Friday 26 January 2007

Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder

We're in Albuquerque, NM, and we haven't taken a wrong turn. Kirk Douglas has broken down on his way from New York to somewhere and the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin where he decides to sell himself to the publisher. He's Chuck Tatum, a big town reporter, but he's had a habit of getting himself fired from important papers, which explains how he ends up in Albuquerque. His only way out is to find a big story and get himself noticed again, a big bad one because bad news sells papers and good news is no news, but a year in he's prowling the office like a lion surrounded by gazelle. He finally gets his chance when sent out to cover a rattlesnake hunt and discovers instead a cave in at a mine. Leo Minosa has got himself trapped and so Tatum takes the opportunity to create himself a media circus and write about the curse of the mountain of the seven vultures.

He knows how to do it too, not to benefit Leo but himself and consequently a whole bunch of other people. Kirk Douglas plays Tatum cynical and hard boiled. Like Mrs Minosa says, she's seen a lot of hard boiled eggs in her time but he's twenty minutes. He talks on the radio about every second counting in the fight to rescue Leo, but he persuades the crews to drill in from the top of the mountain even though it'll take a week instead of a couple of days of shoring up the passages; he gets deputised by the corrupt local sheriff because he's sure for reelection; he even manages to persuade Leo's wife to stay because she'll coin it in from the tourists and the carnival and everything else that Tatum conjures up.

All of this shameless manipulation rings completely true even now and yet this film is so old that the carnival is run by the Great S&M Amusement Corp and nobody laughs. It's the film Billy Wilder made right after Sunset Boulevard and before he'd even got to Stalag 17, Sabrina and Some Like It Hot, yet it's far more relevant than any of those classics today. That makes scriptwriters Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels the real stars here, along with an uncredited Wilder who also produced and directed.

On the screen it's hard to tell who the heroes are: certainly not Chuck Tatum, who's as sleazy as they come. The sheriff is a crook, Leo's wife throws herself after Tatum all the time he's apparently trying to rescue her husband, and even Leo himself only becomes newsworthy because he was traipsing around too far into Indian burial grounds to rob them of their treasure. The only good people in the film, like Tatum's young photographer and the contractor doing the rescue work, still get caught up in everyone else's mess, either by getting carried away or because they don't have a choice. Only Tatum's boss at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin is an honest man and he has no control over anything. It's not a pretty story and maybe that's why it didn't sell at the time. It went under two titles: Ace in the Hole and then The Big Carnival but neither did the trick. Maybe people just weren't ready for it.

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