The status of Ace in the Hole as Billy Wilder’s follow-up to Sunset Boulevard is evident in the opening shot of Kirk Douglas riding on a car as it is being towed. Here is a man reveling sardonically in the joys of misfortune and humiliation much like William Holden was in the beginning of Sunset Boulevard and Jack Lemmon would (with a gentler tongue) in The Apartment. Wilder’s characters are glum but it’s from their very glumness that they extract optimism and not by the forced way of making the most of a bad situation. Before the full extent of his nature is revealed, we have to love Chuck Tatum’s (Douglas) cynical slickness. Who can resist the cool bit in which he lights a match with a typewriter? Douglas’s Chuck Tatum is the classical Wilder man.
More than a follow-up to Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole feels like a forerunner to The Apartment. Tatum arrives at an office that, like the one in The Apartment, is susceptible to corruption. This time, it’s a newspaper office and corruption comes in the form of Chuck Tatum. His intentions seem modest enough at first. After bad conduct cost him his job at news firms back East, he has traveled to this small New Mexico town to work as a reporter. He seems like the conventional rowdy city boy that moves to a desert town when he starts complaining about the lack of noise and excitement. However, this trope later adds to our understanding of the character and his motivations. His quote, “Bad news sells best. Good news is no news,” spells out his motive a little too clearly, though.
In some ways, Ace in the Hole is a victim of its own notoriety. After a copyright mayhem kept it unavailable for some time, Ace in the Hole became a much discussed forbidden fruit. Unfortunately, even this minimal foreknowledge of the premise will make the initial mysteries easy to resolve.
But the movie still works. Kirk Douglas gives arguably his chilliest performance as Chuck Tatum, a news hustler savvy about what sells in the newspaper industry. The most fascinating thing about him is his insightful dialogue. This is a man who knows how to use his experience for personal gain. When he happens on an unfortunate incident (a man is trapped inside a cave when the stone roof collapsed) he seizes the chance for a sensational story.
What surprises when we first meet Leo (Richard Benedict), the trapped treasure-hunter, is that he is not too different from Chuck Tatum. He went into the cave too deep to search for buried Navajo artifacts. Even as he awaits rescue, he implies that his misfortune was worth it because of a valuable vase he unearthed. Tellingly, he’s not offended, but rather proud when Tatum snaps a picture of him for the paper. Of course, Leo can’t guess Tatum’s real intent, which is to play up the angle as, in his words, “King Tut in New Mexico”, blaming Leo’s accident on a curse sent by an old Navajo chief angered by a white man trying to steal his treasure.
In general, Billy Wilder had a fascination with the corruptibility of working-men from an insurance salesman, to a Hollywood writer, and finally to a journalist. But Chuck Tatum is distinct from other Wilder creations in that he is a willful opportunist. Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is on to him, but she too is happy about her husband’s predicament. In her own way she is even nastier than Tatum and uses the situation to attract visitors that come to gawk at the rescue effort to eat at her roadside diner. In fact, she is indirectly responsible for Leo’s accident, as he went treasure-hunting in an attempt to create a better life for her, since the spoiled shrew is resentful of his meager means. It’s significant that Tatum reflects on his own conscience only when he judges it against her morality.
Soon the sheriff (Ray Teal), Tatum’s young photographer (Robert Arthur), and the local tourists fall under the spell of opportunism. Tatum and the people he pulls strings on degrade from vultures to downright evil. Tatum manipulates both the sheriff (who will do anything to be reelected) and the local rescue-workers to delay the rescue-effort so that he can milk the story. But as always in Wilder’s vision, there are honest people. In The Apartment it was Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter, in Ace in the Hole its Leo’s father who is naïve enough to believe that Tatum is primarily interested in saving his son.
On another level, Ace in the Hole is a polemic on different aspects of American culture. The cult of celebrity is examined through the town’s admiration and blind acceptance of Chuck Tatum as an authority. Wilder also attacks the exploitation of tragedies for commercial use when the locals build a fairground on the rescue site.
Now how are we to feel about Leo? His naïve referral to Chuck as his best friend and dreams of winning back the affection of his superficial wife are manipulative but effective nonetheless. Separating him from the rest of the local vultures, he is an allegorical flawed saint. His greed got him into trouble but he is a good man while Tatum is just cruel.
An interesting secondary character is Tatum’s editor Boot (Porter Hall). His penultimate appearance indicates that he is intended as a Christ-like figure. He is the sole incorruptible force in the movie and the only person who can see the evil in what Tatum is doing. His office wall has a frame with the words “Tell the Truth” written like a commandment on a tablet and just when Tatum has sunk to his lowest, Boot comes to him like a holy apparition. He brings the voice of compassion and humility on this visit. Fittingly, there is a crucifix on the wall behind him. In the end, Tatum’s demise is strikingly similar to that of Walter Neff in Wilder’s Double Indemnity as they both are Biblical in nature. A repentant sinner drops his wounded body in the arms of a forgiving savior. In Double Indemnity it was Neff’s boss played by Edward G. Robinson. In Ace in the Hole it is the one figure that has remained pure throughout.
Perhaps, Ace in the Hole is not quite a great film because it pushes its moral too hard and (although it was inspired by two true stories) exaggerates both its characters and the effect they have on society. But while certainly not Wilder’s best work, Ace in the Hole is an excellent and brilliantly conceived mantel for Wilder’s most powerful motif, a soul poisoned with corruption finding their last shred of humanity when it’s too late.