Friday, 6 April 2012

1,001 Films: "Ace in the Hole" (1951)

Ace in the Hole is a shoo-in for inclusion on any list of the most cynical movies ever made, and further evidence of what a magnificent sourpuss Billy Wilder could be. Kirk Douglas's washed-up newspaperman Charles "Chuck" Tatum arrives in a tow-truck at the offices of the Alberquerque Sun-Bulletin, having been fired from every publication on the East Coast. Dispatched on a rattlesnake hunt (for which read: wild goose chase), he happens across the "public interest" story of a man trapped under a rockslide in the mountains of New Mexico; sniffing Pulitzers in the air, he attempts to spin the story out as long as possible, appointing himself master of ceremonies at a 24-hour, seven-day carnival of American exploitation. The air pocket supporting the victim becomes as a window of opportunity, seized upon not just by Tatum, but by the man's feckless wife (Jan Sterling), a corrupt sheriff, and a horde of hucksters who show up to make a buck off the rubberneckers gathering at the site.

Shot on location and expanding with every scene - to take in cars, caravans, trains, a fun fair and even a charity record knocked out in support of the trapped man - it's as close as Wilder ever got to directing a disaster movie, only that disaster isn't anything as obvious as a rockfall, instead the gradual erosion of principles; the second of its twists is that Wilder rather gets off on it all. (You can intuit this from the film's representatives of virtue - Tatum's ineffectual editor, clinging in vain to his "Tell the Truth" embroidery; a dissident driller; the trapped man's parents, simply packed off-screen to church - who are characterised in thoroughly colourless fashion.) The manner in which Douglas's semi-heroic monster is finally made to seem vulnerable could be seen as a weakness in an otherwise genuinely hard-boiled work, and it's arguably doing no more than rehearsing the theme of the later, better-known The Apartment (namely, that everyone has their price) on a grander stage - but watch it in this post-Madeleine McCann, mid-Leveson era, and tell me its vision of the popular press isn't still supremely relevant.

Ace in the Hole is presently out of circulation in the UK.

No comments:

Post a comment