Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ace in the Hole

dir. Billy Wilder

"It's a good story today. Tomorrow, they'll wrap a fish in it."
Chuck Tatum will eat your puppy.

January 15, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

“I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you - you're twenty minutes.”

Oh, snap! “Hard-boiled” is correct. Ace in the Hole is a nasty Frankenstein of a picture. Characters are yanked from behind the private eye desk, Venetian blinds and ocean-side mansions of film noir and thrust into the even more nihilistic, more cynical world of politics, money and the most cutthroat of them all, journalism.

Kirk Douglas plays the bullshit-shilling huckster, Chuck Tatum. Tatum has been kicked from major publication to major publication. Always willing to sink his fangs into a great story and run with it, he often takes on a bit of collateral damage with his monster chomps, which gets his shit kicked to the curb. Having torn through all the majors, he is forced to submit to the dregs of the industry, a two-bit rag out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The folks at this paper wear belts and suspenders both. Tatum stays holed at the paper for a year, expending a greater effort bitching about his long lost New York City than writing exposition for the paper. The stage is set for shit to hit the fan.

On his way to cover a puff piece, Tatum stumbles across a small desert outpost, where a man is trapped in old American Indian cave dwellings. It’s the classic boy-down-the-well tale with a twist of Indian folklore, and a story only as good as the story is long. In order to keep the story a-going and to get the national attention this “hard-boiled egg” of a reporter deserves, Tatum’s willing to keep the poor sucker half-buried and half-alive long enough to kick Albuquerque to the curb and get back to his precious New York City drowning in Pulitzers.

Douglas boils with furor throughout the picture. In the process of bulldozing the townspeople, he’s managed to blackmail the sheriff and the trapped man’s wife into doing his bidding in order to comply with the drama he’s concocted for the paper. In turn, Sheriff wins power and Wife wins cash. Her and her husband own the outpost and she serves up hamburgers and tourist trinkets to the flocking tabloid hounds, all the while planning to ditch the buried man for the big city.

Ace in the Hole belongs to a very specific cross-section of cinema. Titles such as Sweet Smell of Success, A Face in the Crowd, Network and Bamboozled serve a very similar function. Like those titles, Ace in the Hole’s cynicism eventually overwhelms the story (often at its expense), leaving a sickness in the pit of your stomach. It’s easy to get suckered in to the drama (or comedy), until the movie cuts you down the sides with the human comedy (or tragedy), leaving you limp and helpless, but mostly disgusted. Enraging as it is, this picture keeps afloat with snappy dialogue and the no-nonsense Douglas’ infectious, sickening intensity. He carries the charm of a sad-sack private eye, but rather than keep an emotional distance from this dame and that gig, he must act a newspaperman, emotionally involved and manipulating.

I don’t need to tell anyone how much the media influences and shapes history as we understand it. Ace in the Hole takes it a step further, pointing a big fat finger at the media for shaping history, as it happens, not just how it is understood. Billy Wilder’s movie is angry and cynical, a bit exhausting and frustrating, and as an older woman put it on the way out of the theatre, “not entirely heartwarming.”

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