[Film Review] Ace in the Hole (1951)

Ace in the Hole poster

Title: Ace in the Hole
Year: 1951
Country: USA
Language: English, Spanish, Latin
Genre: Drama, Film-Noir
Director: Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder
Lesser Samuels
Walter Newman
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Kirk Douglas
Jan Sterling
Robert Arthur
Richard Benedict
Frank Cady
Ray Teal
Porter Hall
Edith Evanson
Rating: 9.0/10

Ace in the Hole 1951

ACE IN THE HOLE is Billy Wilder’s gritty censure of a collusion between an egocentric reporter Chuck Tatum (Douglas) and the corrupt local Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Teal), who immorally manipulate the entire action of rescuing a man trapped in a cave-in, to their own self-serving purposes, during the process, Tatum’s moral conscience has been interminably tested until the worst-case scenario inevitably occurs and pushes him to a futile redemptive effort which will send him to his doom.

Tatum, once a big-city journalist in New York, now has been stuck in Albuquerque, New Mexico for over a year, his sole resolution is to seize a sensational story as the springboard to get his old job back, or it turns out, he can also create one, he is astute enough to sense the opportunity and unscrupulous enough to capitalise on it even if it is a man’s life at stake. Flaunting with his smart-ass elitism, Tatum is bluntly unlikeable from the start to the mid-stream where he and Gus, who appears to be a more stereotyped scum, exploit and intervene the rescue schedule to serve their personal interest, this is not pure evil, it is human frailty, which is so common and widely rooted in every corner of the world, that is why such deeds can be rudimentarily harmful to our society and the movie should be enshrined for its boldness alone which can cultivate generations of audience about the integrity of a reporter and more far-reachingly vital, advice us, billions of onlookers, how to take a lucid stand when facing sensationalism on a daily basis. Then, when he finally accepts the aftermath, his transformation brings about a captivating crescendo with sublime poignancy until the film’s final scene.

Under Wilder’s firm hands, and the screenplay is glistening with sharp witticism – bad news sells fast, good news is no news – subconsciously we all know that, but what if this intrinsic response to our curiosity and imagination, could be very handily engineered to lead us astray under the flag of “truth disclosure”? How can we be wise enough to discern it and outsmart it? In a perfect world, the movie should be introduced in every high school classroom.

Kirk Douglas, who is still with us today and one-year short of his centenary, the oldest living star from the Golden Era, is utterly fitting in this role, harsh, masculine, misogynous, only belatedly let his remorse and desperation surface when the comeuppance cannot be redeemed. Also, Jan Sterling stuns in a top-notch performance as Lorraine Minosa, the wife of the trapped man Leo (Benedict), who takes the accident not just as a windfall to earn some quick-money, but also as a getaway from her dead-end marriage and the bleak land. Her conducts are contemptible thanks to Wilder’s effort to make Leo look like a devoted husband, and she is an accomplice in the game, but unlike Tatum, the astonishing part is her relentless pitilessness to his husband, she is also craving for someone better, some place better, some life better, another penetrating portrayal of human frailty and Sterling’s acting is overwhelmingly accurate, especially during the slapping scene, her reaction is so genuine and totally believable.

It is high time to justify this film’s classic esteem since ACE IN THE HOLE was a critical failure in Wilder’s output when it came out, it was even renamed as THE BIG CARNIVAL out of despair to lure audience into a revealing cautionary tale, while unfortunately, it was too realistic to those who are looking for escapism in the theatre, critics are strident too, maybe the fiasco did alter Wilder’s orbit, since then, his works, as masterful as they are, are ultimately less pertinent and trenchant to social realism, and a comedic overtone would supersede the bleakness, that’s another reason why this film is so exceptional and still relevant till this day.

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