Posted by: gdevi | August 10, 2015

Movie review: Ace in the Hole (1951)

I am a fan of Billy Wilder, and in some respects I still measure all film noir against Wilder’s movies. When I was a kid growing up in India, one of my favorite books was Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives. Sometime later, I saw one of the first of the many film adaptations of Emil and the Detectives in German, and the screenplay was by Billy Wilder. It is a good screenplay and a good adaptation. Actually, that is where I first heard the name of Billy Wilder, and I started watching Billy Wilder’s movies because of Emil and the Detectives. Criterion released Ace in the Hole with that title a few years back; it was commercially released in the US under the name The Big Carnival. Now you can see it with its original title, Ace in the Hole. For those of us who play cards, an ace in the hole is the high card you keep and delay using until you can really cash in on it. It is actually not a strategy. If you are playing with dumb players, then an ace in the hole might help you win. But if you are playing with intelligent players, an ace in the hole means you are failing, and you want to try and see if you can win before you conclusively fail. You can fail flamboyantly with a trump in the hole.  It is this title that is most appropriate to this story about a self-centered newsman who uses mass media to make a name for himself. Kirk Douglas is spectacular as the immoral reporter Charles Tatum, full of contempt for the public he purports to support, but who he needs to earn his salary.  As Marshall McLuhan noted several times over, using mass media comes with stringent ethical responsibility since all forms of mass media make over the psyche of its audience. All forms of media, McLuhan reminds us again and again, attempt their hands at literacy, but because of its mass form, it substitutes experience for interpretation, and entertainment for awareness. Wilder’s classic film is a brilliant exposition of this slovenly side of the media biz, which is all too common.

Tatum, an ambitious but washed-out journalist, arrives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where nobody has mercifully heard of him. He manages to talk himself into a job with the local newspaper, a small outfit with limited circulation filled with updates on rattlesnake round-ups and your grandma’s recipes. Tatum decides that that is all rather passe, and wants to use the paper to launch  one big story that will take him back to New York, maybe win a Pulitzer Prize.  He finds one; a local man Leo Minosa has fallen into an an enormous complicated system of cliffs and caves, which also happens to be a Native American burial ground. Minosa, who runs the local trading post, was collecting buried artifacts. Wilder is prophetic and visionary in 1951 to see the “media circus” (thus the US title) this accident becomes after Tatum gets involved in covering it. It would have been a cop-out to show the “circus,” but that is not what Wilder does. Because what is a “media circus”? It is a public media event with a distinct human signature; here, the corrosive touch of Tatum’s personal agenda. I love the way Wilder straddles the difficult line between satire and film noir.

A crucial character that contributes to the noirish ethos of Ace in the Hole is Leo Minosa’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), a promiscuous woman who wants to use the opportunity of her husband’s accident to take the remaining pittance from the trading post and leave for greener pastures. Tatum convinces Lorraine to stay put since a “stand-by-your-man” would make a better story, even though it is suggested that the two have an illicit arrangement.  The noir ethos is most clearly articulated in the commercial greed with which Lorraine, the town’s sheriff, and the newly arrived avalanche of tourists build a community over Minosa’s accident. Wilder’s brilliant contribution to a critique of slovenly mass media is in showing us the distasteful granularity of this “community.” This “community” formed around an accident (add gossip, rumor, disaster stories) is “our community,” which just wants to participate and experience, and not analyze, interpret or evaluate. To use mass media–film– to show its own inner workings so memorably and stunningly is the enduring appeal of Ace in the Hole.

Ace in the Hole reminded me that there was a time when a movie could be heard over the radio, as a soundtrack. This movie rides on its screenplay and dialogue, and Kirk Douglas is magnificent as the loathsome Tatum. The tragic ending of both Minosa and Tatum is peripheral to the central concern of the movie, which is to show how mass media can create a uniformly unaware community. The days of great newspapermen and women, the days of great journalists are over now in these days when the internet has recreated journalism in its own image, with pings and pop-up ads more colorful and immediately louder than the explosions of drones decimating houses in parts of the world where our enemies live. But the terrifying specter of a meaningless impersonation of journalism and a completely inconsequential community that it builds remains true for all times. Rent it.


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