Please enjoy this look at a noir centered on one of the key "seven deadly sins" that all too often overtake the noir protagonist.
Despite its barren environment, the infertile ground of the blistering hot New Mexico desert proves to be more than amply fecund to grow a story that’s as sharp and cutting as the metaphorical scythe used to slash, reap and serve to the audience the gripping narrative crop--and the bounty harvested tastes as bitter as a spoonful of lye. The man wielding the aforementioned blade is writer, producer and director Billy Wilder, whose film Ace in the Hole is a dark juxtaposition in its themes of profaneness, immorality and inhumanity as the bright New Mexico sun under which the tale is set.
The first appearance of down and out newspaper reporter Charles “Chuck” Tatum (Kirk Douglas) comes as he sits in his convertible coup reading a newspaper while it’s being towed down an Albuquerque street by a wrecking truck. He hops out at the offices of the local newspaper the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin on a mission. From the way he hits the return key on a Sun-Bulletin employee’s typewriter so the bell will get their attention and other equally less than charming behaviors, Tatum exudes brash confidence and his arrogance is as distinct and noticeable as the cleft in Douglas’ chin.
He meets with the Sun-Bulletin’s editor and publisher Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall). Boot is a cautious man, as Tatum observes aloud that he wears suspenders and a belt, and Boot’s personal motto, “TELL THE TRUTH” is embroidered and framed both inside and outside his office. Tatum shows his clippings to Boot and pitches his services as a reporter to his newspaper for 50 dollars a week telling him he’s a 250 dollar a week reporter that worked in all the major big city markets, but left them for various reasons (affair with the publisher’s wife, libel suits, boozing it up on the job.) Tatum is a good reporter by his own immodest assessment, “I can handle big news, little news and if there’s no news I’ll go out and bite a dog.” Tatum however is no longer a hot shot reporter in New York or Chicago, as he presently finds himself in Albuquerque with, “a burnt out bearing, bad tires and a lousy reputation.” Boot succumbs and offers Tatum a job at the paper. Tatum sees it as a chance to get back in the offices of a big time city paper, if he can only get a juicy story that will have the big market newspapers clamoring for his services once again.
A year passes and the office walls of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin seem to be closing in on Chuck Tatum as he has yet to get the big story that will be his “loaf of bread with a file in it” ticket out Albuquerque. Boot sends Tatum and a young cub reporter Herbie to cover a rattlesnake hunt in a remote county, hours outside of Albuquerque. On the drive, Tatum lets Herbie know he is unimpressed with the story potential of the rattlesnake hunt. Herbie asks him why and Chuck tells him a real story would be 50 snakes on the loose in Albuquerque for days--slithering around in churches, schools and keeping the town in a panic. He imagines aloud to Herbie that one by one the authorities would hunt down all the snakes except for the last one they would be unable to find. The reason for number 50 eluding capture: Tatum would keep the final snake in his desk drawer to continue the story’s run for a few more days. Then when Tatum’s, “...good and ready we come out with a big extra, ‘Sun-Bulletin Snags Number 50.”
His speculation on such a morbid scenario such as this indicates to the viewer that this isn’t the first time Tatum has thought about ignoring journalistic ethics to benefit the sensationalism factor of a story and his own gain. Perhaps his earlier threat of biting a dog to manufacture a story wasn’t just a sharp quip. A journalist focusing on panic, disaster and misery is what Tatum tells Herbie to be paramount: “Bad news sells best, because good news is no news.”
On the way to the snake hunt competition Tatum and Herbie stop at a desolate old roadside trading-post to get gas. A police car’s siren signals there’s something brewing up at the desert mountain Navajo cliff dwelling near the road side trading-post. Tatum tells Herbie they should check it out as Tatum’s nose for news is still strong and accurate.
They discover that the adult son of the owner of the “Minosa Trading-Post” (where they stopped) is trapped alive in one of the caves in the mountain cliff dwellings due to the ceiling collapsing on him. At the mouth of the cave several people are already there including the deputy sheriff who refuses to go inside the cave to get the trapped man supplies and assess the situation. When the deputy asks the local Navajos standing by if they would go in, because of their familiarity of the caves, they decline as the “Mountain of the Seven Vultures” (as it’s known to the Navajos) is an ancient burial ground that has been disturbed by the white man and will curse anyone who now enters.
Chuck Tatum thinks the “Mountain of the Seven Vultures” name has a nice ring to it. Seizing the moment due to the Deputy Sheriff’s ineptness, Tatum’s aggression and arrogance is almost a positive quality for the first and only time in the film as he pushes the Deputy out of the way, takes his flashlight, some essential supplies for the trapped man and heads into the cave with Herbie in tow.
As the two reporters enter the cave, Chuck begins telling Herbie about the human interest factor of a good story featuring an individual in peril, as opposed to say one where you read about hundreds of men being killed. Tatum recounts the real life story (which the film’s plot is loosely based upon) of W. Floyd Collins being trapped in a Kentucky cave for a week in 1925. Disgusted that Herbie has vaguely heard of the Collins story, Tatum spits at him, “It was one of the biggest stories that ever broke, front page in every paper in the country for weeks...maybe you heard that a reporter on the Louisville paper crawled in the cave for the story and came out with a Pulitzer Prize.” After scolding the young reporter, Chuck tells Herbie to stay back a bit in the cave as he gets closer to the trapped man. The Floyd Collins talk serves as a territorial catalyst--Tatum wants this story all to himself. As Tatum ventures deeper inside, the dark and twisted labyrinth of the cave is a metaphor for the nebulous trappings now formulating inside his own mind. He thinks this may be his big break for getting out of Albuquerque, but Tatum’s hubris and greed will eventually cave in on him like the trapped man.
Tatum reaches the trapped subject Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) and provides him with some blankets and supplies while also snapping some pictures of him for the breaking story. Leo is an unlucky lug who ventured into the caves to swipe Indian artifacts for selling back at the trading-post when the cave collapsed in on him and pinned him there. As Leo explains that maybe there is something to the Navajo curse, Tatum is half listening to him and half formulating the lead of the story in his head. Chuck Tatum promises to get Leo out and ventures back outside, but not before a tiny cave-in potentially traps Tatum in there as well. It serves as a reminder to the audience: the danger inside the cave is omnipresent.
Meeting up with Herbie again, Tatum is champing at the bit about spinning the potential angles of the story, “Curse of the old Indian chief, white man half buried by old Indian spirits. What will they do? Will they spare him? Will they crush him?” But in his excitement, Chuck has to backtrack some to Herbie regarding their earlier snake in the desk drawer conversation. Herbie asks him how soon they can get Leo out and Tatum replies that all he needs is just one week of this story. Puzzled, Herbie asks him that he wouldn’t really wish for anything that unfortunate, to which Tatum replies, “I don’t wish for anything. I don’t make things happen, I just write about 'em.” But Chuck Tatum is already formulating how he can milk this story for everything its worth to ensure it will get him back to the journalistic big leagues. If that means keeping Leo Minosa trapped inside for longer than necessary, Tatum will indeed “make things happen” to ensure such.
Returning to the trading post, Tatum gets on the phone with Boot to start the ball rolling on the story and sends Herbie back to Albuquerque with the pictures of pinned Leo Minosa. Chuck Tatum has the story formulated in his head to make sure it’s as gripping as possible, but one bleach blonde obstacle stands in his way, Mrs. Leo “Lorraine” Minosa (Jan Sterling).
The next morning as Chuck Tatum bangs away on his typewriter in the trading-post, Lorraine Minosa is completely unaffected by the life threatening situation her husband is in. She is bitterly jaded and isn’t the only Minosa feeling trapped. Her personal quagmire is being married to Leo and stuck in the middle of nowhere New Mexico. Lorraine resents Leo as she feels she was misled by him when they first met in a saloon in Baltimore years back. Lorraine recounts to Tatum those five years ago in Charm City, Leo told her, “He had a 160 acres in New Mexico and a big business. Look at it, we sell eight hamburgers a week, a case of soda-pop and once in a while a Navajo rug, maybe.” Lorraine then grabs the measly eleven dollars in the cash register with the intention of boarding the Trailways bus that’s about to stop in front of the trading-post and will take her away.
She plans on leaving Leo, the Minosa Trading-Post and the integral worried wife angle of the trapped man for Tatum’s story behind and getting as far away as the 11 bucks will take her. Chuck knows he can’t let her leave for the story’s sake and tries to call her out on her planned heartless action made possible by Leo’s situation, “Nice kid...He can’t run after you lying there with those rocks on his legs.” Lorraine, who is on to Tatum’s true motives at Leo’s expense chimes back, “Look who’s talking. Much you care about Leo. I’m on to you. You’re working for a newspaper; all you want is something you can print. Honey, you like those rocks just as much as I do.”
As Lorraine steps out of the trading post in front of the Trailways bus stop sign, dramatic timing and opportunity drives up in the form of a vacationing couple and their sons hoping to take a look at the cave containing the trapped man they read about in the morning edition of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Tatum has followed her outside and tells the couple they can drive up to the mountain for a gander and get breakfast at the trading-post afterwards. They drive off to the mountain and Chuck tells Lorraine that the curiosity of this family is only the beginning.
“Get this: there’s three of us buried here, Leo, me and you. We all want to get out and we’re going to. Only I’m going back in style. You can too if you like, not with any 11 stinking dollars. You saw those people, a couple of squares, but to me they’re Mr. and Mrs. America…they’ll eat it up, the story and the hamburgers…there’s gonna be real dough in that cash register by tonight.” For her to leave now, Tatum tells Lorraine, when they bleached her hair they must have bleached her brains as well. The Trailways bus pulls up in front of the camera obscuring Lorraine facing it with her suitcase in hand. Momentarily keeping the audience in suspense as to her impending decision, the bus pulls away revealing Lorraine has turned her back to the camera and is walking back to the trading-post. Chuck and Lorraine have now become accomplices.
Tatum is correct in his prediction that the public’s morbid curiosity will turn Leo’s plight into a literal media circus with Tatum controlling the spin of the story and Lorraine helming the overflowing trading-post cash register. The crowds exponentially grow over the next few days and Lorraine even rents out carnival rides and ice-cream concession stands on the Minosa land for the public to enjoy and her to reap the monetary benefits in the midst of a life or death atmosphere that shouldn’t be anything other than somber.
Where the darkness of Chuck Tatum takes its most sinister turn is in his meeting with the corrupt county sheriff and the engineer in charge of getting Leo out. Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) is on board with exploiting Leo’s situation for political gain due to the upcoming county election as Tatum promises hero status PR in the paper for the Sheriff as long as he agrees to keep other reporters at bay, thus ensuring the story is Tatum’s exclusively.
The final obstacle to this cabal is the contractor/engineer telling both men that shoring up the walls of the cave to get Leo out would take 18 hours--too short a time for Tatum and Kretzer’s liking to get the maximum possible exploitation bang for their buck. The sheriff reminds the engineer that he was just a lowly truck driver a few years ago and thanks to the Sheriff’s help, if he wants to remain a successful contractor in the county, he should heed Chuck Tatum’s idea for getting Leo Minosa out: drilling a hole from the top of the mountain to extract the trapped man. The contractor warns them that this process will take a week before finally reaching Leo Minosa, but that’s just what Tatum and the Sheriff have in mind. Seven days is just enough time for the Sheriff’s favorable media coverage to cinch the upcoming election, Lorraine Minosa to make money hand over fist at the trading-post and Charles Tatum to perhaps get a Pulitzer, but at the very least a way back to a big city newspaper “in style.”
Once the top of the mountain drilling path operation is committed to, the engineer informs Tatum and the Sheriff days later that the shorter, original plan of rescuing him via shoring up the cave supports is impossible. The drilling has made the cave too unstable for the original plan to be executed later. As Leo’s health rapidly deteriorates in the cave, the question becomes will he survive in time for the purposely prolonged rescue Tatum engineers to succeed?
THW cast of Ace in the Hole is top notch all around. Jan Sterling is perfect as the cold hearted Lorraine Minosa who is the only character that comes close to matching up with Douglas's Tatum. She serves as an accomplice at first to Tatum, but eventually becomes something of a nemesis when she tries to deviate from the worried wife role Tatum needs her to play to keep the story palatable for the public. He tells her to go to a special mass arranged at the local church for her husband one evening, to which she replies with perhaps the films best line, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”
Tatum keeps her in line through violence and manipulating her sexual desire for him, exploiting everything he can to make sure his story doesn’t cave in and he ends up trapped in Albuquerque. The film belongs to Douglas all the way however, and his unyielding and scheming anti-protagonist Chuck Tatum is so convincingly thorough, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else pulling off the role as adroitly as Douglas did.
Even when Tatum scrambles for what appears to be redemption toward the end of the film, the motive is thoroughly blemished. He’s saving his own skin as it becomes apparent Leo Minosa will not survive in time for the rescue and Tatum’s orchestration will end in a crescendo of decimated reputations and criminal prosecutions when the real story comes out. Ironically in the end, Tatum can’t get his actual twisted story he masterminded behind the trapped man to be heard by the big city papers he so desperately wanted to be embraced by once again. Wilder brilliantly leaves it open-ended whether Tatum’s numerous schemes we witnessed will be brought to light, or if they will remain entombed in the darkness forever like Leo Minosa.
Visually Ace in the Hole could be one of Billy Wilder’s finest works. The way he and cinematographer Charles Lang Jr. (The Big Heat, Sudden Fear) film the growing mobs and carnival-like atmosphere outside the cave is strikingly eerie and majestic. The carnival set was massive and the 500 extras Wilder hired only grew as onlookers and people came from surrounding towns came to look for themselves at the filming, not unlike the story’s curious gawkers showing up to see what the gathering was all about.
Wilder makes especially clever choices in framing such as the close-up of Kirk Douglas’ fist grabbing the back of Jan Sterling’s hair during the only “kiss” in the film and the final haunting verbatim shot of Tatum ending up back in the offices of the Sun-Bulletin right where he started. Only this time (without spoiling it) he tells Boot he can have his services for nothing as that is all he has left.
The absolute caustic recklessness with which the characters in Ace in the Hole selfishly operate is nearly unmatched even compared to those in Wilder’s other films (Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity comes close). It is Wilder’s most cynical film with regard to his outlook on not only the dark nature of man and his selfishness, but the insatiable morbid curiosity of the public that often occludes moral consciousness. The film suffocates the audience with its bleak outlook on humanity just as Leo Minosa gasps the dirty air in the cave, while the growing mobs outside inappropriately revel and celebrate in close proximity to what will eventually become his tomb.
Wilder also does not spare the journalistic community from his barbs, as he sees their complicity in exploiting the misery of others as not unlike vultures such as Charles Tatum, circling the desert skies, waiting for a human life to become cadaver and carrion sustenance in the harsh and unrelenting desert plains. Ace in the Hole pulls no punches, candy coats nothing and leaves the kid gloves at home. Because of its brutality, it remains a potently damming and brilliant film nearly three-quarters of a century after its release.