Evil Under the Sun: Ace in the Hole
Was there ever a filmmaker more cynical than Billy Wilder? These days, P.T. Anderson makes a hearty effort, as do the Coen brothers; Ingmar Bergman was never exactly a bubbling optimist, and John Huston sets the bar pretty high. Still, for acerbic wisecracks and feculent morals, for ignoble heroes and homicidal heroines, for dangerous liaisons and their dispiriting ends, no one does it better than Wilder. Who else would find it tasteful (let alone amusing) to have his protagonist, midway through hanging himself from a bathroom fixture, pause to take a leak? “[He has] a brain full of razor blades and a heart full of chutzpah” (Sikov 501) – such was William Holden’s assessment of the director, and Wilder must have taken it as a compliment, for he used the line in one of his films, The Fortune Cookie (1966), to describe a character of captivating immorality. He had an acid tongue and an even more acidulous pen, honing his screenwriting skills in the Hollywood of the nineteen-thirties, when wits were as quick and sharp as rapiers, before slipping, a decade later, into the director’s chair, where for nearly forty years he treated us to his own inimitable brand of mirth. He had his fair share of misfires, of course – it might have been best to reconsidered Bing Crosby yodeling in lederhosen for The Emperor Waltz (1948) – but his best titles read like an AFI greatest hits list. If you like your film noir dry with a splash of affectionless lust, there’s Double Indemnity (1944); if you prefer it more aged and tart, then there’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). For gritty war drama, try Stalag 17 (1953), for taut courtroom suspense Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and for natty gangsters, cross-dressing musicians, and foul-mouthed quips, what else but Some Like It Hot (1959)?
Lesser known, but no less impressive, is a little film Wilder directed in 1951 called Ace in the Hole. The movie stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a big city reporter down on his luck and stuck in the sticks after being fired from every major newspaper in the country. He ambles into Albuquerque, broke in a broken car, and shows up at the local newspaper office to offers his services: “I’m a $250 a week newspaperman. I can be had for fifty. I know newspapers backward, forward, and sideways. I can write ‘em, edit ‘em, wrap ‘em, and sell ‘em. I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.” A year later, though, he’s still stuck in Albuquerque (a “sun-baked Siberia” he calls it), itching to escape. His chance comes one day when he’s sent to cover a rattlesnake hunt. Stopping at a filling station along the way, he finds the owner, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped in a nearby silver mine. Tatum goes in to investigate and comes out with a devious scheme: he’ll keep the poor man buried in the mineshaft as long as possible, cook up a media storm, and then milk the story for all its worth. After cutting a deal with a corrupt local sheriff and bullying anyone else who gets in his way, Tatum watches his plan proceed accordingly until, torn apart by his own rapaciousness, he is toppled from his lofty perch. It is a story of greed, contempt, and the innate human fascination with the suffering of others. It is also a double-barreled lesson in hubris: of a newspaperman who thought if he killed a man in a cave the public would love it, and of a movie director who thought the same thing. The first was right, the second was wrong.
In 1951, Wilder was on the top of his game. His latest film, Sunset Boulevard, had just been nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning three, including one for Wilder, for Best Screenplay. Yet Sunset Boulevard was only the latest in a string of hits, eight in all, that had begun nearly ten years earlier with The Major and the Minor (1942), Wilder’s first directorial effort in America. He was one of the highest paid and most sought-after directors in Hollywood. But Wilder, like Tatum, had a penchant for making enemies. Abrasive by nature, with a genius for the indelible insult – he was the one who coined the quip that Marilyn Monroe had a chest like granite and a brain like Swiss cheese – he had a talent for obloquy that left many battered and bruised. Ernest Lehman suffered a nervous breakdown while working with him on Sabrina (1954), and Humphrey Bogart, usually the consummate professional, was driven to near apoplexy by the stubborn director, calling him a “Kraut bastard Nazi son of a bitch” and a “Prussian German”(Sikov 354). This was tactless, if understandable, on Bogie’s part, for Wilder was actually a Polish Jew. He was born in 1906, not far from Krakow, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (His surname, pronounced properly, begins with a V and rhymes with builder.) He grew up in Krakow and Vienna where, after graduating from high school, his poor grades and lack of job prospects led him, naturally enough, to become a newspaper reporter. He started out writing crossword puzzles for a local tabloid, then moved on to sports, celebrity interviews, and crime coverage. After sharpening his teeth in Vienna, he moved to Berlin where, with seemingly no more ado than a change of costume, he transitioned from journalism to screenwriting. He began as a ghostwriter of low-budget B-pictures before attaching his name to his own original screenplay. It was titled, none-too-surprisingly, The Daredevil Reporter.
It didn’t take long for Wilder to rise. By 1933, he had carved himself a comfortable niche within the Berlin film community. He had an ample salary, a coterie of prominent friends – including Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Marlene Dietrich, and Peter Lorre – and a stylish apartment on the Sachsischestrasse, furnished with his favorite pieces by Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Klee, and Le Corbusier. When Hitler came to power, however, Wilder fled, departing Germany with a single suitcase and a thousand dollars tucked in his hatband. He landed first in Paris and then, with the help of a friend, made his way to Los Angeles, where Columbia Pictures signed him at $150 a week, little realizing that the only English he knew was what he’d learned from American jazz records.
Somehow, despite this impediment, Wilder was able to rebuild his career in Hollywood. He owed his success to talent, good timing, luck, and one of the most fortuitous partnerships in the history of cinema: his teaming with Charles Brackett. The son of a New York state senator, Brackett was everything Wilder was not: Republican, Harvard-educated, a member of the East Coast literati – he published four novels and reviewed theatre for The New Yorker before turning to screenwriting in the early thirties – not to mention soft-spoken, polite, and refined. Yet, amazingly, they clicked, perhaps because they were so diametrically opposed. Brackett took the hard edge off Wilder’s cynicism, while Wilder added a much-needed dose of vinegar to Brackett’s placid gentility. The duo soon became one of the most sought-after writing teams in Hollywood, right up there with Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, delivering scripts for Midnight (Mitchell Leisen, 1939), Arise, My Love (Mitchell Leisen, 1940), and Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941). Their success propelled Wilder into the director’s chair, where, with Brackett at his side, he delivered an opening salvo of successes rarely matched in movie history: The Major and the Minor, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend (1945), The Emperor Waltz, Sunset Boulevard. To be fair, only two of these are bona fide classics. The Lost Weekend was, in its own day, praised for its grittiness, but to the modern eye, more attuned to the true ravages of alcoholism, it has a tendency to seem rather preachy and melodramatic. The Emperor Waltz, meanwhile, is icky-sticky with schmaltz (even Wilder complained, “Everything looked like it was in an ice cream parlor” [Sikov 268].), while The Major and the Minor, with Ginger Rogers posing as a twelve-year-old girl to seduce Ray Milland, is in its own faux-innocent way more disturbing than any adaptation of Lolita could ever be. On the other hand, when you’ve done something as grimly stylish as Double Indemnity or as mordantly beautiful as Sunset Boulevard, why ask for anything else? There are lines from the latter picture – William Holden’s, for instance, about Mabel Normand and John Gilbert ten thousand midnights ago – that are more eloquent than some entire films.
By 1951, however, Brackett and Wilder were going in separate directions. (Brackett would go on to have a very successful career on his own, both writing and producing pictures until his death in 1969 [Katz 164].) Ace in the Hole was Wilder’s first film after his breakup with his writing partner, and his first since the smashing success of Sunset Boulevard. He was given unprecedented control over the project. He wrote, produced, and directed it himself. It was, in the words of his biographer Ed Sikov, “his most personal movie to date”(Sikov vii). And it bombed. On a budget of $1.8 million, it ended its run over half a million dollars in the red. The critics were hardly more generous. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dubbed it a “dramatic grotesque” (Crowther), which sounds comparatively mild, generous even, beside the review in the Hollywood Reporter: “Ace in the Hole is a distorted study of corruption and mob psychology that, in this reviewer’s opinion, is nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions – democratic government and the free press”(Sikov 326). Chastened, Wilder retreated to safer ground; his next three films would all be based on established Broadway hits. Yet the experience left a scar on his psyche that never fully healed. “Fuck them all,” he snarled, years later. “It is the best picture I ever made” (Sikov 327).
He may be right. From the opening shot of the film (Tatum kicking back in his convertible, casually flipping through the newspaper, as his car is towed into town) we are treated to a world of beguiling contradictions, a world where good and evil exist cheek by jowl, and film noir gets played out beneath the blazing New Mexico sun. Before Ace in the Hole, filmmakers preferred to cloak crime beneath urban shadows, thereby reinforcing the age-old belief, still widely accepted today, that societal rot begins in the inner city. Wilder’s film, however, makes a more disquieting suggestion: that evil lurks not in the darkness of a manmade metropolis but all around us, clear as day, even in the pristine heart of Nature. It is also one of the great character entrances in cinema, revealing, as it does, the dual sides of Tatum’s own persona: on the one hand, the down-and-outer, vulnerable and desperate, and on the other the perennial hustler, taking any kind of free ride he can get. It makes for a captivating combination. You can see the other characters responding to him, falling for him, allowing themselves be seduced by his energy and charisma. Just look at the way Herbie (Robert Arthur) gazes up at him as he enters the newsroom, lighting his cigarette, with that nifty trick of his, by releasing the typewriter carriage, and the way Lorraine (Jan Sterling) lets her eyes feast on him when he’s not looking, in the dark interior of her husband’s store. He may be a liar, a braggart, and an adulterer, but he’s a visionary, a charmer, and a headstrong man of action, as well. (He’s also implicitly, if not explicitly, Jewish, a fact signaled both by the casting of Kirk Douglas and his love of chopped chicken liver.) In short, he’s the idealized self-projection of Billy Wilder. This may sound like a rather peculiar ideal to have but then Wilder had a rather peculiar notion of what was and wasn’t model behavior. “A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant, and a bastard” (Sikov, 176), he once said, no doubt thinking of himself. And he must have been thinking of himself again when he wrote the role of Tatum, for the character has all the characteristics of a good movie director. He stages a riveting story before a nationwide audience, shapes the narrative arc as he sees fit (even down to rewriting characters he doesn’t like), drums up a torrent of publicity, and cajoles realistic performances from his actors: think of the brutal slap he delivers to Lorraine Minosa’s face, when she proves unable to summon the proper level of sorrow.
Critics often overlook Wilder’s talent for composition, mostly because Wilder himself talked so little about it, preferring to play up his more obvious accomplishments as a writer. And it’s true, Wilder generally favored the controlled confines of a studio soundstage to the vagaries of actual locations, despite the more meager photographic possibilities. Yet, as Ace in the Hole abundantly demonstrates, when he was pushed from his comfort zone, when he was forced to shoot out in the wild, his imagination soared. We are given an array of awe-inspiring images, from that opening shot, so concise and visually descriptive, to the gorgeous sweeping panorama of the carnival Tatum has created – the workers in the foreground, toiling away atop the mountain, the human circus below, and a locomotive in the distance, disgorging a whole new army of gawkers – to the final shot of the film, an epic ant’s-eye view, as Tatum crashes face-first to the floor. For such a city boy, Wilder had a wonderful eye for the desert. His compositions have some of the arid beauty of Barry Goldwater’s photographs, another surprisingly good portraitist of the American Southwest, capturing both the splendor and the harshness of the landscape: the hard shadows, the tumescent clouds, the sheer walls of riven sandstone.
The movie would be nothing, though, without its performances. Wilder’s first stroke of genius was hiring Kirk Douglas, who plays Tatum with fork-tongued relish. Though he had the chiseled features common to leading men of his generation, Douglas’s talents didn’t lend themselves to playing conventional fifties’ protagonists. Like his frequent costar Burt Lancaster, he had a wonderfully wicked grin and an insouciant energy that tended to turn either hammy or grim when it was bottled in thankless roles like Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960) and The Fury (Brian De Palma, 1978). Villains, and equally heroes with villainous proclivities, were more his line of country. Just look at his smug schemer in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), the role that launched his career, or the brutal cop he played in Detective Story (William Wyler, 1951). In The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952), he’s so much more captivating than his earnest costar that it’s easy to forget that Dick Powell is, in fact, the titular hero of the story. It is hardly surprising then that Douglas jumped at the chance to play Tatum. A generation later, the character might have been played by Jack Nicholson, who would have captured his crass charm, though probably not his gnawing self-loathing. He’s like the class pariah in high school, desperately wanting to join the in-crowd but viciously scorning them at the same time. With the sheriff in his pocket and the big story in the bag, Tatum takes a victory lap through the press tent, just to kick the other journalists while they’re down. “Cut it out, Chuck,” says a former colleague, angling for some inside dope. “We’re all buddies. We’re all in the same boat.” Tatum returns his plea with a sneer of pure delight. “I’m in the boat,” he drawls, savoring every barbed syllable. “You’re in the water. Now let’s see you swim.”
Wilder has an impeccable eye for the irreverent detail. Notice the shot, early in the film, of Lorraine and Papa Minosa at the mouth of the cave. While the old man is the picture of contrition, reverently crossing himself and praying for the life of his son, his daughter-in-law is a study in contempt, her head cocked back, her expression suggesting something close to boredom as she sucks on a cigarette. It’s an image that sums up Lorraine in an instant, even more so than her snide retort to Herbie as they ride up to the mineshaft together:
HERBIE: Did the Indians really live in that place four-hundred and fifty years ago?
LORRAINE: I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been around that long.
In another shot, she gazes proudly across the carnival of gawkers her husband’s suffering has wrought. In the background, a truck rolls past, the words “The Great S&M Amusement Corporation” plastered in bold letters across its side. Wilder offers no further comment, but then again he doesn’t need to; the Breen Office would have been all over him, anyway. It’s a typically wicked Wilderian touch, like Erich von Stroheim’s anecdote, in Sunset Boulevard, about the maharaja who strangled himself with Gloria Swanson’s stocking. In each case, Wilder’s ribaldry does more than merely offer a titillating joke: it tells you something about the character. Indeed, there is something coquettishly perverse about Lorraine from the moment we meet her. “And another thing, Mister,” she says to Tatum, after catching the back of his hand across her cheek. “Don’t ever slap me again. I may get to like it.” Breen made Wilder cut that final sentence from the film but the lascivious glimmer still shines in her eyes. Jan Sterling, who plays Lorraine, is little remembered today, though her career stretched from the Truman administration to the fringe of the nineteen-nineties. While she hardly stood in the top rank of screen beauties, she had an alluring hauteur and a pretty face that could turn abruptly haggard with the application of the right pout. It gives her a hardness that’s right at home with the rugged western landscape, and reveals, better than any scrapbook, the disappointment her life has been to this point. Perhaps that’s why Tatum dances so warily around her, even after they’ve begun a torrid affair. She’s the female reflection of him – wounded, bitter, sardonic – perfectly capable of matching him jibe for jibe. “I don’t go to church,” she tells him when he asks her to attend the Holy Rosary. “Kneeling bags my nylons.”
The most common charge leveled against Wilder is the allegation of misanthropy, and certainly there are moments when his moral dyspepsia becomes overbearing. Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) is too bleak by half, and at times (all too frequently, in fact) Buddy Buddy (1981) seems more disturbing than funny. But there are those who wear their cynicism like a defensive mask, simply to parry suggestions of soft-heartedness, and others for whom a distrust of the human race is more justly earned. In the spring of 1945, Wilder returned to Germany, ostensibly to make a documentary about the Holocaust for the U.S. Army, but also to seek out any members of his own family who hadn’t been murdered. He didn’t find any. So it is perhaps understandable that, a mere six years later, his feelings about mob psychology tended towards the grim and caustic. Wilder never completed the army documentary to his satisfaction, though he did, in the eighties, consider adapting Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark into a film, only to find that Steven Spielberg had already bought the rights. In deference to Wilder’s experience, Spielberg offered him the helm. Wilder demurred, choosing instead to write an article for a German paper, in which, for all those who might doubt the Holocaust’s reality, he extended a simple, haunting query: “If the concentration camps and the gas chambers were all imaginary, then please tell me – where is my mother?” (Sikov 587)
Indeed, if the film has a weakness, it’s not a lack of sentiment but rather that, in its final moments, Tatum succumbs to something resembling decency. With the story nearly finished and New York on the line, he’s gotten everything he wants, including fame, fortune, and a ticket back to the big time. All he has to do is hold out for another day, until the rescuers reach Leo or, as becomes increasingly likely, until Leo dies of pneumonia in the cave. He even manages not to succumb (at least not entirely) to his nagging thirst, though he keeps two fifths of alcohol on his bedroom stove like a pair of sirens on the rocks. This being the era of Joseph Breen, however, Tatum has to grow a conscience before being punished for his sins, which is unfortunate, not because he deserves to get off the hook (he certainly doesn’t), but because the best villains merit an honorable demise, unblemished by repentance, like James Cagney in White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949), on top of the world and loving every second of it. That’s why it’s such a relief when Tatum tears off for Albuquerque again, hungry to spin one last sensational story for the morning paper. He’s back to where he began: out of work, on the skids, and spilling blood from a gaping hole in his stomach, but with a hot new scoop, if he can live to tell it.
While the years have hardly softened Ace in the Hole – vinegar, after all, cannot be transmuted back into wine – our palettes have undoubtedly grown more accustomed to the taste of sour grapes. Audiences in 1951 may have been just as piqued as the Hollywood Reporter that the film took swipes at the free press and government officials, but today the snapshot appears more vivid than ever. After all, Tatum is a paragon of journalistic integrity compared to the reporters caught up in the recent contretemps at the News of the World. (Ditto government officials.) Kirk Douglas surmised that the film bombed because movie reviewers of the time saw themselves in the film’s yellow journalists: “Critics love to criticize but they don’t like being criticized” (Douglas 178). Perhaps, but Hollywood had been taking pot shots at the newspaper business since Scandal Sheet (John Cromwell, 1931) and The Front Page (Lewis Milestone, 1931) with little return fire. More likely, the box office failure of the film resulted not from its attacks on politicians and journalists, nor from its elevation of an adulterous, grasping, homicidal couple (what else was Double Indemnity?) but from its vicious portrayal of the audience itself. You can skewer the press and the politicians and even the movie business, as Wilder had in Sunset Boulevard, and get away with it, but you can’t bite the hand that feeds you. As Wilder’s co-writer, Lesser Samuels, observed: “In Ace in the Hole we indict morbidity and lust for others, but we try to do it so subtly that the onlooker will both laugh at and deride some of our characters before slowly realizing he is, perhaps, pointing the finger of scorn at himself” (Sikov 314). Audiences in 1951 were not amused by the likeness. Their type is established by the first family who shows up, the Federbers, the picture postcard of the all-American family: hearty, good-natured, fond of fishing and camping out of their caravan trailer, and with a craven bloodlust that masquerades as heartfelt sympathy. It is a devastating portrait, ruthlessly in its depiction of normalcy, for it anticipates a theory that Hannah Arendt and others would flesh out more fully later, that the true heart of evil resides, not in the monsters of the world, but in the most ordinary of us, in “the people who never make up their minds to be good or evil” (Arendt).
In the end, the failure of the film hardly set Wilder back. His next three pictures were smashing successes. He went on to direct nearly twenty more films over the next thirty years, won three more Academy Awards (to add to the three he already had), and died at the ripe old age of ninety-five, still as spry and sharp-tongued as ever, seemingly impervious to the ravages of time. If anything, time has been generous to his cherished masterpiece, as well. In 2008, Empire Magazine named Ace in the Hole one of the Top 500 Greatest Movies of All Time (Empire Magazine); the Village Voice called it “so acidly au courant it stings” (Lee), and filmmakers as disparate as Sam Peckinpah and Woody Allen have listed it as a favorite. Still, old wounds have a tendency to fester. Wilder wasn’t a director like Huston or Bergman who could shrug off a negative-earner with hardly a second thought. “Movies should be like amusement parks,” he said. “People should go to them to have fun” (Sikov 421). He was similar to Tatum in that respect. No matter how cynical he tried to look, no matter how misanthropic, he still craved the approbation of the public, even as he pretended to scorn them. That was both his fatal flaw and his best-kept secret: he had feelings, just like the rest of us. But then, as a Wilder character once famously said, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Ace in the Hole, dir. Billy Wilder, DVD, Criterion Collection, bonus features. Commentary by Neil Sinyard.
Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. “Thinking.” New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
Crowther, Bosley. “The Screen in Review; Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder Special, With Kirk Douglas, Arrives at Globe Theater.” The New York Times. New York: June 30, 1951.
Douglas, Kirk. The Ragman’s Son: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Empire Magazine. “The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.”
Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 4th Ed. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
Lee, Nathan. “Truth Is For Sissies.” The Village Voice. New York: January 2, 2007.
Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. New York: Hyperion, 1998.