sunset Boulevard. Ace in the Hole doesn't have the refined dread of that earlier film. The film stars Kirk Douglas overacting as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter who has been fired from 11 jobs. Tatum manages to talk his way into a position at an Albuquerque newspaper run by a patient editor with enough droll wit to contain Tatum's demonic ambition.

Tatum stews in sleepy Albuquerque waiting for his chance at the big story that's his ticket back to New York. Eventually he finds the story in a war vet trapped deep in a cave behind an Indian cliff dwelling–the ace in the hole of the title. Through a long series of contrivances–they seem to come two or three a minute–he delays the rescue long enough to turn the story, literally, into a circus.

Horrified Paramount executives, in a desperate attempt to rescue the film from box office disaster, renamed the film The Big Carnival for its national theatrical release. By changing the name they buried one of Wilder's jokes only to unearth another one. The carnival is staged by the S&M Entertainment Company. The carnival is sadomasochistic indeed, a maelstrom of avarice, stupidity, and malfeasance, adding up to the most corrosive portrait of post-war America anyone had produced to that time.

The action alternates between a parched landscape and a crossroads gas station and restaurant owned by the hapless victim trapped in the cave, his skittish parents, and his wife, who can't wait to be a widow. No matter where the action occurs, however, Douglas always seems to be about a foot away from the camera, shouting his lines. Jan Sterling, who plays the wife, is a very limited talent, but in this film she's the perfect foil for Douglas. Tatum brutalizes her, slapping her when she comes on to him and nearly strangling her with a fur stole. He has nothing but contempt for her hair. In one especially startling line–there are a lot in this film–he insults her breasts. Sterling responds to the line with the same thousand-yard stare she maintains throughout the film.

Sterling is the weakest member of a strong cast, and Wilder's expert touch is evident throughout the film. Wilder has a lot of action to contain, yet even in this noisy film a few bravura sequences stand out. Spike Lee quoted the film's last shot in Malcolm X, calling it the greatest closing shot in the history of cinema.

To my mind, however, the best shot in the film comes during a critical scene midway through the film.
Sam Smollett, the foreman of the rescue crew, is called into the small restaurant to meet with Tatum, the sheriff, and the sheriff's rattlesnake. Sam pauses before entering, framed by the doorway. Wilder's camera pans to follow him as he approaches the table at which Tatum and the sheriff sit. He sits and, to my astonishment, begins speaking with his back to us. I thought, Wilder has really lost his discipline in this movie.

Wilder then cuts to a low-angle close up of Sam's face. The camera seems to be resting on the table. From this unusual angle we watch as the full horror of Tatum and the sheriff's scheme becomes clear to the foreman. The sequence is an ingenious solution to a dramatic problem. His actor, Frank Jaquet, was a character action specializing in villains. He's enormously fat–you can't take your eyes off his belly–and he can't emote much because his character is under the thumb of the bullying, corrupt sheriff. By lingering on his massive body, then cutting to a low-angle shot of his sweaty, flesh face, the foreman is transformed from a body to a conscience.

Sam fails his conscience, as does nearly everyone else in the film. As you might expect, everything ends badly. Wilder wraps up the action with the shot Spike Lee admired so much, an image of total defeat. The ending offers the tainted resolution of a murder-suicide. There are no loose ends, but there are no rituals of justice either. Yet the film itself is a pleasure, partly because of Wilder's mordant wit. If you are open-minded enough you can appreciate how the fates work in the scorched world of Wilder's film. Everyone thinks they have free choice, but they're following well-worn paths to their own demise.

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