Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is one of the greatest films ever made, and for a simple reason: it contains multitudes. The film constitutes one of the first critiques of modern mass media; it’s cynicism (or realism) runs counter to most Hollywood films of its time; it’s a forum for some great performances; biographically, it represented Wilder’s final break with his partner Charles Brackett, with whom he had written numerous earlier films; and, not least of all, it is one of the earliest examples of film soleil.
Probably one of the top 10 films people have been waiting to own on DVD since the commercial appearance of the format in 1997, the Criterion Collection’s new two-disc DVD (spine No. 396) of the film, which finally marks its first appearance on home video, doesn’t really go into all these matters within its supplements, but then, that’s what DVD reviewers are for. It’s a terrific set anyway, and a must-have for both admirers of Wilder and collectors of top notch American cinema.
The story is simple enough and familiar in its broad strokes to Wilderians. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) arrives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the outs. He’s a journalist without portfolio, having been kicked off 16 other newspapers from New York to Chicago. After talking his way into a job, Tatum soon finds himself missing the ethnic delights of Manhattan, its food, lights, action, noise. All he needs is a story, that one big story that will make the New York editions come crawling to him. He stumbles upon that story while on a routinely dull assignment. At a lone trading post, he finds that its operator, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has become trapped in a cave looking for Indian artifacts. Over the course of a week, Tatum manages to turn Minosa’s entrapment into a circus, his coverage luring journalists, ghoulish sightseers, and an actual circus to Minosa’s humble outpost. But at the height of his clever scheme’s success, Tatum finds that he has sickened himself. Paradoxically, no one wants to publish the real story of how he exploited Minosa’s plight.
Minosa isn’t the only one trapped. Entrapment is the key visual metaphor of the movie, from Minosa’s dwarfed head poking out of dusk covered boulders to the rattlesnake that the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) keeps in a box. But the main prisoners are Mimosa’s wife Lorraine (Jan Stirling) and Tatum himself, who is metaphorically buried alive in the dull sand of the New Mexico desert. Tatum is mirrored by Lorraine, who feels she was luring falsely into a marriage. She’s about to abandon Minosa to the mine but Tatum manages to maker he see the profit in staying (and though there are no visual clues to this, one assumes that Tatum also cuckolds his new “friend” Minosa with her). Tatum is himself the ace reporter in the hole, trapped by his own excesses in a drink-water town, his least favorite beverage. As others have pointed out, Tatum refashions himself in a version of Cecil B. DeMille, Wilder’s fellow Paramount director and cameo actor in Sunset Boulevard.
Kirk Douglas is amazingly adept, in his only outing in a Wilder film. All juts and points and arrows, he’s like a cubist painting of himself. Like Lancaster, George C. Scott and a few other actors the big screen isn’t big enough to contain his literally raging ego and his self-regard, and Douglas treads a fine line between chewing the scenery or merely sampling it to see if it’s worth the effort. Though William Holden seems to have been Wilder’s actor of choice for this kind of role, Douglas proves perfect at embodying The Wilder Character. This is the central personage in most Wilder films. A hustler, often a writer or newspaperman, he’s a guy with a knack for seeing the main chance. He has little hesitation in stepping over others to promote himself. Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 are the main texts of the Wilder Man philosophy but the character pops up in virtually every Wilder film. The director’s enthusiasm for the character is no doubt in part based on the fact that it’s based on Wilder himself. As a journalist himself in Germany before becoming a filmmaker Wilder must have seen, and occasionally been, the kind of hustler he is so adept at painting. The main knock against Wilder has always been that he doesn’t have the courage of his cynicism, always finding an “out” for him to show reform. But as Ace shows, the reform is inscribed in the very texture of the tale, this movies are really unimaginable with the character’s change of heart. It’s not the movie code that made Wilder make way for their reformation but his own desire to play that variation on the character in order to create a better story. Sterling, who has something of an older Sue Lyon quality to her features.
Because of its cynicism, its bleak outlook on life, its echoes of Postman Always Rings Twice and other films and mystery novels, Ace is widely categorized as a film noir. But in fact it is one of the earliest examples of a subtle shift in noir that was to reach its apotheosis in the 1990s. In her essay attached to the disc, Molly Haskell attempts to chart this shift, apparently unaware that someone else has already done so as she struggles to label it. Hey, lady, it’s already got a name, film soleil and the genre has been thoroughly gone over in the critical study of the same title. As Haskell reiterates redundantly, film soleil movies are otherwise noir-like takes of crime, greed, and seduction sat instead under the bright heat of the sun, usually in desert settings. But it’s not just a visual shift; it’s a moral change as well. From Chinatown to Confidence, film soleil examines crime with a more sympathetic eye, likely to make heroes of what would normally be villains and let them get away with their deeds, an option unimaginable in the days of the Production Code.
The lead off supplement on the first disc is a helpful audio commentary track by Neil Sinyard, author of Journey Down Sunset Boulevard: The Films of Wilder, a very good 1979 book on the director that gives equal attention to the films he wrote but didn’t direct. I sometimes get the feeling that Criterion prefers the dulcet tones of British film critics to the harsh, argumentative rasp of Americans. In this they resemble the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which so often passes out its coveted Oscars to prestige-emitting Brits. Sinyard’s yak track is in the spirit of Peter Cowie, Ian Christie, and Laura Mulvey, among other British commentators: poised, spoken rather than read, and seamlessly keyed to the events on the screen. With all due apologies to Mr. Sinyard, he is arguably the least known of Wilder’s celebrators. The disc could easily have carried instead of or in addition to him tracks by Wilder biographer Ed Sikov, collegial idolater Cameron Crowe, or early pioneering critic Leland Pogue. But in the end, Mr. Sinyard’s is fine, and a good introduction to Wilder’s concerns in this film. Disc one also has the theatrical trailer.
Disc two kicks off with “Portrait of a ‘60% Perfect Man’: Billy Wilder, is a 1980 documentary profile of Wilder that mostly follows his career arc, with added interviews featuring Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, and I. A. L. Diamond (00:58:26). It gives you a view of the inside of his art-filled apartment and his fabled office. Next are some excerpts from a 1986 appearance by Wilder at the American Film Institute (00:23:37), which touches on similar ground. This is followed by a 1984 interview with Kirk Douglas, conducted by Michael Thomas (00:14:14), in which he touches on Ace, and gives some acting tips. Next is an audio only chat with one of Ace’s co-writers, ex-radio writer Walter Newman, talking to Rui Nogueira in 1970 (00:10:07). Lastly, there is a video after word by Spike Lee (00:05:37), who claims a special interest in the film (he borrowed its last shot for one of his movies), but in which nothing new is said, and in which there appears to be no connection between film and its extoller, the segment also padded out with clips from the movie. Finally there are about 24 black and white on set shots and pics from the premiere of the film.
Also included in the set is a cute four-page insert in the shape of a tabloid sized newspaper, with cast and crew, chapter titles, transfer specs, and essays by film critic Molly Haskell, discussed above, and by filmmaker Guy Maddin, who brings his usual collection of delirium and exclamation points to a consideration of Douglas as screen icon, in the course of which he reveals that a major character in his film Saddest Music in the World was based on Tatum.
The Criterion Collection’s DVD of Ace in the Hole hits the streets Tuesday, July 17th, and retails for $39.95.
Leave a Reply