‘At the Movies’ is a fortnightly column on Hollywood’s Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.
Made by Paramount studios and starring Kirk Douglas who passed away this month, Ace in the Hole (1951) is one of Billy Wilder’s best-known pictures. The film is a satire about a newspaperman Chuck (Douglas) in rural New Mexico who orchestrates a media frenzy around a miner (Richard Benedict) trapped inside a mountain. Chuck colludes with the local sheriff (Ray Teal), who is running a re-election campaign, and the local engineers to ensure that Leo isn’t rescued for at least six days, by which time the story would snowball into a national phenomenon and he would be hired by the top agencies in New York. Wilder, known for his tough, cynical classics, was also producer on the film, ensuring that his acidic sensibility dominated the film.
Wilder develops the story wholly through the warped mind of Chuck, who it seems would do anything for a scoop, including sustaining a tragedy for the sake of readership. “Good news is no news. Bad news sells better,” he tells his naïve colleague, the photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur). He isn’t religious and smirks at the local beliefs about Indian spirits haunting the mountains. But that doesn’t prevent him from exploiting the angle for his story. Chuck thus positions himself as the rational man towering over the simpletons of hinterland America, who are little more than fodder for his media circus, an agnostic for whom nothing — not the living, not the dead, not the living dead — is sacred.
Wilder doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with all this pessimism right away. The film’s script modulates the character gradually and subtly. Chuck is introduced as a rather affable character — overconfident but eminently likeable for that reason. His wayward career shows no sign of a moral compromise and he does uphold certain ethical principles as a reporter for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Moreover, being played by a star like Douglas naturally renders the character endearing. But the tensions slowly surface as Chuck’s sociopathic fantasies come forth, masked as professional aspiration. His eyes light up when he hears about a prospector stuck inside the mountains. Making his way through the caves, he tempts Herbie with stories of journalistic greatness.
Chuck becomes more and more menacing as the story unfolds, a transformation reflected in the accumulating paraphernalia around him: a new telephone connection, a fax machine in his room and, then, the return of alcohol. In the process, Wilder divorces the audience’s perspective from Chuck’s, who now becomes an object of critique rather than identification. Wilder’s satire spirals away from Chuck to include other characters who exploit Leo’s predicament in their own ways. Most important of these is Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) who also wants to leave the boondocks by latching on to Chuck. In an unnerving scene, she cosies up to Chuck, who views her seduction as a deviation from the media narrative he’s crafting and violently slaps her to put her back in line.
Chuck’s cynicism, though, hits a wall when his plans go awry. In the battle between the telephone cable and the cross on the wall of his room, old-fashioned values triumph: Chuck experiences guilt, which he tries to violently deflect on to Lorraine. And so, the film curves into a Christian fable of sin and suffering. Not a fable from the New Testament though: in the end, Chuck gets to address the crowd from the top of the mountain, but his speech feels less like Christ’s sermon than like Moses’ exhortations on the Sinai. Wilder’s film offers no redemption for Chuck, only punishment; he doesn’t even get to make his great confession.
Billy Wilder’s renown as a scriptwriter has often come at the expense of his strengths as a filmmaker. True, the screenplay of Ace in the Hole is nimble and constantly moves forward without flashbacks or dream sequences. Even the passage of a whole year is accomplished with a straight cut. The virtues of the script, however, don’t take away from Wilder’s economic but vigorous approach to image-making and scene building. The triggering action of the script — an out-of-work journalist walks into a small-town newspaper office — is portrayed in just four shots, establishing Chuck’s character and nonchalant attitude right away.
Wilder’s images in the film are dynamic, with an emphasis on the diagonal throughout. The recurring shot of Chuck peering at Leo through a gap in the rocks has a straight line slashing across the screen, producing a sense of both instability and claustrophobia. A scene of Chuck corrupting the sheriff by promising him re-election is shot in a tight space to conjure an atmosphere of twisted intimacy. Wilder makes the lighting progressively dramatic, and the shots are increasingly invaded by shadows as the film advances. He films Chuck from a slightly low angle all through, the compositions taking his character from assertive to threatening to positively malevolent.
Central to the composition is the figure of Kirk Douglas himself. An emblem of classical, rugged masculinity, Douglas had a face that was uncertain in its signification. While his wavy locks and genial smile gave him an air of a Greek god, his cleft chin, like those of Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant, and protruding jaw line bestowed a slightly sinister aura. Douglas plays with this ambivalence in Ace in the Hole. His characteristic head tilt combines with his leaning posture to accentuate the diagonality of the shots. Douglas peppers his performance with fleeting but eye-catching gestures — a matchstick dragged over a typewriter, the flip of a bottle, a snap of the suspenders, a spectacular drop of his cigarette into a glass of water after persuading the sheriff — to suggest a master rhetorician at work.
Chuck is a New York man, a master of the universe for whom a job at a small-town press is just a sojourn. Douglas conveys this sense of superiority in the fable-like first scene in which he strolls, unannounced and unflappably, into the newspaper office to sell himself. His tone and gesture paint him as a man who stands tall over the poor chumps of Albuquerque. But he becomes restless when he finds himself stuck with his $60/week job even after a year. In a remarkable scene filmed in a single shot, he paces about the news room, delivering a begrudging paean to New York life, evoking both nostalgia and desperation. His zing returns when he smells a breakthrough story, and he plays up his east coast exceptionalism by rough-housing a deputy sheriff.
While within the classical Hollywood tradition of satire, whose practitioners include Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, Ace in the Hole feels rather modern, partly because Wilder refuses to soften it with a morally upright protagonist. Its lampooning of people vacationing in front of the mountains is broad and caricatural, but it is also discomfiting in its pungent suggestion that it takes a city to bury a man. Like the best satires, Wilder’s film spreads wide outside of its immediate milieu to accommodate a broader cultural criticism.
Ace in the Hole is, in a way, a critique of capitalism, of the American promise of upward mobility so prevalent in its time. Everyone in Wilder’s film is either selling or consuming something at the cost of someone else. While Leo’s condition is a free resource for journalists and businessmen to exploit, Chuck conspires with the authorities to eliminate competition and ensure his monopoly. This idea of systematic exploitation and commodification of human suffering — and not as the result of a single individual’s moral perversion, but as the rational logic of a system — is part of what lends Wilder’s film its unrelenting and unnerving quality.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2020 08:25:32 IST