Monday, March 16, 2009

Ace in the Hole (1951) part 1

Written by Tim (aka - Mappin and Webb Ltd)

Despite its barren environment, the seemingly 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 it’s 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 rattle snake 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 rattle snake 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 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.

(click here for part 2)


  1. This is Wilder's finest and darkest moment. I saw the film again after nearly twenty years about the time of the disappearance of Madeline McCann,and what struck me was the media circus that surrounded the tragic affair. Needless to say,it ended in tears. Nearly sixty years has passed since the original release of this masterwork, and nothing has changed.
    Human greed is still here....

  2. I think it is a must perfect example of a press film , in my country we call the press:
    " the four power "
    congratulations for the site and your sensibility, excuse my poor english
    I am a brazilian lover of the old "films noir"


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