Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is sitting in his broken down car as it is towed into Abuquerque and tells the driver of the recovery vehicle to stop outside the office of the local newspaper. Marching inside, Chuck asks the nearest journalist where can he find the proprietor, and is pointed to the office of Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) who immediately tells him he isn't hiring. But this newspaperman from the East Coast isn't listening, and proceeds to deliver a spiel about what a talented reporter he is, never mind about those times he lost his job for libel or sleeping with the boss's wife, and Boot becomes intrigued, especially when he is informed he will make plenty of money by taking him on...
But a year passes and Tatum is in the same position, reduced to reporting on a rattlesnake hunt when he happens to stumble upon a genuine human interest story that seems guaranteed to make him his fortune and turn him from a nobody into a somebody again in the national press scene. However, this was Billy Wilder's take on a true life event of twenty-five years before, one of the first media circuses, and he had nothing but bile for the public who pruriently lapped up these tales, the more sensational and tragic the better, and those who peddled them, each exploiting one another for kicks and cash, all to divine entertainment out of very real suffering. In fact, the only person who came out of this extreme morality unscathed was Wilder himself.
Except, of course, it didn't work out that way, with the director complaining his audience were expecting a cocktail from him only to believe he had made them down a shot of vinegar instead; was he really all that surprised when the folks who attended his movies, and were getting to know his name as a mark of quality, should turn against him when he essentially accused them of being hypocrites and vultures, and if you did lay claim to any piety then frankly you were a moron? Nobody but an emotional masochist would wish to be told they were a terrible person for a couple of hours with no let up, yet that's what Wilder was delivering here and with such caustic enthusiasm that nobody escaped his glare. With Kirk Douglas as the bearer of the message that you were a moral vacuum, nobody did it better, either.
What Tatum finds on his drive to the rattlesnakes - and watch how reptilian imagery and metaphor frequently comes up in this movie - is a man trapped in a cave on an Indian reservation. It's looking bad for Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) but very good for our antihero, since he can string out the rescue for a few days and build this little story up into a national story, then allow Leo to be saved at the last moment, thus simultaneously rescuing Tatum's career. What could possibly go wrong? How about the fact that everyone here is deeply flawed, except Tatum is cursed with the ability to see all this corruption with twenty-twenty vision and can therefore make the most of it while recognising he is bringing out the worst in everyone, from the crowds who gather to leech off the fame to the authorities happy to make a name for themselves as heroes.
They are nothing of the kind, merely as self-serving as Chuck or even - blaming the victim - Leo who likes the idea of the attention. There are those who turn to God to help such as his mother, but they spend all their time praying and no time at all doing anything practical to get him out, as meanwhile the trapped man's wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling, the casting director truly earned his money here) notes the takings at her diner and makes a move on Chuck seeing as he is the alpha male now. Some have described Ace in the Hole as film noir, but if it is Lorraine is not the femme fatale, she's not intelligent enough as the real manipulator is Tatum, rendering him both a rare homme fatale and the architect of his own doom wrapped up in one unlovely package. Needless to say, Kirk was having a field day and at his most brilliant in this, conveying both his character's self-loathing greed and Wilder's absolute disgust at sharing the planet with this species called humanity. Is it enjoyable? That's debatable, but it has the quality of a sharp slap in the face, if that's your thing. Music by Hugo Friedhofer.
Powerful stuff but you hit the nail on the head as to why movie-goers didn't take to it at the time. It's still hardly a fun watch. Even though I think Double Indemnity is a superb piece of work, I remain largely a fan of his outrageous comedies over his lacerating dramas. Even Sunset Boulevard is a trifle too acidic to my taste.
12 May 2014
I suppose if you take note of Wilder's background before he was forced to flee Europe for Hollywood you can understand his bleak view of human nature, but it's not just there in his dramas, his comedies have it too. A towering talent, but he could be hard to like if easy to admire.