If you think the media satire in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” is dated, I’ve got a Malaysian airliner I’d like to sell you. Even today, perhaps especially today, Wilder’s 1951 satire (his follow-up to “Sunset Boulevard”) hits a nerve — especially if the viewer happens to be member of the media himself. Criterion released a dandy DVD edition in 2007, and it’s been re-released this month as a Blu-ray/DVD combo package with a sparkling new digital transfer.
In Chuck Tatum, Kirk Douglas made one of the most unforgettable journalists ever to appear on screen. Making his entrance rolling into Albuquerque in his convertible — being towed by a repair truck — Douglas, in one of his best roles, captures the combination of arrogance and self-loathing in a star reporter, and above all the hunger to not just get the big scoop, but be at the center of the story. “I’m a $1,000-a-day reporter,” he says, famously, “But you can have me for nothing.”
The Albuquerque paper gets him for next to nothing — once a hotshot New York reporter, Tatum has fallen down the rungs of the newspaper ladder through his own self-destructive ways. He blazes into his new small-town job as a big shot — and then, a year later, we see him still stuck at the job, seething with boredom and jealousy.
Salvation comes in the form of Leo Minosa, a curio-shop owner who goes a little too far into the Indian burial caves near his shop and gets trapped by a cave-in. Tatum happens by, and sees his story. Not just one story, but a whole week’s worth — he hires a drilling crew to rescue Leo, but to take the long way, so he can milk Leo’s plight for everything it’s worth. He would have felt right at home in a media world of clickbait headlines, live tweets and “Breaking News” updates that restate what’s been said 20 times before. As long as you get ’em to buy the paper or click the link, all’s fair, right?
“Ace in the Hole” flirts with noir, as Tatum gets himself deeper and deeper as the story gets bigger and bigger, a three-ring circus (literally, there’s carnival rides and everything) blooming around the dig sites as looky-loos gather to watch. In Wilder’s scathing satire, of course, we’re the looky-loos — the sight of onlookers leaping off the “Leo Minosa Express” train and running to the news attraction, as a country band plays merrily, is borderline surreal.
“Ace in the Hole” was something of a flop when it came out, and it’s widely agreed that average American audiences, who were fine seeing Hollyweird exposed in “Sunset Boulevard,” weren’t comfortable having the satiric lens turned back on themselves. But now, it’s clear to see that Chuck Tatum belongs in the impeccable corrupt company of Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker and Andy Griffith’s Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, cinematic charlatans who showed us our worst selves and made us hungry for more.