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January 12, 2007

Putting an Ace to the Name

Wilder's nasty glimpse at media circus gets timely revival at Film Forum

Kirk Douglas as the vicious reporter Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole, opening today at Film Forum (Photos: Paramount Pictures)

The only trouble was the name. Billy Wilder’s ninth American film was a virtuoso feat for the seasoned director; it was 1951, and his career had reached its zenith. His new movie, called Ace in the Hole when production began the year before, borrowed from real events with a justifiably cynical tone; the primary inspiration came from the 1925 death of cave owner Floyd Collins, who was trapped for several weeks under a landslide and slowly expired while the world gripped its seat through the hyperbolic coverage on radio and in newspapers. Wilder was pitched the story by former radio writer Walter Newman, whose initial treatment took the unsurprisingly literal title The Human Interest Story. The plot, however, was too vile for such a subdued headline: It starred Kirk Douglas as the ferocious anti-hero Chuck Tatum, an irredeemably vicious reporter who plays every trick in the book to hold the trapped cave traveler Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) in place to keep the big story alive -- unlike Minosa himself, whose mortality gets short-shifted by Tatum’s elegantly orchestrated exploitation. In this case, the ace in the hole has strikingly immediate and chilling significance.

So sometimes a name can make all the difference, as it will this weekend when a restored print of Wilder's lost classic begins a week-long run at Film Forum. Yet when the movie first hit theaters in the spring of 1951, marquees proclaimed the decidedly fluffier label The Big Carnival. Its new designation intended to be “salutary” for the subject, according to one early report. It wasn’t Wilder’s call; the change took place behind his back in a last minute decision by Paramount executive Y. Frank Freeman. Not that it made any difference for audiences -- the movie flopped at the box office and received unanimous negative critical notice. Possibly as a means of self-defense, reviews took issue with Tatum’s viciousness; his behavior presented “not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque,” wrote New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Naturally, he neglects to mention that the “absurd” plot mirrored an authentic occasion.

But great work often takes time to receive its proper due, and such was the case with Ace in the Hole. “Nobody likes to have their noses rubbed in shit, and that’s exactly what Wilder was doing to Americans of the early '50s,” said Ed Sikov, author of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. “When Americans began to realize in the late '60s and '70s that Wilder’s basic criticisms about our culture were correct, Ace in the Hole started to look more honest.”

As did the title, which remained alive for decades as video bootlegs and word-of-mouth among cinephiles and media historians alike helped Ace develop a solid fanbase. Film Forum's new print arrives more than a half-century since Freeman squelched the film; shown briefly in 2006 as part of the theater’s Wilder retrospective, it received a revamped title card from Paramount that made penance for Freeman’s delusions. The decision resulted from decades of honest programming that earnestly used Wilder’s original title, which remains vital to the story’s chief moral convictions.

“It’s one of the greatest journalism movies of all time, if not the best,” said William Serrin, a journalism professor at New York University who routinely shows the movie to his students. “A lot of young journalists are not prepared for the sinister plotline. I’ve seen people like this -- believe me. And it still goes on out of The New York Times.” (Hence, perhaps, Crowther’s self-interested pan 56 years ago.)

Nevertheless, the ugly critical and commercial failure of Ace in the Hole smothered Wilder’s radical creative inspiration. “He never took chances to the same extent again," Sikov told The Reeler. “He went from the failure of Ace in the Hole, which he wrote as an original screenplay, to make a series of adaptations of already popular plays and books. ... He never let himself be as unremittingly mean again.”

Billy Wilder on the set of Ace in the Hole, 1950

Meanness, of course, makes Ace in the Hole the brilliant indictment of media circus brutality that keeps its conceits contemporary. Douglas’ Tatum turns a profit on the accident, charging admission to tourists eager to witness the vain excavation project in the New Mexico desert. Glorifications are sung and amusement parks erected, all at the expense of human life. In 2007, the movie fits the post-9/11 paradigm in its depiction of media saturation mollifying the way people relate to authentic tragedy. (It’s also an eerie reminder of the Sago Mine disaster, when a dozen men died deep below West Virginia in early 2006. CNN viewers were hooked.)

While Ace in the Hole lacks the perfectly calibrated noir formula achieved in Wilder’s Double Indemnity or the surrealist inflation of movie mythology in his great Sunset Boulevard, its central thrust is much more tangible than either of those earlier films. Tatum’s crackerjack persona meets a competent match in the cave victim’s wife, a conniving femme fatale gloriously portrayed by Jan Sterling. Strangely aroused by the opportunity to flee her small town life and accompany the refreshingly domineering Tatum, she quickly becomes his ill-fated accomplice. “I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my life,” she tells him, “but you, you’re twenty minutes.” Tatum shoots back: “That a boost or knock? Because I haven’t time to figure it out.” The unspoken answer is "Both," but Wilder leaves it up to viewers to decide which way they like their poison. In other words, Us Weekly or Newsweek? It’s a universal conundrum.

Such topicality comes naturally to Wilder’s vintage achievement. Art that draws on experience tends to grow anachronistic, but Ace in the Hole ages with grace. “I always say that journalists [in movies] are kinda like the cowboys,” said Serrin. “You have this person who stands alone.” But unlike your average John Wayne oater, Wilder’s apocalyptic final frontier has grown indubitably prophetic.



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