"I've done a lot of lying in my time. I've lied to men who wear belts. I've lied to men who wear suspenders. But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt AND suspenders." -Chuck Tatum, ace reporter
You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger. And you don't hire Kirk Douglas for a role that requires subtlety. If you want scenery chewed and nails spit, Kirk is your man; he perfected "shock and awe" before anybody ever told tale of the legendary weapons of mass destruction. Fans may remember him best as Spartacus or perhaps Vincent van Gogh, but Kirk's finest hour by far was his turn as caustic newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum, the anti-Clark Kent.
Tatum knows newspapers backward and forward, up and down, inside and out. He can print ‘em, wrap ‘em and ship ‘em. If there's no news, he'll go out and bite a dog. Yet here he finds himself in Albuquerque, a $250 a week man ready to work for the bargain price of $50. He makes this magnanimous offer to Mr. Boot (Porter Hall), editor of the humble Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Boot isn't exactly impressed, but gives Tatum a chance to redeem himself after drinking and/or philandering his way out of every major city paper in America. In case you can't tell that Tatum is a fish out of water, the message is delivered with a zinger when Tatum delivers his fire and brimstone speech about making news happen while sitting beneath a homemade macramé sign in Boot's office that reads "Tell the Truth."
Tatum languishes in hicktown for six months, bored out of his skull but hardly humbled by his exile. Then the newspaper gods deliver him a miracle. On his way to cover a rattlesnake hunt, Tatum learns that a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a mineshaft in Old Indian Cliffs. As Johnny Law frets about how to get to Leo, a snarling Tatum grabs a flashlight and plunges into the darkness to locate the trapped man and assure himself exclusive rights to the biggest story to hit Albuquerque since the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe came to town. What follows is perhaps the most cynical, jaundiced film ever made about the American media and American culture.
The engineers fear it will take nearly a day to shore up the walls enough to rescue Leo. One lousy day? You can't construct a solid narrative arc in one lousy day. Tatum, with the town sheriff in his hop pocket, convinces them to drill from above even though it will take a week to get to the man. Leo's a tough old soldier; he can last. Tatum covers every angle of the tear-jerking tale, making sure that the public gets to know the grieving widow… er, I mean wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). Never mind the fact that Lorraine thinks so little of her poor endangered spouse that she tries to split town right away, she's gonna play the grieving wid… wife and she's gonna like it. Especially as the tourists flock to town and pay for hamburgers and souvenirs before they go to ride the hastily installed Ferris wheel.
Douglas leads with his chest thrust out and his bronze-plated chin dimple preceding him by a full stride, but he doesn't just alpha mail in his performance. Tatum's dial goes way past 11, but he knows how to turn on the charm when he needs to. In the film's most potent scenes, Tatum chats with Leo who is pinned under a mountain of rubble. He assures him that everything is going to be OK, that his wife loves him, and that everybody's rooting for him. Even Leo doesn't believe it, but he has nobody else to rely on; ace reporter Chuck Tatum is his only friend in the world, his pal Friday. Douglas' firebrand performance is textured enough to indicate that Tatum knows full well that he's betraying Leo's trust, and that he even feels profoundly guilty about it. Yet he does it anyway, making Tatum's ersatz redemption in the final act ring even more hollow.
The script, written by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, crackles with enough energy to keep up with its indefatigable star. There are great one-liners such as the time when Tatum urges the shy manners columnist at the paper to get involved with a trunk murder: "I could do wonders with your dismembered body." Not to mention the way Douglas spits acid every time he says the name "Mr. Boot." But the film is also full of myriad details that don't call attention to themselves, such as the way the price keeps rising on the sign that invites tourists to "visit Indian Cliffs" or the gawkers who compete with each other to prove that they were the first ones on the scene.
"Sunset Boulevard" was a bleak indictment of Hollywood and the pursuit of fame, but it looks positively Panglossian compared to the scorched Earth policy of "Ace in the Hole." Don't go looking for the American dream here, and you sure as hell better not hold out for a happy ending. Good news doesn't sell papers.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full screen aspect ratio. Like most recent Criterion full screen releases, the image is pictureboxed. The restored digital transfer is phenomenal, offering the kind of quality that only Criterion does at this point. Criterion really needs to put out a dud at some point so that we all stop taking their near-perfection for granted.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The two discs are housed in a single interlocking keep case. I'm not a fan of this configuration because you have to pull out the top disc to get at the bottom one, but I've made that complaint before and it's a fairly minor one.
The package comes fully loaded. Disc One features the digitally restored print accompanied by a commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard which I have not yet had a chance to listen to.
Disc Two offers the bulk of "Extras! Extras! Read all about it!" Best of the bunch is "Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man: Billy Wilder" (1980, 58 min.), a documentary directed by Annie Tresgot. The entire film is a conversation between Wilder and critic Michel Ciment, and showcases Wilder at his show-off best, brimming with colorful anecdotes and pungent one-liners.
"Billy Wilder at the American Film Institute" (24 min) presents excerpts from a 1986 interview by George Stevens Jr. conducted at AFI. The collection also includes interviews with Kirk Douglas (1984, 14 min.) and writer Walter Newman (an audio interview from 1970). Spike Lee also chips with a video afterword (5 min.)
The insert booklet, designed as a newspaper, offers an essay by critic Molly Haskell, and some delusional rambling from Guy Maddin (this is a good thing when Maddin is the one having the delusions.)
"Ace in the Hole" was a box office failure on its initial release, and failed once again when it was re-released as "The Big Carnival." This probably explains why it has been largely unavailable to home viewers until now. It does not detract from the accomplishments of the film which, for my money (and I know I'm not alone in this opinion), is Billy Wilder's best movie. As far as scathing condemnations of the American media go, "Ace in the Hole" has aged far better than the overwrought "Network" despite being a quarter century older.