Many films that I have seen from the Forties and Fifties share a fairly optimistic view of the world. That said, occasionally you come across a film like Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, Elia Kazan’s A Face In A Crowd, or Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. These films are about scoundrels and the people that they use up. They take on issues like the power of corruption and how the media can recklessly wield power over the helpless.
Hard-nosed big-city reporter Chuck Tatum arrives in Albuquerque on a broken down car towed by a truck. Arriving at the small newspaper he finds his way into a job by offering to save them two hundred dollars a week. How? He cut his two hundred and fifty dollar fee per week by two hundred bucks. His ambition is to make the paper notorious with a big story so that he can find his way back to the big cities he loved so much. Unfortunately for Tatum, after a year he is still employed in Albuquerque. When his boss sends him to cover a rattlesnake hunt in a small town named Escondido, Tatum and his young photographer associate, Herbie, stumble upon a story. A man named Leo has been trapped in a cave-in in a Native American cliff dwelling. When Tatum talks to Leo he catches on to a superstition that Leo was trapped because he was trying to take ancient pottery from the dwelling and the spirits of the Native Americans caused the cave-in. Sensing this could be a big story, Tatum begins to position himself to be the sole reporter on the scene, playing the sheriff, the contractor, and everybody else he comes in contact with towards his benefit. Meanwhile, Leo’s wife decides to forego leaving her husband in order to make as much money as possible off the media circus as visitors flock to the scene.
Ace in the Hole is a dark film. Kirk Douglas plays Tatum about unlikable as possible. Tatum is the type of opportunistic jerk that typically is left out of movies except for as a villain. Billy Wilder brilliantly makes the film about much more than the one villain by having Tatum appeal to the interests of the sheriff and others who also benefit from his reporting. As the film barrels toward tragedy, it is also darkly comedic as the spectators enjoy a literal carnival as Leo suffers near them in the cave. The juxtaposition is strangely funny while deadly serious.
Billy Wilder was an incredibly talented writer and director. The acting by Kirk Douglas is on par with some of his better work, while falling just short of my favorite of his performances in Paths of Glory. This film has aged beautifully with all of its themes still resonating today. Things change, but they also stay the same.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion have provided a brand new transfer from a well done 2K scan of the original print. This will not look quite as sharp as some of their newer prints they have been doing off of 4K masters, but the film looks great on Blu-Ray. One of the interesting aspects of the film is that it is a really dark tale that takes place almost exclusively in the sunlight of the New Mexican town. Clarity is solid and overall this is another good effort by Criterion.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Similar to the video, this English mono track is very high quality. There is nothing bad to report whatsoever in this department although dynamic range is limited as you would expect. Dialogue is incredibly clear and crisp and the score by Hugo Freidhofer fits the film like a glove. Fans of the film should be pleased.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man”: Billy Wilder – in this documentary film from 1980, directed by Annie Tresgot, Billy Wilder discusses everything from growing up in Austria prior to Hitler’s rise, to learning English and his career as a writer, to his amazing directorial career. The American director was interviewed by French critic Michel Ciment. This documentary was top-notch and fascinating. It also includes some great interviews with frequent collaborators Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. In English, not subtitled. (59 min, 1080p).
Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute – an archival interview with Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute in 1986. Similar to the documentary, Wilder discusses his career and life. This feature is absolutely fantastic. These two features gave me so much more admiration for the man. In English, not subtitled. (24 min, 1080i).
Kirk Douglas – in this archival interview from 1984, Kirk Douglas discusses his thoughts on acting and how much he respects Billy Wilder. (15 min, 1080i).
Walter Newman – a short but interesting interview with the co-writer of the film. In English, not subtitled. (11 min, 1080p).
Spike Lee Afterword – in this short but sweet video piece, director Spike Lee discusses his admiration for the film and how he used some of the shots in his own films. (6 min, 1080i).
Trailer – original theatrical trailer for Ace in the Hole. In English, not subtitled. (3 min, 1080p).
Booklet – illustrated booklet featuring essays by filmmaker Guy Maddin and critic Molly Haskell.
Audio Commentary – film scholar Neil Sinyard, coauthor of Journey Down Sunset Boulevard: The Films of Billy Wilder, discusses the film and Billy Wilder’s career. This is an extremely informative track and it initially appeared on Criterion’s DVD release of Ace in the Hole in 2007.
The Bottom Line
Ace in the Hole is a fantastic film and a good example of a film I would have never seen without Criterion’s attention to it. It fits in well with films like A Face In The Crowd and Sweet Smell of Success. Over time it has aged gracefully and will leave a solid impression today. Criterion have provided some of the best special features I have seen in the collection thus far. The technical aspects are also top notch. I highly recommend adding this film to your collection. It is one of the better offerings that Criterion have released.