Thursday, September 26, 2013
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) was once a high-flying big city reporter. After being fired from no less than eleven newspapers, for offences ranging from drunkenness to seducing the proprietor’s wife, he arrives in New Mexico penniless. He talks his way into a job with the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. For a man who was once a star reporter it’s a very humble job indeed but he figures that a story will come along soon enough that he will be able to exploit to propel himself back into the big time. He hates everything about New Mexico. Central Park in New York is as close as he ever wants to get to the great outdoors.
Chuck Tatum knows an opportunity when he sees one. He and a young photographer from the Sun-Bulletin, Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), just happen to be on the scene. Chuck takes charge immediately. He intends to be in total control of the situation. This could be a very big nation-wide story and Chuck is going to make sure that he is the reporter who gets the exclusive stories. Assuming that the rescue operation will take a week or so, that’s a week of front-page stories and Chuck will have every newspaper in the country begging for his services. To ensure that no other reporters can get inside access to the story he makes a sleazy deal with Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal).
Within a few days the scene has become a media circus and thousands of sight-seers have converged on Leo Minosa’s diner. The money is rolling in for Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) who intends to get as far away from New Mexico and Leo as she can, as soon as she’s made enough money to set her up. Chuck Tatum, the sheriff and Lorraine are all doing very nicely out of Leo’s predicament, but Chuck will find that events have a nasty way of getting out of control and the unexpected always happens at the worst possible moment.
I’ve never had much time for Kirk Douglas as an actor but this role suits him perfectly. His scenery-chewing histrionics are just what Wilder wants for this movie. Jan Sterling does well as Leo’s wife, a woman who is in her own way as cynical as Chuck Tatum. Lorraine is not a classic femme fatale and Sterling doesn’t play her that way but she has enough cynicism and enough desperation to make her a very noir character.
Ray Neal as Kretzer is the sort of sheriff that city people like Billy Wilder like to imagine all rural sheriffs are - corrupt, petty and vicious. He’s a mere two-dimensional stereotype but Neal does the job effectively. The various minor characters are all either corrupt or morally weak or stupid. Wilder doesn’t make any distinctions - he just hates everybody.
The Region 4 DVD is barebones but offers a very good transfer. The movie is in the correct 4:3 aspect ratio and the black-and-white picture is sharp with excellent contrast.
Ace in the Hole is too crude to be considered a great picture but it’s certainly entertaining in a spiteful sort of way. Recommended.