Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ace in the Hole (1951) - An Indictment of Everyone

Ace in the Hold 1951 film poster
"Ace in the Hole" (1951).

Post-war films are tend to take a very cynical view of human nature. Because awful things happened during the war, many productions took a very cynical view of how people treat one another. "Ace in the Hole" (1951) is the epitome of this trend. Director Billy Wilder was a refugee himself and knew all about the horrors of which men were capable. You don't hear very much about this film these days, but it is representative of Kirk Douglas's early work, when he usually played truly horrible scoundrels. 

Kirk Douglas was the absolute best at playing a tough guy with absolutely no ethics. Here, he plays highly talented but failed reporter Chuck Tatum, who stumbles upon a situation which he realizes could, with the right manipulation, be turned into a massive media sensation. "Ace" chronicles the awful choices he makes to do so, and the effect his efforts have on him and the people around him.

Ace in the Hold 1951
As usual in '50s films, cars are stars of "Ace in the Hole."

Tatum hears about a man trapped in a cave-in in a remote part of New Mexico. It is a situation rife with drama: the man has no way out and almost certainly will die. Tatum crawls into the crumbling cave, which the locals are afraid to do, befriends the man and comes to "own" the story. It is clear that he has no real interest in the man's plight, only in how he can profit from it. He cynically convinces the local Sheriff, played by the ubiquitous Ray Teal, to stretch the rescue attempt out so that they both can benefit. Do they? As in everything else in life, there are winners and losers. Who falls into which camp becomes clear as the tale unravels.

Ace in the Hold 1951 Jan Sterling Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas gets away with a lot of over-acting in "Ace in the Hole."

The physical way in which Tatum takes control is disturbing. He winds up slapping or punching anybody who gets in his way, old and young, man or woman. One of the most notorious moments in "Ace in the Hold" is when Chuck Tatum, Kirk Douglas' character, slaps Lorraine Minosa, played by Jan Sterling. Nobody would get away with such behavior today, and perhaps not then, either. The setting out in the desert removes the need for characters to observe social niceties and gives them a chance to be very direct about motivations. One of the themes of the film is how power corrupts. It certainly corrupts Tatum, or perhaps just unleashes his underlying demons. The promise of riches due to the power of the media corrupts everyone it touches. Whether or not anyone learns a lesson from this is left in doubt at the end of the film.

Douglas does a fine job. In fact, it is so good that one may wonder how far Tatum is from certain aspects of Douglas' real character. Compare this with "In Harm's Way," in which Douglas plays a similarly predatory character. But he always has been a great actor, renowned for immersing himself in a part, even eccentric ones, and it is a compliment to his skill to keep the audience guessing as to how close the character is to him. He certainly plays Tatum in his own, unique way.

Ace in the Hold 1951 Jan Sterling
Jan Sterling spices things up in "Ace in the Hole."

The supporting characters also are nicely played. The very pretty, and thus out of place in the middle of the desert, Jan Sterling shines as the doomed miner's wife. It is clear that she doesn't care a thing about him either. When Tatum says she should thank her husband for taking her out of the "dancehalls," ahem, she simply says, "I've been thanking him for five years. We're even." It's amazing what innuendo could get past the censors in the bad old days of the Hayes Code. Richard Benedict does a fine job as the trapped man.

The film is as relevant today as it was in 1951. We get tales of girls who have fallen down wells or miners trapped by cave-ins every few years, like clockwork. Certainly, self interest is the same then as now. But there are too many indictments. The film has too sour a view of human nature, too many negative themes. Everybody in the film is horrible in one way or the other. Even passing tourists are drawn into the media circus, getting into petty, meaningless arguments about who got there first. It all about what miniscule advantage everyone can wring out of the almost-forgotten miner's plight, and it just goes too far. Not everybody in life is a grave robber or a cynical opportunist or a faithless wife. One feels the need for a shower after watching this film.

There also is an implied indictment of us, the people watching, for giving Tatum and his ilk the power they abuse. When the film was made, so shortly after a global war that revealed all sorts of human depravity, may play a part in the film's cynicism. Naked self-interest may indeed reflect an underlying reality of human nature, but many may prefer a more uplifting tale.

This is a Kirk Douglas film from start to finish. He dominates throughout. An interesting look at human motivations and the media business that should be shown in every journalism ethics class.


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