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The Criterion Collection presents
"I don't make things happen. All I do is write about them."
DVD ReviewSometimes the universe aligns and provides us with wonders. I'm sure I overstate the case for most, but I know I've got some comrades out there who will react the same way I did upon learning that Criterion was releasing this title, and then getting a copy for review—I actually looked heavenward and muttered, "Thank you, Jesus." (Alas, my continued prayers for help for the Knicks in the draft lottery have to date gone unanswered.) Ace in the Hole has been a movie close to impossible to come by, not only on DVD, but under any circumstances—this may reflect the lack of enthusiasm for the film upon its first reception or a Byzantine half century of rights issues, but it could only be seen at obscure times on random cable channels with great infrequency, or occasionally at a revival house, a filmgoing institution that's pretty much gone the way of the buggywhip and the VCR. And all of that is more than a pity—it's almost a cinematic crime, especially given that it's one of Billy Wilder's best and undoubtedly his most prescient pictures.
This was Wilder's followup to Sunset Boulevard, and may be the crucial pivot in his career—he had parted ways with frequent screenwriting partner Charles Brackett and hadn't yet started working with I.A.L. Diamond, who shares writing credit with Wilder on his best films of the 1950s and 1960s, like Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. It was derided in its time as mean spirited, and there's no denying that there's a dark streak of misanthropy in some of Wilder's work. But with the benefit of over fifty years of hindsight, you can't help but think that the picture was derided because Wilder so obviously touched a nerve—the technology has changed, but Wilder was onto something essential and dark about the American character. It's a movie essentially about the pornography of grief, of turning the tragedies of strangers into diverting media events, death and dismemberment as things to while away the time over dinner and between commercials; it's a dynamic that continues to play itself out, only most recently with Laci Peterson, and Jessie Davis, and Natalie Holloway, and JonBenet Ramsey, and next week's tragedy of the century that will dominate the insipid circus that passes for journalism, and the one after that, and the one after that.
Wilder has a canny sense of just how to use his leading man, as well—Kirk Douglas was never an actor of great range, but he could be volcanic, and didn't always need to be adored, so this role suits him perfectly. He plays Charles Tatum, a New York newspaperman whose bad habits have left him without a job—he's slugged too many editors, thrown back too many shots of whiskey in the newsroom, and pawed too many publishers' wives to hold onto his desk. He comes hat in hand, then, to a sleepy Albuquerque newspaper, with dreams of returning covered in glory to New York. He won't in fact ever shut up about New York, about how everything is better there—Tatum exudes the obnoxious chauvinism that, 9/11 aside, makes the city largely despised in the rest of the country. And of course he takes all his new colleagues for hicks and cornpones, and has nothing but contempt for their homespun wisdom, embodied in the needlepointed sign that hangs in the newsroom and reads, "Tell the Truth."
After more than a year in the sticks and with his hopes waning, Tatum does in fact stumble into the big story he's been lusting for—on his way to cover a rattlesnake hunt, he discovers that Leo Minosa, the proprietor of a roadside souvenir stand, has been caught in a mine collapse. Leo went in to pillage some Native American artifacts he could hawk to tourists; now his legs are trapped and he needs to be rescued. Douglas is like a feral animal with the story, and has a partner in crime in the corrupt local sheriff, who sees a cheap and easy way to get some good publicity and pave the way to his re-election, so the rescue of poor Leo is turned into a tabloid affair. Tatum convinces the sheriff to drill down through the mountain rather than take the easier path through the mine—it's much more dramatic, and will string out the story for at least a couple of extra days. The fact that they're putting Leo's life unnecessarily in jeopardy is for them a modest inconvenience—why let one little tchatchke merchant stand in the way of their dreams?
Tatum is masterful at ginning the whole thing up—he even befriends Leo, who mistakes the reporter for his savior rather than his exploiter. And quite literally, the circus comes to town: a carnival sets up at the mining site and tourists arrive in droves, in a crazed media affair that could pass for Camp O.J. (The film was re-released at one point under a second and equally apt title, The Big Carnival.) Wilder's vision of the American public is a vicious one, deeply contemptuous and cynical—we're easily distracted children, interested in the misfortunes of others merely for sport. (It's unkind, but it's frequently hard to argue with.) You watch the movie with derision for its hero and pity for Leo, but it's got even greater moral dimensionality as well—Jan Sterling plays Leo's discontented wife who didn't bargain for a lifetime in the middle of nowhere, and sees this as her opportunity to make hay, making her both a noir femme fatale and the female counterpart to Tatum. And Porter Hall is pretty much the conscience of the piece as Tatum's New Mexico editor, who knows just what his ace reporter is doing, and just how unconscionable it all is.
It's a deeply embittered movie, and only gets darker as it goes along; Tatum of course has the necessary crisis of conscience, but he and we already know that he's doomed and irredeemable. But his exhilarating ride makes it a breathless entertainment, and an enduring and pointed indictment of our petty pleasures and amusements at the tragedies of others. Who's on Larry King tonight, anyway?
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: Wilder is such an urban filmmaker that, like his hero, he sometimes seems a little uneasy out in the desert—but he's able to deliver some sharp, noiry cinematography inside the cave, and the presentation of the film on DVD is very, very strong. Blacks are saturated and true, and the gray levels are fantastically well modulated.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Not quite as striking as the picture, but certainly a fine transfer for a film of this period. A bit of hiss is probably inevitable; happily it's principally the dialogue that crackles and not the soundtrack.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Neil Sinyard
Packaging: Amaray Double
Excerpts (23m:37s) from a 1986 interview with the director at the American Film Institute feel a little shopworn; you sense that Wilder has been dining out on these anecdotes for decades, and was still embittered about not getting to work again after the disappointing Buddy, Buddy. Douglas discusses working for the director in a 1984 interview (14m:17s), and co-screenwriter Walter Newman does the same in a 1970 audio-only piece. Spike Lee provides an afterword (05m:39s), discussing his fondness for Wilder, getting to meet him, and this movie's many affinities with A Face in the Crowd—Lee is obviously a big, big fan. A stills gallery offers lots of on-set candids and snapshots from opening night, and a special word of praise to the designers responsible for the booklet that accompanies the DVD—it folds out like a tabloid newspaper and fairly crackles with the spirit of the film, while bringing us essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin. And rather than the typical Criterion catalog that accompanies most of their releases, this one features a brochure on their titles shot in glorious Technicolor.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsA shockingly nasty piece of Americana, and a film that deserves a place on the short list of great journalism movies with Sweet Smell of Success, A Face in the Crowd, Network and All the President's Men. Billy Wilder's dark film remains searing and seems ever more prescient, and this outstanding Criterion release finally brings home one of the director's very best.
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