Noirvember 2015: Ace in the Hole

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For the month of November Noirvember, I’ve decided to catch up with some classic pieces of film noir. The American 1940s-50s movement devoted to cynical fast talking anti-heroes, predatory femme fatales, smoky back rooms, “one last scores,” and dark shadowy pasts. From The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil, film noir has been an essential part of film history. First up this month is Billy Wilder’s cynical takedown of sensationalist journalism, Ace in the Hole.

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Let me start out by saying I’m a big fan of both film noir and Billy Wilder, so I’m surprised I didn’t like this movie more. There just seemed to be a couple things off about it, even though I can recognize that it is a really good movie, these things held me back from loving it wholeheartedly. One is something that the movie can’t control, the time I came to it. The other is the plot itself and how it wraps up.

Ace in the Hole is the story of disgraced but determined reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). He’s been thrown out of every major city newspaper and has been exiled to Albuquerque. He impatiently bides his time for a year under the supervision of upstanding editor Mr. Boot (Porter Hall) until one day a story comes along. One man, trapped in a Native American cliff dwelling, is stuck there until the town can figure a way to get him out. Tatum takes control of the story, allies himself with the local corrupt Sheriff, and spins out the story for a week, making sure Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) stays down there while story develops into a national frenzy.

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This movie is a lot like a movie released just last year, Nightcrawler, which I really liked but felt its criticism of the media, though valid, wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before. Of course, back in 1951 Wilder criticizing the media in almost exactly the same way as Nightcrawler does would have been a lot fresher, but still, watching it now, doesn’t seem like news to me. This is a totally unfair criticism on my part, and I get that, but at the same time I couldn’t help but being like “yeah, we know” while watching this film. Further comparisons to Nightcrawler reveal the more substantial problem I have with this movie, and that’s the ending. What they do with Tatum’s character towards the end is very confusing to me. Does he feel remorse? Does he actually befriend Leo? And most of all, why doesn’t he just improvise and make the actual events that develop into a compelling story? In short, why does someone so determined give up? I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say a lot of things happen towards the end of the film that are very abrupt and didn’t make a lot of sense to me in terms of Tatum’s character.

I actually wasn’t a huge fan of Kirk Douglas in this movie, which again is strange, because I like him generally. He seemed weirdly cheerful for the whole first part of the movie, which rubbed me the wrong way somehow. Most of it has to do with how his character is written I suppose, but I think maybe with some different acting choices the ending especially could have been clearer. As it stands, I really didn’t believe his remorse at the end because that doesn’t seem to fit in with the cynical tone of the movie and what we know of Wilder’s other movies. So if that was what it was supposed to be than that didn’t come through, but it came through just enough (from what I know of other Douglas roles) to confuse me.

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However, there were a couple of other performances that I really did like. I have hated on this movie quite a bit, but I liked a lot of things in it. (I promise!) Jan Sterling, an actress I’m not familiar with plays Leo’s wife Lorraine. Like Tatum she’s a very noir character. Previously a show girl but still unsatisfied with her life with Leo, she sees an opportunity to leave him while he’s stuck in a cave. Tatum won’t let her, and stage manages her for his story. The interesting thing is, she falls for him because of that, because like her he has a ruthless determination to get ahead. She’s a great character (without a lot of the complications that Tatum’s has towards the end), and Sterling does a great job. She gets a lot of great, cynical lines as well. I also really appreciated Porter Hall, the editor. He’s a familiar character actor from classic Hollywood movies (most memorably he played Mr. Sawyer in Miracle on 34th Street) and it was nice just to see him here. He provides the perfect contrast to Tatum.

Another thing I appreciated about this movie is how Wilder doesn’t let the audience off the hook. He frequently shows the crowds of people around the cave; one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when a radio station is talking to the first couple who showed up and the guy starts trying to sell insurance. Everyone in this movie is trying to make a buck off Leo’s misfortune. There’s a band that writes a theme song, and it’s pretty catchy. Lorraine let’s a carnival set up on Leo’s land, so while everyone’s waiting to find out what’s going to happen to him they can also ride on a Ferris wheel or eat some cotton candy. There are numerous shots of all of this going on, the crowd running en masse as further developments ensue, all set to that catchy theme song. This is contrasted later with the abandoned signs that are left after the ordeal is over and everyone quickly clears out. This is a truly brilliant inclusion, especially because the Tatum stuff was so unsatisfying to me.

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One last point, this movie isn’t really shot in noir style. It’s undeniably noir in plot and tone, but in terms of high contrast lighting, a city setting, and other film noir trademarks, it’s strangely lacking. It takes place in the middle of the desert, and it is in black and white, but its mostly low contrast black and white. The characters are noir, but they seem to be intruding into a setting that they don’t belong in, which is very interesting. I don’t count this as either a positive or negative thing for the film, it’s just something interesting that I picked up on while watching it.

So Ace in the Hole may have got a mixed response from me, but its not entirely the film’s fault. I should have seen it sooner in the film watching career and I think it would have played a lot better. That said, I still think Douglas’ character becomes very muddied and inconsistent by the end of the film. Ace in the Hole is still well worth the watch for some great one liners, Jan Sterling, and the criticism of blindly following what the media is dishing out (more so for that than the criticism of the media itself). It might not be my favorite Wilder or film noir, but I’m really glad I saw it just the same.

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“I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert “Great Movies” review
The New York Times review
The Criterion Collection essay

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4 responses to “Noirvember 2015: Ace in the Hole

  1. I actually blind-bought Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” on Blu-ray a couple of weeks ago and thought it was fantastic. It was my first experience of Wilder, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
    Nice review “fan”!

    • Oh yeah, definitely watch more Wilder. Just a mark of how great he is, this actually comes in at my lowest rated Wilder film so far, and it’s really good! Nevertheless, his work is so strong that I still have EIGHT films ahead of this one.
      Thanks!

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