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  • Manny Labram

Ace in the Hole, 1951 - Review

Updated: Jan 31

"And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog."

Billy Wilder’s 1951 ‘Ace in the Hole’ is a dark satire comedy which follows fallen big shot newspaper journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) make national headlines after being first on the scene on a heartfelt news story in the unlikely desert wasteland of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The story in question is of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), Albuquerque local, who is trapped in a cliff dwelling after trying to steal Native American artefacts for personal gain. The twist of the film is that Chuck is manipulating the news story by prolonging Leo’s unfortunate situation in an effort to lead a media circus, in which he succeeds, in order to rekindle his diminished journalistic career, in which he ultimately fails.

Everyone in this film is out for themselves. Chuck gladly endangers a man’s life to further his career. Leo, although portrayed as a decent man, is in fact a victim of his own greed. Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) is happy her husband is rock bed ridden so as to be free to climb the social ladder in a bigger city. Even the local Sheriff, Gus (Ray Teal), enables Chuck, in order to be re-elected as Sheriff (and irresponsibly feeds a rattlesnake chewing gum. More on that later). Perhaps the only good guy is Jacob Boot (Porter Hall), the owner of the small-town news publisher at which Chuck finds himself in the beginning of the film, who simply just wants to make an *honest* living selling newspapers.

The film deals with a few cynical human truths. A lot of which are still present today. Its main theme – ‘Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news’ hits hard when a literal media circus is there on site to watch Leo’s predicament within the cliff unfold.

At first glance, it feels absurd that this seemingly passable news story would garner hundreds of people (maybe a thousand, but hard to count), a Ferris-wheel, merry go round, food stalls, and designated transport, all in anticipation of the outcome of poor Leo. However, after some digging, we can see a similar situation occurred in 1925 (research Floyd Collins at your leisure). Regardless, it is both funny and entertaining to see the events take place on screen.

The dialogue is witty and long standing, the plot is extremely well paced, but above all the film excels at producing such enjoyable characters. Even minor characters like insurance salesman, Al Federber (Frank Cady), and young photographer, Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), add a worthy level of humour and drama to the film.

In my opinion, there is no particular standout in terms of acting as all the characters are very believable and are presented as such. The film does well to make so many unlikeable characters likeable (at least to watch). Because there are no heroes in this film, you end up rooting for whoever you find most entertaining.

In my case, I probably enjoyed watching Lorraine the most. Even though she is just as selfish as the other characters, as a woman living in 1950s America, she could be categorised as the true underdog of the film. Her character summed up in her own quote 'I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons', Lorraine is through sticking with the good guy, and now wants a bigger piece of the action. To get by she steals money from the till, flips burgers, and tries to seduce any man who seems like they're going places. Like the others in the film, in the end her want for more is her downfall and she is left in the deserts of Albuquerque without a ride to the big city.

Mr Boot is also a breath of fresh air, representing the good in mankind, although his character is somewhat inconsequential and feels a bit weak in terms of his social status. At least he survives the ordeal unscathed, having only lost two staff members.

Another big highlight is the dialogue. It is filled with many great one liners and quotes. Like most older films, the slickness in dialogue feels much more natural and well placed, and often makes you wonder if these zingers were taught in English class back then.

My favourite scene is the first encounter between Chuck and Leo inside the cliff. Leo shares a moving story of when he was in the US army during WW2, fighting the Italians. Leo goes on to say that in war everyone moves with an overwhelming fear of their inevitable demise, ‘but then a guy starts singing, soft like. Then the guy next to you starts singing. Pretty soon you’re singing too.’ Leo begins to sing the song sung during his military escapades. Chuck highlights that he survived, joins him in the singing, then eventually leaves to carry out his devilish master plan, leaving Leo by himself in the cliff once more. Leo carries on singing to himself for a moment but stops abruptly once cliff sand falls from above signalling the unstable rocks and foreshadows Leo’s demise. This theme of singing through hardship is carried on later in the film as the crowd sing in support of Leo’s rescue.

The main thing I did not enjoy about the film was the physical violence. Firstly, the abuse delivered by Chuck to Lorraine. I felt this was unnecessary, though I was pleased to see in the end Lorraine get her revenge by stabbing Chuck in the gut, eventually causing his death at the end of the film (side-note - it’s funny to see the ways in which filmmakers of the time try to avoid showing gore). I would add, it felt a bit of a cop out that Chuck would also die at the end of the film. To the film's credit, it is dramatic irony he meets the same fate as Leo, who he has victimised.

Chuck also ends up throwing a few, surprisingly good, punches to the Sheriff, when Chuck has a change of heart over the news situation. I didn’t think it made sense that Chuck could so easily assault a Sheriff and come out unscathed. Though these scenes did add drama, I did not enjoy them. I think in the short fight between Chuck and Sheriff Gus, it would have been better if there were other characters present trying to hold Chuck back. To me this would have at least elevated Chuck’s shift in the value of human life whilst highlighting the stagnant value held by the other characters. Also, a minor dislike, as a lover of animals, I didn’t enjoy seeing Sheriff Gus feed a rattlesnake chewing gum as it's not meant for them!

Those points aside, the film did have a good ending in the sense that everyone got what they deserved. Nothing.

To ‘tell the truth’, this film is pretty damn great. Lacking dazzling CGI, special effects, and a memorable score, it is a perfect example of how a film only needs a good plot and good characters to be an acclaimed watch. My biggest praise of the film is as mentioned above, every character is enjoyable to watch and is given a decent amount of screen time. It is easy to understand every character's motives and understand their individual personalities. Interestingly, the film was not a success when it first came out. Perhaps audiences felt it was too cynical. It is now however seen as a classic. I think it rightly deserves such praise.

Overall rating - 8.5/10

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