Ace in the Hole (1951)

Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels & Walter Newman

Kirk Douglas is that old guy who looked like he was gonna have a heart attack on stage last year at the Oscars. He is the father of Michael Douglas and the father in law of Catherine Zeta Jones. That is how I know the man, yet despite that I know he is held in high regard for his career in Hollywood. I am more familiar with his son Michael’s work when in reality it is Kirk who is considered the legend, so what a shame it is that it was not until I sat down with this film, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, that I was able to see the brilliance of his ability and his presence. And what a testament to the career of Billy Wilder that this film may be considered less notable than some of his other works such as The Apartment, Some Like It Hot and Sunset Blvd.

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a big time newspaper man in a small town world. After getting fired from numerous big city newspapers for numerous reasons including boozing and fooling around with the editors wife, Tatum finds himself in Albuquerque, New Mexico covering stories about rattlesnake hunts. As he searches for a chance to break a big story that will take him back to the top in New York City, by chance he comes across a man, Leo Minosa, who has been trapped in a cave in at an old Indian cliff dwelling. Tatum takes the opportunity to milk the cave in for great, somewhat fictionalized stories about the man and his wife (Jan Sterling), who may or may not be actually worried about her husband. But after he succeeds in building a giant to get him back to New York, Tatum begins to wonder if he has taken it too far.

What a fine little movie this is, and it may be strange to call it little, but that is how I felt about it. Tatum’s ambitions may be big and he had an idea to build the event into something big, but it starts as a simple newspaper man and a simple cave-in that could have been solved much more easily than it was. The pacing, as it moves from the setup to the reality of the cave in to the shift in outlook in the third act, makes the film move along, perhaps not at a breakneck pace, but at a pace that keeps the viewer engaged throughout. And despite being about a cave in, the film is surprisingly not claustrophobic and, while it has a small cast, it does not become a story about the man trapped, but rather the man who is trapping him, which allows Douglas to shine.

Looking back at the film it almost operates solely as a character study and what drives Tatum to do what he does and conversely what drives him away, and at the middle of that is the performance by Kirk Douglas which is equal parts powerhouse and subtle feeling. He is an arrogant, greedy and slimey newspaper man from a big town invading the quaint, small town feel of New Mexico, but you can’t help but be drawn to Tatum for everything bad he seems to be doing. It is sensational to watch just how sensational the style of journalism Tatum is practicing, which begs another question: how far are people willing to go to get what they want, and are most people as egotistical and greedy as Tatum?

I would prefer the answer be that Tatum is an exception to the human condition, but there is also the case of Mrs. Minosa who is taking advantage of the situation as well, trying to raise enough money to flee small town New Mexico and her husband, who is in a time when he seems to need her most. It is an interesting question to consider and Wilder examines it in a very tense, exciting way by delivering the notions and premises of an action film without ever managing to show the action. He spends the time on Tatum and the working of his relationships with those involved, including Leo, the man trapped inside. It is a little film that plays much bigger thanks to both Douglas and Wilder.

 

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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