Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) used to be a big shot journalist, and now just thinks he still is one. He’s been fired from more newspapers than I could name for a cornucopia of vices, and now finds himself staring at a vacant typewriter at the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin, a small town paper with very few employees and even fewer stories for them to tell. All Tatum needs is that one big break to get him noticed by the big papers again, and when a local man gets trapped in a cave-in whilst searching for trinkets to sell, Chuck sees potential, he just needs to make the story fit the headlines.
This film was nominated for me to watch by Dan Heaton of Public Transportation Snob, which makes Dan my new best friend because I loved everything about this film. I’ve yet to find a Billy Wilder film I haven’t at least liked a great deal, if not loved outright (so far I’ve seen Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, so you could argue that the ones I’ve seen are the more well known as well liked films) and I’m overjoyed to add this to that list.
The driving force behind Ace in the Hole is the lead, Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum. Tatum is one heck of a character. We first see him gliding into town reading a newspaper in his car as it’s towed in from somewhere, with Chuck using the tower like a taxi driver, telling him where to drop him off and to wait for him to get back. He’s the kind of guy who thrives on activity and making the most for himself out of any situation, so as a journalist he freely admits that “If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” Hence, when he’s stuck covering the likes of rattlesnake hunts, boxcar races and tornadoes that missed their town completely, it’s no surprise that this big fish in a small, still pond is desperate to make some waves when the opportunity arises. Douglas is terrific in the role, dancing gleefully past the charming line and into eye-gleamingly smarmy. He’s arrogant, sure, but he knows how to play up to the public and his superiors alike, and he’s never not fun to watch.Another highlight is the character of Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), the wife of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), the poor sod who finds himself stuck in the cave. In this kind of situation you’d expect her to be either a tearful, quivering wreck or a figure of strength and support, distrustful of this fast-talking newspaper man who seems to be taking a very intrusive interest into their plight. What isn’t expected then is for Lorraine to turn tail and run as soon as she finds out her husband isn’t able to run after her, and when Chuck drags her back, an additional twist occurs when he brings her on side with him in dragging out the whole affair to profit them both. You see, Leo and Lorraine run the local gas station / diner / souvenir store, so when Chuck blows the story up in the press, their mountainside business finds itself inundated with paying customers desperate for a slice of the action.Not every aspect of the plot was unexpected however, and the over-arching story follows the only path it can once all the major pieces are in place, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a joy to behold. The script is full of zingers (most famously Lorraine’s out-down of Chuck: “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you, you’re 20 minutes.”) and the supporting cast full of memorable bit-playing characters. Whether it’s the Federbers, the tourist family first on the scene who spend their entire vacation camped on the side of a mountain, the back-hand dealing sheriff (Ray Teal) who literally writes ELECT SHERIFF KRETZER on the side of the mountain, or the New York editor Chuck is desperate to impress (“Don’t you know there’s a war on!… somewhere.”), plus the predominant victim of the whole ordeal, the simple-minded Leo himself, they all get their moments to shine, and not one of them puts a foot wrong.There’s an indictment here of the media’s – and the public’s – obsession with tragedy – Chuck points out that the story is only interesting because there’s one man trapped, if it were a hundred no-one would care – and in reality very few people give a damn as to whether Leo survives or not, they just want to be a part of the experience, and to profit from it any way they can. I loved this film, and am giving it the highest rating I can for a film I’ve only seen the once. Rest assured, however, I’ll be seeing this again, at which point I’ll most likely bump that up to a 10/10.
Choose Film 9/10