Ace in the Hole is the most cynical film of Billy Wilder’s career, which is saying a lot since Wilder was never a filmmaker to want to play it safe. Even his most conventional films are at least slightly subversive, pushing the boundaries of what could be depicted on-screen at the time. Ace in the Hole was a box office bomb when it was released in 1951, but it is one of Wilder’s best. After the resounding success of Sunset Boulevard, Wilder split from Charles Brackett, his long-time writing partner, and struck out on his own. Despite cowriting the story with Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, this is Wilder’s show all the way, as he wrote, directed, and produced the picture. He takes the cynicism evident in Sunset Boulevard and multiplies it exponentially to tell the story of Chuck Tatum, a down on his luck newspaper reporter who has a knack for turning misfortune into personal gain.
Chuck is introduced doing just that; the viewer first meets him as his car is being towed into Albuquerque. Chuck sits, unperturbed, in his car as the tow truck brings him into town. Although the image is a comical one, it speaks volumes about Chuck’s personality. He orders the truck to stop in front of the newspaper office, turning the tow truck driver into his own personal chauffeur. Once inside, he manages to talk his way into a job, despite his contempt for the town and the editor’s motto to “tell the truth.” Chuck is biding his time until he finds a story that he can latch onto for a ride all the way back east.
His chance comes when he stumbles across a man who has been trapped by a cave-in in the small town of Escadero. He quickly takes charge of the scene and turns the misfortune of one man into a story that captivates the nation. Through his careful manipulation of the other players in this scene, he looks poised to make his triumphant return to New York.
Chuck Tatum is a true anti-hero. He is obviously self-destructive, self-loathing, manipulative, and craves attention. He doesn’t really have a redeeming quality, except that he’s entertaining to watch since he gets a lot of great Billy Wilder zingers. For instance when a fellow reporter asks him to share access to Leo by saying they’re all in the same boat, Tatum replies “I’m in the boat. You’re in the water. Now lets see if you can swim.” I’ve heard Billy saw Tatum as a bit of an alter ego, which is interesting because he essential becomes the screenwriter, director, and producer of the story he’s selling. He casts people into their “roles” and even gives them the words to say. The whole event really becomes a drama that Chuck created, and he stays in control of it, until things get out of hand in the end.
I know it could be argued that Chuck repents at the end, thus redeeming himself a bit, a point that is emphasized by the focus on Chuck’s face while the priest grants absolution to Leo. However, I was not convinced that he truly felt sorry for what he had done. He did not mean for a man to die, which upsets him, but at least partially upset because he isn’t going to get the ending he wanted to his story. Did he get the priest for Leo or as a way to absolve himself of his guilt without actually having to confess? Is it out of remorse that he gets himself fired or is it the self-destructiveness that has clearly marked his life? Until the moment he drops dead, he still seems to be looking for what would make the best story. He never lets his imminent death humble him, remaining cocky until the end. He tries to sell his confession to the editor in New York as a scoop on a huge story. It seems to me that since he realized that he wasn’t going to make it back reporting on a news story, he decided to become the big story and get recognition that way.
All of the performances are strong, such as Porter Hall (perhaps best remember for playing Dr. Sawyer in Miracle on 34th Street) as Jacob Boot, Tatum’s editor, but the most memorable character is definitely Lorainne, Leo’s wife, played by Jan Sterling. She’s a woman who’s desperate to escape life in sleepy Escadero. She sees Leo’s misfortune as her chance to escape, until Chuck convinces her she’ll benefit more by staying and playing the role that he has assigned her. She’s a bit of a femme fatale, in the sense that she’s a woman trying to break out of traditional gender roles; she’s a woman struggling to escape the dull, domestic life in which she has found herself. Although she lets Chuck tell her what to do, she never completely yields to him. When he tells he she has to go to the special rosary being held for her husband at the church, she replies, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” Of course she ultimately lets her “director” tell her what to do, but she never stops expressing her displeasure at it.
The relationship between them is very much a love/hate relationship. She’s attracted to him, even though he is often cruel to her, but she has a great deal of disdain for him at the same time. I think she’s more attracted to the fact that Chuck is full of ambition and a drive to get back east, something that he has in common with her and that sets him apart for her husband. Chuck, on the other hand, seems to have nothing but contempt for her, yet he paints her up at a saint in his articles for the sake of the story. He rejects her advances early in the story, but eventually sleeps with her out of what seems to be his own self loathing. Ultimately, she is Chuck’s undoing; while he chokes her with Leo’s anniversary gift, she grabs a pair of scissors and stabs him, which, of course, leads to his eventual death.
What is perhaps most interesting in all of this is that she does not get punished for what she has done. We last see her missing the bus out of Escadero, but their will be other buses, and there appear to be no repercussions for her actions. Unlike Chuck, who winds up dying for his role in the tragedy, Lorainne profits from it. The business made a lot of money off of Leo’s misfortune and as his widow, she’s probably pretty well off. Ultimately she seems to get what she wants in the end, unlike the true femme fatales from traditional noirs who always end up punished for their transgressions.
For that matter, everyone gets away with exploiting Leo. There really are no innocents in this film. The sheriff exploits the tragedy to get reelected (even agreeing to keep Leo trapped in the cave, which ultimately leads to his death) and seems to get away with it. Sure there’s a throwaway line by Chuck (when he knows he’s dying) who sarcastically says something about writing a piece to “get the sheriff reelected,” but it doesn’t really feel like the sheriff’s job is in jeopardy. The carnival, the trains, the person who wrote the song about Leo, everyone profits as much as they can and then move on when there are no more profits to be had. The tourists are not without ulterior motives as well. They mainly exploit Leo’s misfortune for their own entertainment (they are attending the S & M carnival, after all), but there is more. When being interviewed on the radio, the father of one of the first families to show up starts to promote his insurance business, hoping his fame as one of the first tourists on the site will boost his business. Even the Minosa’s, Leo’s parents, who seem to be the only people who actually care about Leo, consent to profiting off of their son’s misfortune.
Leo, however, is not a completely innocent victim in all of this. In his first meeting with Tatum, he is blinded by the idea of being famous. He smiles for the photo of him with his “treasure,” so thrilled with his newfound fame that he doesn’t even notice that Tatum hits him with the discharged flash bulb. He is also very concerned about his portrayal in Chuck’s story; he doesn’t want to appear too superstitious or weak. He has no problems being exploited by Chuck if it brings him some fame. Also, don’t forget that he ended up in the cave because he was exploiting the Native Americans. He becomes trapped while he was taking pottery from a burial site, essentially grave robbing. He also sells a lot of Native American memorabilia in his store (including feathered headdresses which were worn by plains indians, not indians who lived in the Southwest), so he is exploiting Native American culture for profit.
Therefore, although I’m not sure that Wilder meant to demonstrate this, Leo is not the only one being exploited. Chuck has evident disdain for the Native Americans. The first time he walks into the newspaper office in Albuquerque, he meets a Native American and greets him with a condescending “How” while the Native American greets him with “good afternoon, sir.” After a year has passed he still is condescending to the Native American. He has no problems, however, exploiting their culture for the sake of his story. He creates the phony “curse of the seven vultures” because it will help sell the story. As the crowds grow, the viewer sees more and more children wearing the headdresses and playing with other artifacts purchased from the Minosa’s, further showing how they were exploited.
Ultimately Wilder’s greatest trick is making the audience just as guilty as the characters in the film. Does the audience ever grieve for the death of Leo? I would argue that they don’t. His death occurs offscreen because the audience is not really invested in his fate. He is basically a plot device, as he was to Tatum. No one is safe from Billy Wilder’s critique of American values. Ace in the Hole is a film that remains relevant; it could have been made today, even though one of the events that inspired it was the story of Floyd Collins, a cave explorer who was trapped in Sand Cave in Kentucky for about 2 and a half weeks before eventually succumbing to exposure, thirst, and starvation. I guess people haven’t really changed that much, since it seems to capture the sensationalism that still occurs in the media and the people who capitalize off the misfortune of others. It was made before the term “media circus” was coined, yet Wilder creates a literal media circus by placing an actual circus amongst the crowd that has gathered outside the cave. Ultimately Ace in the Hole paints a pitch black portrait of American culture in which everyone is an opportunist, willing to exploit the misfortunes of others, whether it is for financial gain, fame, or just for entertainment.