Noel: Chronologically, Ace In The Hole falls between Sunset Blvd. and Stalag 17 in Billy Wilder’s filmography, but even though the other two films sport a thick streak of cynicism when it comes to what motivates people, Ace In The Hole is so bleak that I’m always surprised by how early it falls in Wilder’s career. It’s much closer in tone to some of Wilder’s corrosive 1960s comedies, like One, Two, Three, and Kiss Me, Stupid. We speak of “the Lubitsch touch,” which snuck sophistication and sexual frankness into movies during a less-permissive era. Well, “the Wilder touch” is evident in Ace In The Hole in moments like the one where Lorraine (Jan Sterling) says she doesn’t owe her trapped husband Leo any gratitude: “I thank him plenty… I’ve been thanking him for five years.” There’s an unmistakable bluntness to what she’s saying—“I traded sex for security, and now that transaction is done.” And what’s bracing about Ace In The Hole even today is that Wilder never softens that hard edge, even when Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum belatedly starts to regret what he’s done to poor Leo. The whole film is as harsh an assessment of humanity as anything Wilder ever made. In the movie’s own words, “Even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque.”
Nathan: This strikes me as less an unusually corrosive, bitter, dark comedy, and more the third of Wilder’s film noirs, following Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd., both of which had the benefit of being hilarious without taking the edge off the drama. The sexuality is bold, too. There’s always been a bit of the brute to Douglas’ persona—like pal and frequent costar Burt Lancaster, he seemed like someone who could beat people to death with his fists in a fit of anger—and in Ace In The Hole, Chuck’s relationship with Lorraine has more than a hint of sadomasochism, with the antihero as the sadist. Ace In The Hole is so unrelentingly cynical that I was surprised whenever anyone expressed anything other than cynicism, like the editor who seriously respects the needlepoint instructing his staff “Tell the truth.” In Wilder’s world, that makes him both the rare man with a conscience, and a bit of a sucker. What’s the point of playing clean when everyone else is playing dirty?
Genevieve: We’ll get more into the film’s cynicism shortly, but I think it’s also worth noting how acerbically funny Ace In The Hole can be, which is another Wilder signature. Noel, you say you’re surprised to see such bleakness this early in Wilder’s career, which I can’t really refute, given the holes in my Wilder knowledge. But through that bleakness, I see a lot of the snappy, biting dialogue I associate with films like The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Chuck Tatum is a cad, but he’s a funny cad, and he’s just a few tweaks away from being a romantic hero here. (His introduction, riding up to the Albuquerque Sun offices in a car that’s being towed, could easily be an image from a romantic comedy.)
Wilder is a writer’s director—and a director’s writer, for that matter—which means dialogue is paramount in his films, and Ace In The Hole is chockablock with perfectly constructed little interactions, particularly those between Chuck and Lorraine, or telling details, like the way admission to the cliff dwelling keeps increasing, from 25 cents to 50 cents to a dollar, as the public’s interest in Leo’s predicament increases. And while Wilder’s visuals usually take a backseat to his words, there is some great visual flair deployed in service of the story, particularly in how he films the sequences inside the cave, with Chuck hovering in a circle of light over the trapped Leo, an ambiguous little angel/devil on his shoulder.
Scott: I rarely think about Wilder having a distinct visual signature, but that doesn’t mean he relies on words alone to bring his stories across. Consider Barbara Stanwyck descending from the Freudian staircase in Double Indemnity or the layout of Jack Lemmon’s office in The Apartment. With Ace In The Hole, Wilder creates this site as a festering ecosystem of hucksters and rubberneckers, one that keeps expanding and growing more grotesque. He holds off until late the film to give us a bird’s-eye view from the top of the mountain, and it’s only then that we can see the full picture. It’s a visual strategy that pays off—atop some of the most cutting dialogue ever written.
Tasha: What strikes me most about Ace In The Hole compared to other Wilder movies is the sheer machismo of Douglas’ character. Run down a list of Wilder’s major films, and you’ll see a bunch of stories that are either primarily about women, or about weak, easily led, confused, or struggling men. His dramatic protagonists are often beaten down by life, or manipulated by a woman with an agenda, or just tempted beyond their moral boundaries by the promise of some gain. His comic protagonists are often baffled and hapless and trying to keep up. But Chuck walks into a room and takes control of it. He wants a job at an Albuquerque paper, and makes the case like he’s doing the paper a favor by deigning to work there. He lays his life philosophy on wide-eyed cub reporter/photographer Herbie (Bob Arthur) like he’s dispensing wisdom from the gods. He smacks Lorraine around when she displeases him, and he takes her to bed just as roughly. Chuck is an anomaly in Wilder’s filmography, with just a few exceptions I can think of—the men of Stalag 17, for instance, and smug, confident Dean Martin in Kiss Me, Stupid. I suspect that’s why he needs to be laid so low at the end: Because he started from a much cockier, more confident, more self-assured place than Wilder’s usual batch of saps and sinners.
Genevieve: Early on in Ace In The Hole, as Chuck and Herbie are driving to Escadero, Chuck asks the green photojournalist how long he attended journalism school, an endeavor Chuck waves off as “three years down the drain.” Chuck sold papers before he ever wrote for them, so he knows what makes a good story: “Bad news sells best.” This schism between the idealistic view of journalism as a noble profession vs. the cynical view of it as a down-and-dirty capitalist trade still exists today—or at least it did eight years ago, when I was in journalism school and hearing similar arguments that it wasn’t necessary—but Ace In The Hole presents Chuck’s viewpoint as both successful and inherently flawed. It’s hard to see Ace In The Hole’s presentation of Chuck’s tactics as anything but a scathing indictment of “story-first, facts-later” journalism, but they also undeniably work—they’re called “human-interest stories” for a reason, and Chuck’s approach sells papers as surely as it rots his soul… and eventually Herbie’s as well. Over the course of Ace In The Hole, Herbie slides down the spectrum of journalistic integrity, from the high-minded ideals of Boot and his “Tell the truth” needlepoint into the mud of Chuck’s cynicism.
Scott: As I argued in yesterday’s Keynote, the film is known for its caustic view of journalism, which can feast off news for days even if there isn’t much there, or can even engineer its own stories by creating a media sideshow. But it’s really more cynical about the yokels who eat this stuff up and come back for seconds. Genevieve lays it out well here: Chuck and Boot are at opposite ends of the journalistic spectrum—one the ink-in-his-veins sensationalist who knows how to burn up the wires, the other a publisher who wants to do things the right way, even if it relegates his paper to national irrelevancy. Herbie oscillates between these two influences, and it seems to be Wilder’s view that he (and perhaps his generation) will ultimately lose themselves to the Chucks of the world, because at least they’re going places.
Noel: I don’t know how deep we want to cut into the “same as it ever was” vein, but I do think Ace In The Hole nails two pervasive problems, both with journalism and with the public. Scott, you’re right to point a finger at the gathering crowd, who in the movie keeps trying to edge into the spotlight, as though the cameras and microphones matter more than the guy buried underground. (“I was stuck in an elevator once,” one woman tells the reporters, confident that she’s said something relevant.) But I don’t want to let Chuck off the hook—or Herbie by proxy. Chuck has the instincts of a great storyteller, but while he’s teaching Herbie how to control a story and how to give the public what they want, he’s revealing an ugly streak of arrogance that I still see in cable-news anchors, analysts, and reporters in particular. Chuck’s style of journalism is all about finding stories that back up the conventional wisdom. There’s no curiosity there, and no interest in uncovering anything enlightening or alarming, because to learn something new would be to admit that he doesn’t already know everything.
Tasha: Instead, we have a short-lived but vicious competition. The film is brutally cynical about about Chuck’s ambition, as laid out in his rattlesnake fantasy, which reveals how unimportant people’s lives are to him, compared to a good, milkable story about an escaped, potentially lethal snake. But when he gets among his own people, the other reporters jockeying for the story, they’re no better than he is. There’s so much spite between them. Their attempt to convince Chuck that he should help them get the story, because they’re all in the same boat, is a transparent, self-serving attempt at manipulation, and he throws it back in their face with one of the film’s best, most merciless lines: “I’m in the boat. You’re in the water. Let’s see you swim.” When Leo’s story ends, the press corps is just as merciless about needling Chuck in return. And when he confesses to them that he manipulated events and killed Leo, they can’t see an actual news story when it’s right in front of their eyes. We argued a bit about whether the press in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is corrupt beyond saving, but there isn’t a similar argument to be made here. One flaw in the film for me has always been the idea that Chuck really thinks his blackmail scheme will work. That would imply that anyone in Wilder’s version of the newspaper field would honor a deal, rather than cutting Chuck loose the absolute second he stopped being useful to them.
Tasha: Ace In The Hole has one of the all-time great character introductions: Chuck walks into an Albuquerque newspaper office and explains who he is first by trying to hustle Herbie (who looks maybe 14 in that scene) into letting Chuck in to see the boss, then by trying to hustle the boss (Porter Hall as Jacob Q. Boot) for a job. Chuck’s little speeches in that first meeting declare his nature and his intentions, and make him sound exactly like a noir gumshoe: He’s on the bottom because of his own weaknesses for booze, women, and lies, and he knows it, but he’s determined to claw his way back up. And he’s a dyed-in-the-wool cynic whose morals have been compromised by failure. “I can handle big news and little news,” he tells Boot, “and if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog!” But what makes Ace In The Hole compelling—what gives it just a little cynical-screwball edge—is the banter between him and his would-be marks, who are equally unimpressed with his fast-talk, his bitter self-aggrandizing, and his open admission of sullen ambition. When he offers his services at a $200-a-week discount, the paper’s owner just says dryly, “Why are you so good to me?” When Chuck denigrates the paper he’s trying to work for, Boot casually hands him back the nickel he theoretically paid for a copy. When Chuck reveals his penury and the degree to which his car is falling apart, tires and all, Boot just says “Bad tires can be dangerous.” It’s a lovely bit of economical storytelling and characterization, with two men establishing up front, entirely via funny, fencing dialogue, who they are and what their relationship will be like. They’re both hard-bitten wisenheimers, though very different ones. Does any of the dialogue in the film particularly stand out for you guys?
Genevieve: Chuck makes one ironic statement after another throughout Ace In The Hole—see, “I don’t make things happen, all I do is write about them”—but I’m more taken with Lorraine’s forthright assessments of his true nature. Perhaps the only character more cynical than Chuck, Lorraine not only sees through his charade immediately—“Yesterday you didn’t even know Leo. Today you can’t know enough about him. Aren’t you sweet?”—she willingly, even happily, abets his crimes against journalism, telling Chuck, “You’ll just have to re-write me” when he objects to her trying to leave town. Lorraine’s blunt disregard for her husband’s predicament is born of her extreme dislike for the hick-town lifestyle Leo sort-of conned her into adopting when she married him, but narratively, it serves as an even more extreme counterpoint to Chuck’s cynicism, one without even a hint of moral justification. Chuck grounds his behavior in a misguided, self-serving belief in “giving people what they want”; Lorraine is just looking out for number one, and she makes no bones about it. Ultimately, Chuck can’t handle having his own lack of decency magnified and reflected back at him, and he lashes out at her, a monster he’s helped create.
Noel: One line that stands out to me is when Chuck suggests that Lorraine needs to go to church to keep up appearances, and she answers, “Kneeling bags my nylons.” That’s a classic femme-fatale kind of line, not unlike something Barbara Stanwyck would’ve said in Wilder’s Double Indemnity. It’s so callous, but also so honest. Lorraine has her own ideas of what “keeping up appearances” means, and acting all churchy ain’t part of it.
Tasha: And yet she isn’t a classic femme fatale, because she isn’t trying to get anything out of Chuck; she just wants to escape, and he annoys her because he’s in the way. Ace In The Hole looks and feels like a noir in the characters’ attitudes and snappy chatter, but it doesn’t follow the conventions, which is one reason it feels so unique. I love Chuck and Lorraine’s exchange, when she realizes exactly how unsentimental he is: “I met a lotta hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you? You’re 20 minutes.” “Is that a boost or a knock?” he shoots back. “’Cause I haven’t time to figure it out.” This is classic moll-and-gumshoe banter, coming from people who don’t fit those roles.
Nathan: In the poisonously cynical world of Ace In The Hole, there may be no uglier, more toxic, more ironic word than “friend.” and there may be no more heartbreaking moment in the film than when Chuck tells Leo that they’re friends, and that Chuck will look out for him. He knows damn well that the illusion of friendship is just an ugly lie designed to manipulate a poor sap. At least the vulture-ish yellow journalists who call Chuck their pal are openly sarcastic when they use the term; poor Leo seems to actually believe that Chuck is his friend, when he isn’t really anyone’s, least of all his own.
Nathan: I suspect a lot of people of my generation know Ace In The Hole indirectly as the inspiration for “Radio Bart,” a third-season episode of The Simpsons. The plot for the episode deviates widely from that of Ace In The Hole, but both concentrate on how the story of a suffering soul trapped underground—in the case of “Radio Bart,” the subterranean sufferer in question is Bart Simpson—ignites a literal media circus and brings out the worst in humanity, but particularly in the press. “Radio Bart” nails the acid-tongued cynicism of Wilder’s film; Ace In The Hole’s ditty “We’re Coming, Leo” becomes, “We’re Sending Our Love Down The Well” in The Simpsons, a song with more than a soupçon of “We Are The World” thrown in for good measure. What makes The Simpsons’ homage unusual is that the film was a financial flop at the time of its release, and wasn’t widely available on home video for decades. So the show was referencing something fairly obscure, a film that presumably most of its audience didn’t know much about. But the film’s legacy goes beyond that, and can be felt in many journalistic satires to come; what do you all see as Ace In The Hole’s legacy, beyond getting animated Sting to strip shirtless to save Timmy from that infernal well?
Tasha: Well, I watched it the same day I watched Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Jersey Boys, which features a short clip from Ace In The Hole—when Lorraine challenges Chuck to make her stop smiling at him, and he slaps her. The members of the Four Seasons are sitting in a hotel watching the scene on TV, and clearly anticipating the moment, which makes them whoop in what seems like a combination of shock and glee. Someone says “I bet she cries,” and producer Bob Crewe humphs, “Nah, big girls don’t cry.” Songwriter Bob Gaudio comically whips around to look at him. Smash cut to the Four Seasons performing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” onstage. That’s a tiny little legacy, but it was surprising and kind of delightful to see a brand-new movie thinking about Ace In The Hole at the same time we are.
Noel: I tend to think of Ace In The Hole as part of the “newspaper comedy” tradition, in line with His Girl Friday, Nothing Sacred, and all the 1930s films that take it as a given that journalists are cynical and sleazy. The newspaper comedy has pretty much died off, I fear. Most often, post-Watergate, it seems that the only journalists who get to be the lead characters in movies are the crusading type. That’s a shame too, because we could use an Ace In The Hole about CNN anchors who spend hours speculating about missing planes, or Fox hosts spinning every presidential gaffe into an impeachable offense.
Scott: Ace In The Hole is one of those movies, like A Face In The Crowd or Network, that has became a common modern shorthand for describing a certain type of media phenomenon. The way Chuck orchestrates and/or massages his story is something we see often as the news-hole grows wider on cable (where you have to find new angles on stories, even frivolous ones, 24/7) and former print outlets in the digital age (where news is by-the-minute, instead of daily). The more relentless and exploitative the coverage, the more it recalls Ace In The Hole.
Scott: Ace In The Hole is a favorite among journalists and media watchers for its continued relevance. Did any real-life corollaries pop into your mind while you were watching it? I couldn’t help but think about CNN’s coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which was so relentless, extensive, and frequently content-free that Joe Cableviewer had to realize it was a case of a network seizing on a ratings-friendly story. I also thought about the fifth season of The Wire, which takes place at the Baltimore Sun, where a reporter invents a serial killer to bring attention to his byline. Creator David Simon, once a Sun reporter himself, has heavily criticized newspaper higher-ups for throwing resources at stories that might earn it the prestige of a Pulitzer Prize, while creating gaps in the coverage they’re supposed to provide. Ace In The Hole was inspired in part by a case from 1925 where a reporter named William Burke Miller followed the (failed) attempt to rescue a man trapped by a landslide. Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.
Nathan: Just this morning on the way to work I read a story about a “Mommy blogger” accused of poisoning her 5-year-old son to drive up traffic for her blog. It was, as you might imagine, sickening, and it points to the horrifying extremes people will go to for the sake of attracting eyeballs to their stories, even to the point of homicide or, in the case of Chuck, something more approaching manslaughter. Sure enough, I was disgusted, but I clicked on the story anyway, and I’m sure plenty of others did as well. And I’m sure this horrifying tale of the depths of human depravity will generate lots of pageviews. (It seems woefully anachronistic to say it might sell a lot of papers as well.) So the tragic, Billy Wilder-worthy irony is that by doing the worst thing any mother can do her child, the accused killer is bound to get more attention than she could have possibly imagined.
Noel: There are a number of interesting race/ethnicity angles in Ace In The Hole that we haven’t touched on much yet: some minor, like how Chuck is outraged at having to eat chicken tacos instead of chicken livers, and some more major, like the way Chuck’s perpetuation of a bogus “Indian curse” story leads to a thriving trade in headdresses, blankets, and beads in the tourist camp. A big part of Chuck’s arrogance (not unlike some journalists today) is that he presumes that anything not New York is Hicksville, and not worth trying to understand or appreciate. Exploiting, though? That he can do.
Tasha: A couple of random closing thoughts: I noticed that when the carnival rolls into town to take advantage of the crowds gathering to gawk at the cave where Leo is dying, the name on the trucks is “The Great S&M Amusement Corp.” I’ve been trying to find out whether S&M meant back then what it does today; sadomasochism has been around as a term for much, much longer, and I’m pretty sure the abbreviation dates back earlier than Wilder’s day, though it’s unclear how widely traveled it would have been, and whether general audiences would have gotten the cynical implication that the fun and games the carnival is bringing to town are of a particularly cruel and edgy nature. That aside… we never do get a payoff for the sheriff’s rattlesnake in a box, do we? It’s clearly meant as a parallel to Leo—captive, upset, misunderstood (by someone trying to feed it cheese and gum!), and being exploited by someone who thinks it’s funny—but it’s also a bit of a reference to Chuck’s story about his ideal version of the rattlesnake hunt, where he’s got one concealed for his own manipulative purposes. No matter how often I watch this movie, I always expect to learn at some point that the poor, tormented beast has starved to death, as a bit of foreshadowing for where Leo’s story is going. This film is just that cruel.
Scott Tobias led off our conversation on Ace In The Hole with his Keynote looking at Wilder’s thoughts on his big flop amid an energetic winning streak. And tomorrow, Matthew Dessem wraps with a look at Wilder’s screenwriting partner, Charles Brackett.