Film Study: ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)
(The following are my notes from my Billy Wilder Film Study class, from the Fall of 2019. It goes deep into details and background. I don’t recommend reading any further if you haven’t already screened this film prior- expect spoilers. Enjoy!)
Welcome to the dark, morally corrupt media circus. Billy Wilder’s film noir under a blazing New Mexican sunlight shows us an ambitious reporter’s consequences when he faces moral choices, and picks poorly. Over and over again, until the wakeup call comes too late.
There are no nighttime shots of rain-soaked streets reflecting the flickers of street lamps through the fog, hinting of crime and doom. Here, noir can be found in a dark cave in a desolate desert. But even more dangerous than falling rock and choking dust are the ruthless ambitions of a man willing to trap you there, for the sake of a buck and 15 minutes of fame. That anti-hero’s true darkness comes from within. But he isn’t the only one willing to sell his soul under the big top.
Also titled THE BIG CARNIVAL, Billy Wilder followed up his success from SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) by going even darker in ACE IN THE HOLE. This is the first film in which Billy Wilder played the triple threat of writer, producer, and director. It also marks the first film Wilder made following his break off from writing partner Charlie Brackett.
In the classroom, we’ll skip the introduction (approximately 16 minutes’ worth) for the sake of time allowance. This is an interesting cut for me to make because it was Billy Wilder who chose to add the intro, which is essentially laying the background into our leading man’s character and sets up the story. His co-writer Walter Newman didn’t feel it was necessary, because he believed the real story begins at the cave-in. As with any Billy Wilder film, it’s obvious Wilder won that debate. The first chapter to this corrosive tale is valuable as a predictor of the doom Tatum will face as hard as he hits the floor in the last frame. Here are some takeaways from what we’re skipping…
Proudly perched in a broken-down convertible dragged behind a tow truck, Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum rides into the rustic town of Albuquerque, with odd mix of desperation and bravado. He’s been fired from the big city newspapers and he arrogantly pitches for a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. As he rudely insults everyone in the newsroom while also being brutally honest about his occupational sins (mostly drinking) that landed him seeking new employment, his salary offers decline lower and lower as he boasts. Of visual note is the “Tell The Truth” embroidered sign hanging on the wall, which Tatum prophetically toys with. Despite the warning signs, editor Boot (Porter Hall from DOUBLE INDEMNITY) offers him the gig. A year has passed by, and restless Tatum is agitated and weary of this small town’s quiet and slow pace. Things are about to pick up speed.
[Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum: Douglas’s performance is perfection in this role. This film follows his successful turn in CHAMPION (1949), which was his first Oscar nomination. It’s hard to believe that Kirk’s big screen debut occurred only a few years earlier with THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946). His career successes continued for decades, and he continued to make public appearances beyond his 100th birthday. He thought highly of his experience working with Billy Wilder, as one of the greatest filmmakers in history.]
In pursuing a story on rattlesnakes, Tatum and junior reporter Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) go on the road and pull over at a touristy trading post for gas. Herbie cannot find any attendants, but eventually walks in on an old woman who is so engrossed in prayer, she doesn’t notice him. This is a foreshadowing cue of strange tidbits to come. A police car with siren blaring rushes blast them, speeding up the hill to an old Native American cave ruin.
Now let’s begin…
The two follow the siren, then pause long enough to meet Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling). Her husband Leo Minosa is trapped in a collapsed section of the cavernous dwelling. We immediately know how she feels about him (“the dumb cluck”). She’s not worried about the predicament of her husband, she’s annoyed. It’s also apparent she dislikes everything about her surroundings and lifestyle. Up the hill, we are introduced to the deputy sheriff (corrupt law figures will only worsen as the story unfolds), and Leo Minosa’s father Papa Minosa (John Burges) who is, in stark contrast to a majority of the characters in this film, one of the most humane and loyal. We additionally witness the local Native Americans and their stance on the issue, as they state they believe the ground is too sacred to enter. They refer to it as “Curse of the Seven Vultures.” This will become a headline exploited by Tatum, as he leaps at the chance to dominate this scenario, on his own terms. On a deeper level, there is profound social commentary and foreshadowing of those who have already exploited that dwelling- and those who are yet to come.
- Were the Indians correct? Was this a curse that Leo himself triggered? Note the contrast of Lorraine and Papa Minosa, as Tatum and Bernie enter the cave- Papa does the sign of the cross in hopeful prayer, as she appears coldly detached, smoking a cigarette.
- Note: the conversation regarding “human interest.”
- These interior shots are traditional camera stylings of noir, with low lights (thanks to the flashlights), claustrophobia, and shadows cast by the dust, lurking dangers.
- Is the cave a parallel for Tatum’s ‘digging himself into a hole’?
- Pinned in under rumble, Leo comments that his found artifact may have possibly started an Indian curse. Is he already aware of his sealed fate?
- How does Tatum “embroider the truth”?
- Note: some exterior shots were in Gallup, NM
Jan Sterling as Lorraine: She’s aloof and cold and her cynicism is overt. She’s a parallel to Tatum in her cynical, twisted morality. She’s on to him and has assessed the score of the situation by the time Tatum first alerts his editor with giddy enthusiasm. She bites into an apple like Eve in a corrupted Eden. Wilder gives her character some of the best lines. Later, when Tatum wants her to play the worried wife and asks her to attend a rosary vigil, she explains she’s not the church type, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling always bags my nylons.” Wilder credited this line to his wife, and it’s easily one of my favorites. Jan Sterling was an actress on stage, film and tv. During this point in her career she was married to her 2nd husband, actor Paul Douglas. She was most active in the 1950s with memorable and hardboiled films such as JOHNNY BELINDA (1948), CAGED (1950), and MYSTERY STREET (1950). But it was in 1954 that she was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her role in THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY.
- In what ways to do we see a parallel between Lorraine and Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis in DOUBLE INDEMNITY?
- Do we feel sympathy for her? She says she was duped by Leo. He lied to her.
- “Honey, you like those rocks as much as I do.” (Lorraine to Tatum, she sees him all too clearly.)
- Tatum frequently forces her to bend to his demands with violence. He often feels threatened by her ability to see right through him or mirror him; holding up a mirror into his own darkness. They are very similar creatures.
Ray Teal as the Sheriff Gus Kretzer: He’s another unsavory opportunist. His rattlesnake in the box feels symbolic. Dangerous, untrustworthy, an omen of warning. But of whom? The sheriff? Tatum? Lorraine? Perhaps all of them? At one point we see a ‘Re-elect Sheriff Kretzer” banner draped across the mountain. At this point it feels like an unholy dance on sacred ground; spitting on a graveyard. You may recognize this character actor from several western tv series such as “The Lone Ranger” and as another Sheriff, Roy Coffee, on the popular “Bonanza” show. But he also played bit roles in film, such as THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961).
Charles Lang, Jr: He did the camera work for several Wilder films: A FOREIGN AFFAIR, SABRINA, and SOME LIKE IT HOT. When we see the big drill atop the mountain, there is a wide, aerial shot of the media circus with cars lined up like a drive-in movie as they watch the entertainment unfold before them. It’s a very startling, almost breathtaking, view, amongst many of the beautiful shots in the film. Charles Lang had 151 film credits to his name as cinematographer. He was the youngest to ever be nominated for the Academy’s Best Cinematography Oscar at age 28, and the youngest to win, at age 30. He was nominated as a Director of Photography 18 times, with 5 of his films winning the Oscar for Best Picture.
Frank Cady as Mr. Al Federber: Is this character a reflection of the sheep-like mentality of the general public? It’s certainly a morbid interpretation, not unlike those who clamor to watch the aftermath of a car accident. But here, he’s gone out of his way to make the catastrophe into his family vacation. How would this persona be reflected in today’s society? Is this characterization even more accurate in real life today? Frank Cady is a character actor you may readily recognize from popular TV shows like Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, as “Sam Drucker.” But he was also a prolific character actor on the big screen in films like Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW.
At one point, after we see Tatum visiting Leo a 2nd time, the tone is more somber. He has a tougher time lying the feigned optimism when Leo discusses his anniversary coming up. The media circus spins at its most frenzied after Tatum returns. He forces his way through the crowds. We also notice that Tatum is now drinking, another signal to his decline into ruin. He faces his boss, Mr. Boot, who stands as his polar opposite in the world of journalistic ethics and their conversation reflects that. There’s a certain fatherly role that Boot provides. But Tatum doesn’t take his fatherly advice. Boot attempts to save Herbie, as he reluctantly realizes that Tatum is likely a lost cause now. Too late to save him.
Enter Richard Gaines as Tatum’s former big city boss, Nagel. Tatum has Nagel over the barrel, and he knows it. This is the moment Tatum has been looking for, all along. Nagel’s demeanor is very different from the fatherly, ethical journalistic stylings of Mr. Boot. Gaines may seem familiar to you as Mr. Norton in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) or as Charles J Pendergast in THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943), amongst 78 other acting roles from 1940 to the early 1960s.
I think one of the most obscene moments arrives when the camera follows the mobs of the crowd, as we hear a band selling sheet music to the profane lyrics, “We’re coming, we’re coming Leo, Leo don’t despair. While you are in the cave hoping, we are up above you groping, and soon we’ll make an opening, Oh Leo.” The song was written by the infamous songwriting teaming of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who also wrote a slew of classic tunes for Paramount and other studios like “Buttons and Bows” from Sunset Boulevard, “Streets Of Laredo,” “Vertigo,” and “Que Sera, Sera.” There were over 500 extras in this vast scene, and Wilder noted that the numbers in the crowd actually grew as onlookers blended in during filming, out of curiosity.
It is in this final chapter of the film (approximately the last 30 minutes), Leo’s options have run out and any hopes for survival look grim. Throughout the film, Tatum has grown increasingly violent and spirals more out of control. Tatum’s options have run out as well. Like other Wilder anti-heroes (Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Bill Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD), Tatum’s change of heart comes too late. The scales of justice have already rendered their verdict as guilty.
Being a film that was made following the tremendous success of SUNSET BOULEVARD, plus the first film made post Brackett breakup, it’s been suggested that Paramount gave Wilder free rein to make a thoroughly Billy Wilder film. This unyielding, dark view into human immorality is quintessential Wilder, through and through. It was considered a failure at the box office in America at the time, although it did well in Europe. As Wilder explained why audiences stayed away, “they went to the theater with the idea that they (to see ACE IN THE HOLE) were going to get a cocktail, whereas instead, they got a shot of vinegar.”
Despite the lack of popularity at the time with mainstream audiences, it went on to become a critical favorite many years later. Today, the chilling spectacle and sensationalism of journalism is almost commonplace. These glimpses into human depravity are not unexpected from someone like Billy Wilder who barely escaped being murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps, unlike his family’s fate. We’ve witnessed this dark side of Wilder before, and we’ll see it again as we explore more of his filmography.
Other questions to consider…
With themes of darkness and corrosive journalism ethics, does Wilder relate to Tatum’s character at all?
Are there any redeeming qualities to Tatum?
Is Tatum’s finally telling the truth his last Ace in the hole? Why doesn’t it work?
Produced/Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman
Associate Producer: William Schorr
Director of Photography: Charles B Lang Jr. ASC
Editorial supervision: Doane Harrison
Music score: Hugo Friedhofer
Art direction: Hal Pereira, A Earl Hedrick
Edited by: Arthur Schmidt
Costumes: Edith Head
Chuck Tatum ~ Kirk Douglas
Lorraine Minosa ~ Jan Sterling
Herbie Cook ~ Bob Arthur
Jacob Q Boot ~ Porter Hall
Mr. Federber ~ Frank Cady
Leo Minosa ~ Richard Benedict
Sheriff Kretzer ~ Ray Teal
Smollett ~ Frank Jacquet
4 thoughts on “ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)”
Terrific lesson on this criminally underrated film! There is so much to love about Ace In the Hole, although its a love you hate yourself for. The gritty surroundings, the weathered and fatigued characters who fall under Douglas’ heel as he grinds deeper and deeper for the salacious headlines and spoils of sensationalism. So many great performances, too; it’s a shame that Wilder never really got over the reaction it created (the Crowe book specifically, where he shucked off the discussion w/ his trademark cynicism)…
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Kellee, I am a fellow member of CMBA (Classic Hollywood blog). May I have your permission to quote your line “She bites into an apple like Eve in a corrupted Eden” in my upcoming movie-hosting appearance for “Ace in the Hole”? I would use it on a Google slide presentation (before the movie begins, as viewers take their seats) and would cite it as from “Blogger Kellee Pratt” or “From the Outspoken and Freckled blog,” or however you prefer to be billed. As a fellow blogger and CMBA member, I want to give you full credit for that great observation of Jan Sterling’s scene!
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Sure! Thanks for quoting and crediting me! 🙂
I was having technical difficulty when you posted this. I hope I wasn’t too late in my reply. Thank you for enjoying my line from my piece on ACE IN THE HOLE and giving me credit for it. 🙂