Ace in the Hole (1951)

Directed by Billy Wilder


Reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) shows up in Albuquerque looking for a job at a small newspaper after multiple firings for misbehavior.  As good as a reporter as he claims to be, Chuck is just as good of a salesman.  He gets the job, but as years goes by he laments remaining stuck in this small, quiet town.  His idea is to work his way back to the top, to find an undeniable story which will get him the Pulitzer.  To put it simply, Chuck is fiercely ambitious and desperate to grab audiences with something compelling.

On the way to cover yet another boring story, Chuck tries to teach an accompanying young reporter about ‘real’ journalism.  Selling papers on street corners as a kid, Chuck got the idea that the only news that sold involved stories of tragedy.  That, combined with human interest pieces (a story about 1 dead man is more engaging than a story about 84 dead men), helps elucidate Chuck’s perspective and should make us apprehensive of his ambition.  In many ways the ‘news’ is just a facade for Chuck’s entrepreneurial spirit.  He might as well be a wall street broker.

When Chuck stumbles upon Leo Minosa, a man trapped in a collapsed cave, he starts to get the itch.  When he learns that the cave is thought to be haunted by ancient Indian spirits, he begins to see the story.

Chuck tells his young reporter that they’re ignoring their original assignment and focusing all of their attention on Leo Minosa.  No one will go down there to see him due to the danger posed by the unstable rocks, but Chuck boldly goes down there to make contact with Leo directly.  He befriends him simply by showing up and offering coffee and a blanket, but then he tells Leo he’s going to make him famous.  Leo has no issue with this, and Chuck takes his photo for the paper.

The story, once published, begins to attract a crowd of people, and because of the interest Chuck tries to milk the story as long as possible.  He works with the local sheriff to prevent other reporters from gaining access to Leo, and once the story is in enough demand, Chuck quits the Albuquerque paper and holds out for a better offer from New York.  Most egregiously, Chuck puts the kabbash on a plan that would have Leo freed in a day or two in favor of a plan involving a drill which would take up to a week.

As this is going on Chuck isn’t the only person to take advantage of Leo’s situation.  Leo’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), decides to flee town as he is stuck, much to Chuck’s chagrin.  For Chuck’s story to hit home, he must paint a portrait of Leo and Lorraine as a loving couple.  Lorraine, however, makes it clear that she married Leo with an understanding of what she was getting herself into (he promised land and a thriving business which turned out to be exaggerations of the truth).  She has tried to run away before, so this is nothing new.

Chuck insists that Lorraine stay, and when the crowd of well-wishers (thanks to Chuck’s story) begin to arrive, Lorraine’s business (a local market) begins to rake in the cash.  She decides to remain and together with Chuck, the two of them develop a strange bond.  Early on she makes a romantic advance on Chuck, only for him to brutally slap and chastise her, believing such an act would betray his sacred story about the loving husband and wife.  Rather than turn from him, she steps down to his level.

As the story builds, Chuck begins to lose a grip on the situation.  He faces pressure from all sides as former and new enemies pop out of the woodwork.  Nobody really likes Chuck, not that he particularly cares, except for Leo who continues to trust him.  Chuck is the only person from the outside Leo is able to communicate with, but soon Leo’s health begins to deteriorate, and eventually he dies.

Chuck is forced to acknowledge his guilt in the situation as his decision to prolong Leo’s captivity directly kills him.  In a big, final announcement, Chuck takes to the mountainside above the cave, standing there like Jesus delivering the sermon on the mount, and he proclaims Leo dead.

Chuck returns to his drunken ways, which he had abstained from during the course of the story, as everyone leaves.  His new New York editor fires him, and with nothing left, Chuck returns to Albuquerque.  Paying off the initial conversation which landed him the reporter position, Chuck tells his former editor, “I’m a thousand dollar a day newspaper man.  You can have me for nothing,” before he collapses in front of the camera, maybe literally but certainly figuratively dead.

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It’s a disturbing final image that cements the film as a surprisingly dark one.  The film opens with an amusing image of a down on his luck reporter who is determined and certain that he can make it back to the top.  He is looking for the American Dream, and he believes firmly in its existence.

But this story quickly becomes less about that ‘dream’ and more about what someone with disastrously capitalistic tendencies like Chuck is willing to do to get it.  In some ways, Chuck isn’t much different from Tony Curtis’ character in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a movie I recently watched and wrote about.  To make another unnecessary connection to another movie I just watched, Chuck has a few similarities to Holly Martins in The Third Man.

In these films, all made in the decade or so after the end of World War II, there is an idealistic American hero, and in each case his story ends on a grim final note.  These films seem to comment on that “can do” optimism following the war.  Anything was possible, and the worst had passed.  Yet this spirit is fleeting.  It’s a beautiful idea, but this…

Caption from the August 27, 1945, issue of LIFE. "In the middle of New York's Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers."

…turned into the Cold War and the Red Scare.  It’s like mental health, in a way.  Your mind is accustomed to sorting out problems, so when your problems are solved, you live in a moment of grace, but then your brain begins digging for more problems.  The war ended, and we lived in that moment of grace before turning in on ourselves once more.  Perhaps I’m glossing over a few misconceptions about this time in American history, but I think I’m on the right track.  America has always had enemies, and during the fifties they became less discernible from ourselves.  The idea that communists lived amongst us and were trying to ruin us, well it’s kind of frightening if you believed it, as so many people did.

So you start with this determined optimism, and then you move into something much more sinister.  These three films, and most notably Ace in the Hole, show how this spirit can be misdirected or leaned on with too much emphasis.  There’s a downside to every good idea, perhaps, and certainly a nightmare to counter every dream.

Up Next: Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016), Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny (2016), The Seven Year Itch (1955)

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